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  • Robert Farago

Stick Shift vs. Paddle Shift

Winner, winner, chicken dinner

If we’re talking popularity, neither transmission wins. The average American prefers an invisible “slushbox” (automatic transmission).

They don’t want to “row the boat” (via a manual transmission) or “paddle shift” (via a dual-clutch sequential gearbox). The average driver wouldn’t dream of replacing their set-and-forget tranny. Enthusiasts, however, face a difficult decision…

Paddle Shift

My first encounter with a proper paddle shift: the first-gen Volkswagen Golf R. Equipped with a 7-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission, the original R was a flingable four-wheel-drive hoon-mobile. It wasn’t a Porsche – although it kinda was. It was even more fun.

In terms of paddle shifting, the current gen Golf R’s paddle shift system and its ilk swap cogs in 200 milliseconds. Depending on which strain of marijuana you smoke, an eyeblink takes between 100 to 400 milliseconds. So a proper DSG transmission shifts faster than a pretty girl’s wink.

Who cares? If you want to drive as fast as possible, or as fast as safely as possible, you do! There’s an app for that! Two hands on the wheel, both eyes on the road, one foot on either the gas pedal or the brake. You know, like race car drivers.

A DSG paddle shift – not a paddle-mounted slushbox – removes distractions while enabling the fastest possible upshifts and downshifts. You’re free to focus on life-and-death variables like grip and the SUV lumbering towards you with its wheels on the wrong side of the dividing line.

Many enthusiasts say paddle shifting doesn’t provide the same kind of physical connection to their car as a manual transmission. You lose the Vulcan mind meld thing. Hello? Do jet pilots lose the ability to become one with their plane because it’s equipped with fly-by-wire technology? I don’t think so.

Bonus! Pop the tranny into automatic mode and you’ve got slushbox. What could be better? Excellent question!

Stick Shift

A manual transmission requires exponentially more expertise than a paddle system. You have to keep one hand on the steering wheel and one hand on the shifter and use two feet on three pedals; with one hand going back and forth between the wheel and the shifter and one foot choosing between two pedals (gas and brake) while the other foot chooses whether and when to press the third pedal (the clutch), how long to keep it depressed and the speed at which its released.

Did I mention double clutching? Heel and toe downshifts? Mastering a sports car with a stick shift/manual transmission is like building a Lego Millenium Falcon. Without instructions. Ever heard the Zen koan “you have to be shit at something before you can be good at it”? Watch a newbie try to drive a stick for the first time. Hilarious!

The upside: once you figure out how not to stall the engine – after the car bucks down the road like a bronco – once you can shift like a boss, you get all the satisfaction of a piano player who’s mastered boogie woogie basics. Along with the mind-absorbing, adrenalin-dumping thrill of trying not to get it wrong and die.

Driving a stick doesn’t just give you the glow of mechanical mastery, it creates a direct, visceral connection between you and the car’s engine. You feel the gearbox interacting with the powerplant. It’s the difference between riding a horse and riding a motorcycle.

And the Winner Is…

The stampede from manual transmissions to automatic and paddle shift systems represents a larger cultural transition. From a hands-on connection to the might of the industrial revolution, to the intellectual detachment of our current age of digital disposability.

Make no mistake: people who drive stick shift cars aren’t Luddites. They’re preservationists. They know that paddle shifting is superior to boat rowing when it comes to absolute speed. (Just as they now know electric cars are way faster than petrol-powered automobiles.) They simply value the process of going fast as much as the result.

Which transmission is best for you depends on whether or not you like to cook. If you enjoy making your own food from fresh ingredients, stick shift all day, even in stop-and-go-traffic. If you’re a fine diner, paddle to paradise.

That said, I hate articles that ask a binary question and wimp-out with a non-binary answer. Stick shift wins, m’kay?


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