By on November 18, 2009

j-gate (courtesy

TTAC Commentator Karl_Donina writes:

Hi, Sajeev. I want to know why it’s so fashionable for automakers to provide obnoxiously labyrinthine automatic shifter gates. It seems to have started with Jaguar’s innocuous J-shaped gates of the ’80s, but these days it seems to have become passé to provide a simple, easy-to-use linear gate — push button or hold lever to one side to move in a straight line out of park and through the gears, or back the other direction.  Now every shift, whether from 1 to 2 or N to R or whatever, requires inconsistent and annoying fore-aft and transverse movements. The gates on Subarus I’ve driven lately are ridiculous, as is the one in the Yaris I rented last week. And there are many more. Thanks for whatever enlightenment you can provide.

Sajeev answers:

Indeed, the Jaguar “J-Gate” shifter is a curiosity that adds to the brand’s charm.  Luckily, those gear “detents” also serve a purpose. According to Wikipedia (, a detent is a “device used to mechanically resist or arrest the rotation of a wheel, axle or spindle.”

In this case, detents save the expensive transmission/transaxle in your car. And the detents make holding a specific gear quite easy, if all ratios are covered on the shift pattern.  Imagine if the Lexus IS-F had a zig-zag pattern covering all eight gears…how cool would that be?

But all automatic shift levers have detents, and the last of the “linear” detent shifters use button-actuated lockouts to keep someone from accidently shifting into neutral, reverse or a lower gear.  And I suspect the deletion of that button saved the automakers (collectively) millions of dollars. Hence the detents became automotive gospel.

Bonus!  A Piston Slap Nugget of Wisdom:

Revisionist History Alert: the Etch-A-Sketch detents are a necessity with today’s plastic-craptastic interiors and glass-jaw transmissions.  Take my first car, a 1965 Ford Galaxie 500: it had RoboCop-amounts of metal in the shifter, connected to the unquestionably durable Ford C6 autobox.

When I moved the shifter one detent, I felt that sweet action in my finger bones.  It was cool, plus it took dedication to put the transmission in the wrong gear at the wrong time. While these metal parts burned me in the summer and caused wintertime shivering, it worked. And I never had to hear that awful racket from today’s plastic shifter detents.
Even if the good old days weren’t exactly good, it never hurts to look at our new designs with a critical eye from yesteryear.  So there it is.

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51 Comments on “Piston Slap: Design Week: Crooked Shift Patterns...”

  • avatar

    Are there safety considerations to these various different shift patterns?
    I have seen discussions of the (in)famous Toyota unintended acceleration  accident that mentioned unfamiliarity with the shifter as a possible factor.
    Virtually all modern automatic transmissions have electronic controls.  I doubt if these unusual shifters can really contribute to avoiding transmission damage by incorrect shifts.  The electronic nannies will intervene.

    • 0 avatar

      The Lexus in question had push button start, which meant it wasn’t possible to shift into neutral to stop the car-you had to push down the button for three seconds to kill the engine, and since it was a loaner, the driver didn’t know that.  The fact that it was a loaner also explained the whole problem, since it apparently had the wrong model’s floor mats in it.

    • 0 avatar

      The issue with the Lexus shift pattern was that it had a manumatic gate off and to the side of the PRNDL section.  This is the same thing you see on any shiftable automatic, and yes, if you’re in that gate the old “slap it up to hit neutral” becomes difficult.
      I don’t mind the more traditional gated shifters: though it’s a little bit too easy to end up in a lower gear, it’s not much worse than the easy slap-to-neutral of an ungated unit and waaaaaaay better than a column shifter.  What does drive me nuts is how, in every automatic Honda I’ve ever driven, it’s way too easy to bypass D and end up in D3, wasting fuel like crazy in the process.  I’d like someone to explain the rationale for that one (other than “buy a manual”).

  • avatar

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe Mercedes-Benz was the first exponent of labyrinthine automatic shift patterns…and they carried on thus for decades before being aped by everyone.

    • 0 avatar

      I remember it that way, too.  And I’ve never liked them.  You can still make the same mistakes with the labyrinth as you can with a straight pattern, if you instinctively include too many “L” movements while shifting.

  • avatar

    My 2010 MKS has no detents(?).
    The 09 did have you push over to manual, but since they went to paddles in 10 the shift is simply a clean up n down move.  The manual is a simple, lower “M” position.
    This is the Ecoboost so I am not sure about the 3.7 auto or without paddles set up.

  • avatar

    Could be partly due to massive number of gears in modern transmissions. When you get six or seven the straight line approach doesn’t work as well. My fancy K-car is nice and simple but its only got three forward gears.

  • avatar

    My mother’s ’72 SL has such a shift pattern, so they go back at least that far with Mercedes.

  • avatar

    The reason these zig-zag shifters are so popular is purely for the cosmetic appearance of it being “sporty” which is a contradiction because to be sporty would require a manny tranny. Mercedes started with thenm and then with the 2002 altima and maxima it caught fire with japanese automakers.  They’re annoying and pointless.
    Bring back column shifters! Why waste all that center console space? Because column shifters make you look old? bullshit. They’re more practical.

