We’ve started to notice a theme in many of the new cars and trucks, including SUVs, that we test out here at Business Insider on our Transportation team: confusing automatic-transmission shifters.
We’re not talking about stick shifts here; those are still, mercifully, relatively straightforward.
But the good old park-reverse-neutral-drive setups of old, when you simply moved a shifter up and down, have given way to more elaborate systems. In some cases, such as when the shifter is replaced by buttons, this isn’t so bad.
But when the shifter is modified to be more of a joystick-type interface, it doesn’t always make sense and requires practice to sort out.
Sometimes it doesn’t get sorted out, as was reportedly the case when actor Anton Yelchin, who played Mr. Chekov in the rebooted “Star Trek” movies, was killed in a freak accident in Los Angeles when he thought his Jeep was in park when it was in neutral. The car rolled, pinning him against his mailbox.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles had recalled Yelchin’s model, along with over 1 million others, because of a confusing shifter design.
So in some cases, these new shifter designs are more than an annoyance — they’re a danger. And this has only become more obvious to us lately, as we’ve had a spate of test cars with more old-fashioned and even manual transmissions come through our neck of the woods.
I own a 2011 Prius, so I'm used to this setup, but compared with every other car I owned before, there was a needless learning curve with this thing. It isn't a shifter in the old-school sense so much as a joystick. You toggle it up or down to get reverse or drive. Park, as you can see, isn't an option: There's a button for that to the left of the shifter.
Here's the shifter on a new Lexus RX 350, which uses the more familiar P-R-N-D arrangement. Not much of a learning curve here.
I'm always so happy when I get into a car that still does it this way. No chance that I'll be trying to execute a quick three-point turn and get stuck in the middle of the street figuring out how to get back into drive.
Manuals haven't changed much in decades -- only that gears have been added beyond the traditional four or five.
But stick shifts are a dying breed, and driving them is a dying art. Carmakers provide them as an option, mainly for motoring enthusiasts, and install them in sports cars.
On trucks and SUVs, you'll sometimes encounter a real old-school column shifter. Here's one from a Cadillac Escalade.
Column shifters are rarely seen these days. But of all the options, they are perhaps the simplest, given that you have to lever them out and toward you slightly before putting the vehicle in gear. The gear itself is usually displayed on the instrument panel, directly in front of the driver.
I don't want to single out Cadillac; this was just the most recent example of the joystick-with-a-flowchart shifter I experienced. You get this kind of thing on BMWs and Audis, too.
The good thing here is that this transmission defaults to park, so you aren't going to inadvertently roll the car. But getting into reverse is tricky because you have to execute an up-and-to-the-left toggle, sort of like with a manual. This means that going from drive to reverse takes a bit of practice. It's nice to have the park button on the shifter, of course.
What really confuses me about these setups is that it's not like the consumer was asking for them. They're a consequence of transmissions becoming more sophisticated and manufacturers wanting to innovate with their interiors and also free up a bit of space. The joysticks are typically more compact than what they replace, although for my money, the column shifter is the best choice if you want the shifter to be out of the way.