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Paddling along the freeway

March 24, 2008

by Jesse Menden

In the past month, my 1991 Chevrolet Beretta has been in the shop three times. The most recent time was after the car decided it needed a rest on I-394 near Penn Avenue in rush hour traffic.

While my car has been in the shop, I have used a myriad of cars, taking whatever I could get for my various adventures around the state of Minnesota during tournament time.

One of the vehicles I used was a 1995 Ford Ranger with almost as many of the 236,000-plus clicks that read on the Beretta’s odometer. The difference, however, was the Ranger has a manual transmission. While there was a small adjustment period – sorry to those who were stuck behind me – I had forgotten just how much fun driving a stick-shift vehicle was.

There is one problem, though. It is nearly impossible to talk, text message, drink a latte, make and eat a sandwich, read a map, or even change radio stations while managing a five-speed transmission.

So, with a car that is on life support and a renewed ambition to have fun driving a car again, I embarked on my annual trip to the Greater Minneapolis & St. Paul International Auto Show as serious as ever about acquiring a new car.

The cars were more impressive than ever, with improved specs and sleek engineering. But there was one overwhelming trend, especially among the foreign auto makers: give the driver more control.

Driving the Ranger was fun, but it was also an inconvenience at times. So, in this period of instant gratification, auto makers have solved my little conundrum, allowing drivers to enjoy an automatic and manual transmission at the same time.

It is not something that is new, but an idea that has blossomed almost across-the-board among foreign auto makers. It has many different names, but what it boils down to is an automatic car that has a manual mode.

Cars like the Mazda 3 or the Infiniti G35 allow the driver to put the shifter into a manual mode and easily move it up or down to go through the gears – with no clutch needed.

Others, like the Audi TT or the Porche 911 Carrera S, have paddle shifters. Two paddles are located right where your hands sit on the steering wheel (assuming you drive at “ten” and “two,” rather than “three” and “nothing”). A little push on those paddles shifts you into another gear.

No longer can drivers say they are “up a creek without a paddle.”

So if you need to put on that lipstick or comb your goatee, just get out of that manual mode. If you want to race the hot shot next to you when that light turns green, get your fingers ready for some paddle shifting.

More control for drivers goes well beyond a manual mode in automatic cars. For example, take the sexy BMW M5. This high-performance car features a V-10 engine that is like a Transformer.

The car gives you the ability to cruise along with 400-horsepower under the hood. But when a button is pushed on the steering wheel, the car turns from a sedan into a 500-horsepower sports car-like machine. It even adjusts the suspension so you can take those corners at high speeds.

Land Rover provides a completely different kind of control. For example, you want to do some ditch driving and want to go down a steep descent? Many Land Rover vehicles give you the “hill-decent” option, which allows the Rover to navigate slowly down the hill by itself, all the driver has to do is steer.

A dial near the console also allows the driver to change the performance of the chassis and transmission of the Sport Utility Vehicle depending on road conditions. In Terrain Response, a driver can change that mode from driving on snow to climbing rocks. And if those rocks are pretty big, just adjust how high your Land Rover is off the ground.

The bottom line: vehicles at this year’s show have more gadgets and gizmos than ever to enhance the driver’s experience. And quite honestly, it sounds better to use a paddle to move my car along the freeway, than to push it to the side.