A friend of mine recently pointed me to this forum thread, and I’d like to add my thoughts, based on actual long-term experience in driving a 535i with the Steptronic transmission with paddle shifters for over a year.
The BMW’s paddle shifters don’t work like Ferrari or Formula 1 cars, where the right paddle up-shifts and the left paddle down-shifts. In the BMW, both paddles can both up and down-shift: when you pull back on either paddle, you up-shift and when you push forward on either paddle, you down-shift.
Therefore, when I received my 2008 535i and started using the paddles, I was rather confused and frustrated because the only experience I had with paddle-shifting was playing GranTurismo where paddle-shifting was modeled after Ferrari/Formula 1 – myself never having been fortunate enough to drive a Ferrari or Formula 1 car :(. This is what I, and probably a whole generation of game and racing enthusiasts became used to and comfortable with.
However, now that I’ve been using my paddles for a while, I’m convinced that BMW got it right. Technically there is no right or wrong on this issue since it is purely preferential, but I think they are “more right”. I think I was, and the majority of other video-gamers-who-drive-sporty-cars are “less right”. I believe BMW broke convention for a better solution relevant to their target audience.
F1 cars can do the right=downshift/left=upshift paradigm because they don’t often turn hard corners that requires a tremendous amount of turn in the steering wheel. Even hair-pin corners don’t require much hand deviation around the circle compared to mass-produced vehicles (of course there are tracks where this isn’t the case, but it doesn’t happen all that often). That’s because the steering mechanisms are far ‘tighter’ and don’t require as much movement.
Contrast this with mass-produced vehicles, where even in precision vehicles like BMWs, the degree in hand movement around the circle is more significant – the steering wheels are much larger than the yoke-style steering wheels of an F1 car, and they are not as ‘tight’ – there is still significant traversal around a circle. Your hands have to move much further away from the ‘home’ position compared to a F1 car.
So, when you’re pushing this type of car with more give in the steering wheel around a turn, the left paddle will become the right paddle and vice-versa, depending on how sharp the corner is.
Think about that for a second: in tight corners at higher speeds, you actually have to move your hands from the home position and situate them around the steering wheel as it moves to corner properly. If it is a sharp enough corner, you don’t want to remember which paddle is the one you’re supposed to use. You should be focusing on cornering and exiting the turn efficiently.
With BMW’s paddle design, you can choose whichever paddle the situation deems as most efficient, not your preconception. This allows you to more easily focus on the road and cornering, rather than where your hands should be for optimal shifting.
So, like I was required to, I ask the many nay-sayers to actually try it for a while and try to ignore your preconceptions of what it should be based on video games or cars that we may never get to drive. Instead, just trust the BMW engineers, who, except for probably a very small number of readers of this post, know their craft (with a F1 heritage to boot!) far better than we do.