    • 0 avatar

      I say go one more step and bring back the pushbuttons.  Think about it.  Column shifters are a hugely clunky collection of articulated levers designed to actuate an electronic switch in todays cars.  Today, everyone is used to pushbuttons on radios, hvac controls, cruise systems, nav systems, and even starter buttons.  Pushbutton transmission controls would make even more sense on cars with paddle shifters.

      Pushbuttons would make more sense now than they did in their heyday of the 1950s-early 60s.  Then, they needed to either mechanically or electrically actuate a mechanical lever on the side of the transmission.  The Chrysler cable system was pretty trouble-free, but the electrical units in Edsels and Mercurys were not very good.  Now, an electical pushbutton to actuate an electrical switch would be the simplest and least expensive solution.

      The pushbuttons disappeared after the 1964 models.  I have never actually researched this, but it is my understanding that this was federal legislation that required a lever with a uniform shift quadrant – PRND21 or PRNDL.  It was believed that the multiple methods of changing gears in automatics was confusing and dangerous.  This was one of the subjects of Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed. The old GM quadrant with reverse at the bottom and the Chrysler pushbuttons were casualties.  If I had to guess, I would say that a 1964 federal law prevents a modern pushbutton solution for automatics.

    • 0 avatar

      Bring back column shifters! Why waste all that center console space? Because column shifters make you look old? bullshit. They’re more practical.
      I find column shifters  irritating: it’s just not as natural a motion for your muscles to manage, especially when you need to move quickly from R to D.  I do agree that floor shifters often waste space, though.  A good alternative are dash-mounted shifters that move in the vertical plane: the current Chrysler vans are the epitome of this, but most other minivans sport a less radical version, as does the Toyota Matrix and Mazda5.
      Best of both worlds: space-saving and easy to use.
      Unfortunately, the current trend is to make our cars look like X-Wings from the inside, and thusly the console is getting larger and more elaborate, not smaller and less obstrusive (except in style-free cars, like the aforementioned vans)

  • avatar

    I understand the cost-of-the-lockout-button argument, but I am not sure that this is true.   One of my officemates has an 05 Acura TL.  He has the obnoxious gate shifter.  I have an 07 Honda Fit.  My automatic has a linear lever with a lockout button.

    Maybe it is because my car was an earlier design, but I would put my money on a cross between the snob factor and the lemming factor.  This seems to be starting on expensive european cars and working its way down.  “Oh, gee, lets not buy this car when we can get the one with the cool looking shiftgate like in all the expensive european cars.”   Sort of like the pushbutton starter.  Maybe next we will see Audi or Mercedes bring back window cranks.

  • avatar

    Being electronic anyway there is no need for a lever.  Why not revisit the push-button  shifters of the Edsel and early 1960’s Mopar’s?
    In the mid 1960’s the automatic shift pattern was standardized in the US for safety.
    P-N-D-L-R which was the early Chevy Powerglide pattern to allow easy “rocking” of a stuck vehicle was replaced by P-R-N-D-L in the later version.  I owned both a ’57 and ’65.

  • avatar

    Hm…My dad had a 1965 Ford Galaxie 500, with a 352 and auto trans (presumably C6?).  The trans gave up the ghost and left him stranded and caused a traffic jam, which precipitated him dumping the car (before I was born).
    I think the shift mazes are stupid, but I wouldn’t discriminate against one model because it has an erratic shift gate and another doesn’t.  I would discriminate against the models that don’t offer a manual trans instead of the p-stick.
    What about 6-spd shifters?  Some need a downward push to engage reverse, others require an upward pull on a collar to engage reverse.  Some are to the left of 1st and others IIRC are to the right of 5th or 6th.  The car salesman that rode with me on my Fusion test drive (I hate it when they do that) admitted to dinging a bumper by accidentally going into 1st instead of reverse and hitting a power pole guide wire.  Personally I hate the pull-up collars, so what gives?

  • avatar

    In the mid 1960’s the automatic shift pattern was standardized in the US for safety.

    Must have been a little later then that.  My ’66 Mustang’s C4 automatic goes:
    P = Park
    R = Reverse
    N= Neutral
    “Little Green Dot”= 2nd and 3rd gears (for starts in second gear)
    “Big Green Dot”= Drive (1st, 2nd, 3rd)
    L = 1st

    • 0 avatar

      Once you hit drive, I think the manufacturers were free to deal with the forward gears as they saw fit.  The key was Park at the top, then Reverse, then Neutral, then the forward gears.  The regs took effect for the 1965 year, I believe.  Ford was the only manufacturer who did not have to change its shift quadrant.

  • avatar

    It is a long-established machine design practice that the operator has to pass through a neutral speed when shifting between forward and reverse. The old GM (and some other cars) that had L and R right next to each other, with no neutral in between, that caused the problems. Standardizing the shift pattern to PRNDIL eliminated that issue.

    Pushbuttons, like Chrysler had, still alllow the driver to go directly from a forward gear to a reverse gear without passing through neutral. In addition, inattention can cause you to push the wrong button, getting the same effect.

    Standardizing the shift pattern brought carmakers products up to the standard which prevailed in their factories for machinery for the previous 50 years.

