Paddle shifters are an integral part of the smart car transmission, what they call their automated manual transmission. Paddles can be used in lieu of a stick shift.
Shifting paddles are one of the many convenience touches in the American smart car. Located behind the steering wheel, as pictured at right, they can be accessed without taking your hands off the wheel, which can add to your safety while smart car driving.
There are 2 paddle shifters... one on the left, which shifts down in sequence each time you pull the paddle towards you... and one on the right, which shifts up in sequence each time you tap it.
The paddles are very responsive and operating them — once you master which shifts up and which shifts down — is quite simple.
You definitely have to "get the feel" for when to shift up and down in a manual transmission vehicle, but without the clutch, it's much easier to master.
Basically, you need to shift up when you start to feel the smart car straining to accelerate. The smart electronic display on your dash will also give you a visual indicator arrow telling you when to shift, but consider that a guideline or suggestion, as it's not always 100% accurate.
You should shift down as your speed drops. However, the great thing about a smart car, even in pure manual mode, is that it automatically will shift down to a lower gear as you slow down. If you don't want to wait for that to happen, though, you can use the paddles (or stick).
The answer to that question is, it doesn't need them. But, if you want to be able to use the manual transmission, they are easier and safer to operate than a stick shift is. Why use manual transmission? Because, in at least the 2008 and 2009 smart car U.S. models, the automated manual transmission can be sluggish in changing gears. Most of the sluggishness goes away when you switch to pure manual mode. So, the paddle shifters are a nice option.
Interestingly, these shifting paddles were originally designed for race car drivers. The paddles allow the driver to shift the transmission with his finger tips while still keeping both hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, which at high speeds on the race track or course, is probably a good idea!
Paddle shifting moved from race cars to pricey sports cars like Lamborghinis and Ferraris next, but recently have begun to appear in some of the fuel-efficient vehicles like the smart fortwo car and the Honda Fit.
Paddle shifters, to me, are a bit of a novelty item. Neither my wife or I ever use them when we drive our smart car. But they are a convenience feature of the smart car transmission for people who want the flexibility of manual mode, without having to learn to use a stick shift. To each his own, I guess...
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