Since the early 1960s, we’ve had two kinds of automatic transmission shifters: The column shift and the floor shift in a console (forgetting the pushbutton TorqueFlite on the Plymouth Valiant). The last few years, shifter territory has turned into a Wild West, with manufacturers putting them all over the car, in any number of configurations. All three of these cars are terrific automobiles, but their automatic transmission shifter designs are just plain awful.
Auto manufacturers used to be limited to just a handful of shifter locations, because the shifter had a mechanical connection to the transmission. Anything location that was further away than a few steel rods or a flexible cable could reach was out of the question.
That all changed when shifters managed by complex electronics arrived in force at the turn of the 21st century. No longer were designers limited to shifter arrangements near to the transmission itself.
There’s nothing wrong with reimagining how automatic transmission shifters work. The Lincoln MKZ, for example, does it right. The shifter moves from the console to a space to the left of the entertainment screen, in an intuitive row. Want Drive? Push the D button. Pretty simple. It results in a lot more space in the bin between the seats, and it puts functions you’ll do day in, day out, in a place that’s easy to reach and simple to understand.
Unfortunately, some designers went nuts and started designing shifters more for aesthetics than for function, and we’re left with several shifter designs that seem like they’re placed there solely to cause frustration.
Selecting gears is a critical part of driving an automobile. It’s something that you’re often doing in the dark, dozens of times a day. It needs to be completely intuitive, taking generations of muscle memory into account.
When reimagining gear selectors, designers and engineers need to be placed in an environment that simulates having to get the car moving while a stalker is walking up to the driver’s door, or a runaway cement mixer is seconds away from crushing the car to a powder. We’d eliminate these three poor designs immediately.
Mercedes-Benz used to put automatic transmission shifters in the center console, and you’d run through the gears in a series of gates that provided some positive tactile feedback that you were, in fact, in a gear. Perfect.
Today’s Mercedes-Benz automatic transmission gear selector is placed in a stalk on the right side of the steering column. Rather than a traditional “PRNDS” configuration, you push the stalk up for Reverse, and down for Neutral or any of the forward gears. Pushing the button on the end of the stalk puts the transmission in Park.
FMVSS 571.102 provides federally mandated standards on how automatic transmissions work. The language in FMVSS 571.102 S220.127.116.11 specifically mentions the shifter sequence: “If a steering-column-mounted transmission shift lever is used, movement from neutral position to forward drive position shall be clockwise. If the transmission shift lever sequence includes a park position, it shall be located at the end, adjacent to the reverse drive position.”
The FMVSS guidelines don’t specify how Reverse is selected, which is how you end up having to shift up to go backwards. Since the FMVSS regulations allowed for cars like the button-shifted Plymouth Valiant in the 1960s, the transmission shifter doesn’t actually have to have a “Park” position, which is how the button ended up on the end of the stalk.
It’s designed purely for symmetry. It is the mirror image of the turn signal stalk on the left side of the column, which also houses the windshield wiper functions. But because of its size and location, you can’t really see it behind the steering wheel. (See the photo above. It’s on the right.)
In a week of driving the Mercedes-Benz GLA 250 4MATIC, I’ve grabbed that shifter a dozen times looking for it to control the wipers.
It’s a flimsy device that is begging to be snapped off at some point, and it requires concentration to figure out where reverse is. Either of these should’ve eliminated this bad design from consideration.
The Chrysler 200 has to be on everybody’s “Most Improved” list of 2015. The car it replaces was a mean-spirited, half-put-together also-ran that seemed destined for nothing but rental lots across the country. The new car is a seriously nice automobile that should give cars like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla a run for their money.
The one exception is the shifter location. It’s chromed plastic rotary dial on the dashboard for the R-N-D-L functions, and you select Park using a button to the right.
Jaguar uses a similar setup in its cars now. At first, the very idea was annoying to me, but once you get used to it, it’s actually a really intuitive way to roll through the gears.
So the idea isn’t the problem, it’s the placement. The Jaguar’s rotary dial is located in the console, which means that it’s close at hand, and far away from everything else you might be grabbing for.
The Chrysler 200’s dial, on the other hand is located just inches from a similarly-sized rotary dial for the climate fan, something that you’ll be trying to locate on a fairly regular basis, sometimes at 65 miles per hour. The opposite is also a significant issue. BestRide friend Brian Epro posted a picture of the dial on his Facebook wall criticizing the design after renting a Chrysler 200 in December. “On two occasions in 24 hours I twisted the fan dial thinking I was putting the car in Park,” he wrote.
The Acura TLX is one of those vehicles that buff magazines like to ignore in favor of sports sedans from Germany, while in actual fact it’s probably exactly what most entry-luxury car buyers should be driving. It’s also technologically proficient, with features like Lane Keeping Assist and Adaptive Cruise Control that preview what semi-autonomous cars will be doing for all us in the very near future.
Unfortunately, it also features a really poor shifter design on the V-6 model. The four-cylinder TLX has an eight-speed transmission with a conventional, console-mounted shift lever. It works exactly the way console-mounted shift levers have worked since they arrived in the early 1960s.
The V-6 models have a nine-speed automatic transmission selected by a series of buttons in the console. There’s no “shifter” per se, it’s just a series of differently shaped buttons that you push and pull to operate. The buttons are in a conventional “P-R-N-D” sequence. The P button engages Park. To select Reverse, you pull up a button nestled inside a half-cover. Neutral is the next rectangular button. Drive is a big, lighted, round button, and the parking brake is — again — a button you pull up to engage, similar to the Reverse button.
The problem isn’t necessarily the sequence, which is fairly intuitive. It’s figuring out what part of this weird hand-eye-coordination exercise you’re supposed to execute, especially when you’re in a hurry. I pulled the TLX into the parking garage at Logan Airport a few weeks ago and needed to back into a space quickly as a line of cars was coming up behind me. Figuring out which button I was supposed to push or pull while I was doing my best to not impede traffic resulted in a blue cloud of foul language.
The promise of a shifter like this is that it takes up a lot less space than a conventional shift lever, but since the TLX still needs to provide the same console in the four- and six-cylinder models, it slots exactly into the same space as the regular lever. It’s a bad design in an otherwise terrific car.