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Have you seen the “plus” and “minus” symbols on your car’s automatic shifter? Have you felt the paddles behind the steering wheel and wondered what they are for? They are there to put the car into “manual mode,” in which you can shift the car’s transmission at will, as you would with a genuine stick shift. However, there is a correct way to do it.

Why would you want to use manual mode?

2023 Toyota GR86 shifter
2023 Toyota GR86 | Joe Santos, MotorBiscuit

Driving a car in manual mode gives the driver some control over the driving experience. In normal automatic mode, the car’s transmission is shifted by a computer in order to maximize fuel efficiency and drivability. However, in manual mode, the driver can take over and rev the engine to its redline at will. This sacrifices the car’s fuel economy, but it makes it more fun to drive.

Many trucks and SUVs also have a manual mode, which can be useful when towing or going down a steep hill. In those applications, performance driving isn’t the main reason for using manual mode. Instead, it prevents the vehicle from upshifting too soon, which would make it towing a little more difficult in some scenarios. Autotrader notes, “The beauty of manual mode is that – in theory – it takes the unexpected out of the equation.

Shifting to the lower gears will give you more control

The transmission will usually pick higher gears by default when driving a car through twisty canyon roads in automatic mode. This can hinder the car’s performance when coming out of a corner as the transmission will be in too high of a gear – fifth gear instead of third, for example.  However, by using manual mode and shifting the car into its lower gears, you’ll gain more control over it in the corners.

After making the turn, you’ll be able to power out of the corners at the higher rpm range and shift to the next gear with the flick of the paddle. It’s the same sensation you get when driving a manual transmission car spiritedly but without needing a clutch pedal.

When and where to use manual mode

A view of the 2023 Toyota Venza's shifter
2023 Toyota Venza | Joe Santos, MotorBiscuit

If you plan on using the manual mode in your car, it’s best to do it on a race track or on open winding roads. That way, you can effectively use the car as if it were equipped with a stick shift and enjoy the rpm band better. You can also use it when driving normally, but we don’t recommend it. The shifting will feel unnecessary, and the lack of a clutch pedal doesn’t make the experience as engaging as you would like.

In that case, stick to using the automatic mode for normal driving. But when the road opens up, flick the downshift paddle – it’s usually behind the steering wheel on the left – and feel the freedom of shifting the gears yourself.