For automotive enthusiasts, it can feel like there's something missing when driving an automatic sportscar. But a recent test of the 2011 Jaguar XF provided a bit of relief thanks to its paddle shifters, which are hand-activated levers mounted directly behind the steering wheel that change gears with the flick of the finger. Although it began as a feature on racecars, paddle shifters have become popular on mainstream sedans, hybrids and SUVs. As with every new technology, there are pros and cons to it.
Topping the list of reasons that paddle shifters are a plus and becoming more popular: Paddles allow the driver to still feel in control when they want to without having to constantly work their left leg and right arm. This is especially appealing to drivers in congested cities who often lament the work involved with driving a manual during their daily commute. And for couples who share a car, where one driver prefers an automatic and the other a manual, it can appease both.
On the other hand, it sacrifices the art of driving, of anticipating a turn and shifting appropriately so you emerge smoothly from it. With paddle shifting, the car will take over if the driver hasn't shifted into the appropriate gear. The challenge and sport of driving a car and mastering shifting is gone, making it all about efficiency. Also, every time you add an extra element to a car, there's a potential for maintenance costs down the road.
Aside from Jaguar, many other automakers offer paddles shifters, including the usual high-performance suspects: Ferrari, Aston Martin, BMW, Infiniti, Lexus and Mercedes. There are seven and even eight-speed options now, a bonus for better fuel economy. But there are some unexpected and lower-price point models that have paddle shifters as well, including Ford Taurus and Flex, Lincoln MKS, Honda Fit, Insight, CR-Z and Accord, Chevy Camaro and Malibu, Subaru Outback and certain smart fortwo models.
The bottom line on paddle shifters is if you're uninterested in driving and just want to get from A to B, don't bother with them. If you still enjoy the sport and challenge in interactive driving, then use them to find a happy medium between the art and practicality.