    I drove many miles in push-button Chryslers. I admired the machinery, liked the cars, but I was forcibly reminded of the underlying human factors problem at least once.


    • 0 avatar
      Daniel J. Stern

      Your memory fails you; the pushbutton Mopars have a safety valve. If you push the Reverse button while travelling forward at more than a snail’s pace, the transmission shifts harmlessly into Neutral and remains there until either the Neutral button or a forward gear button is pressed.
      (Yes, I’ve owned several of them — and still own two of them. Yes, I have been daring enough to test the safety system. Yes, it works perfectly.)

  • avatar

    I don’t have this problem as I only buy cars with manual transmissions. Did have a mid-60’s Plymouth Valiant with a push-button auto on the dash. Now, that was a transmission.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Not only does my A6 have the sqiggly shift gate (my grandson’s term), but one has to push down firmly on the TOP of the shifter know to “unlock” it from Park and/or reverse….

    ….as this is not as intuitive as a simple shift/lock button (as on her Montero), the first time my wife got in my Audi to drive it, she was completely flummoxed about how to engage the transmission….

    While I didn’t marry my wife for her engineering and mechanical sense (if you saw her….you’d know why, but that is a different subject altogether!) neither is she an airhead.  

    The shifter-interlock method is one of the very few things I can find fault with in my Audi….

  • avatar

    I was irritated by the labyrinthine gate on the Camry we rented last spring, being used to the straight-line one on the Accord.
    As for 5-speeds with differing reverse placements, I had that one beat into my head in my early truck-driving days. Pop had an old Studebaker army truck and a 1949 International KB-11. These had 5-speed trannies with the same shift pattern except that first and reverse were exchanged. Ordinarily not a problem, if the trucks were empty one started in second, but once when I was hauling a load of 18-inch concrete pipe with the Cornbinder I started from a traffic light in R instead of 1. Scared the crap out of myself, and probably even worse the driver behind me, even though I stopped before the truck had moved a yard. Just one of the lessons in driver alertness I had over the years.

    • 0 avatar

      I had some similar experiences with automatics.  In the late 70s I owned a 63 Cadillac with the old Jetaway HydraMatic.  Reverse was at the bottom.  I had a job where I occasionally had to drive a 71 Cadillac, and I recall having to do a fast maneuver in traffic in the 71.  Intending to reverse, I yanked the lever all the way down and stepped on the gas.  I did not go backwards as intended.
      I later had a 59 Plymouth with pushbuttons on the left side of the dash.  Every time I got into my mother’s 74 LeMans, I stuck my fingers into the air conditioning vents.
      I guess you and I both made Ralph Nader’s point on this one.

  • avatar

    I know someone who burned up a RAV4 transmission in a rental car because of this idiocy.

    When the driver selects D, they have to move the shifter slightly to the side. If the driver insteads pulls the lever straight back from P, they stay in 3rd gear (or 4th, or whateever is one less than D).

    This person drove 90 minutes on the freeway from the airport rental counter, to their destination, and 90 minutes back. When the driver finally put the tranny in Park, the instrument panel lit up like Christmas: flashing AWD light, service engine light, TPMS light… All signs in the owner’s manual pointed to some urgent transmission needs.

    This was NOT me :) and I wasn’t in the car, but I know folks who were.

    • 0 avatar

      Why would driving in 3rd or 4th gear ruin the transmission so quickly?  It still uses all the gears below that number.  It seems like you’d just burn a little more gas on the freeway and that’s it.

  • avatar

    I think a dial on the dash, preferably close to the start button, makes a lot of sense.  It’s flush, so it’d be hard to bump out of position and improves safety, would free up room on the console (or, the console could even be eliminated like on older FWD cars- tons of room that way), and you could quickly select any gear.  It makes even more sense when paired with paddle shifters for your on-the-fly shifting

  • avatar
    George B

    I prefer a linear console mounted shifter for an automatic.   The user interface should allow the driver to shift from park to reverse to back out of a parking place without looking at the shifter.  The driver should be able to focus on not backing into pedestrians or other cars.  Once out of the parking place, the driver should be able to shift to drive without looking at the shifter, eyes on the road and mind focused on avoiding collisions.  Complex shift patterns that get in the way of the basic P-R-N-D positions annoy me.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    I can’t stand the crazy shift gate patterns in so many modern cars, nor the fact that they are very inconsistent from vehicle to vehicle. If it is an automatic transmission, then a plain out straight layout works fine. If shifting is to be entertaining, then buy a manual transmission.

  • avatar

    I suspect that these shift mazes are intended to provide a “feel” so that one does not have to look down when shifting.   But I find myself constantly looking down, trying to figure out what I have to do to get the damn thing to engage while traffic piles up behind me.   Hate ’em.

  • avatar

    not a fan of paddles or buttons unless it’s done right like Ferrari
    see Porsche on how to do it wrong
    for non performance  type cars a -/+ arrangement is fine
    however if you’re gonna do that how about you do it right
    + should be pull back
    – should be push forward

  • avatar

    These started with Mercedes in their first automatics (column-mounted) in the sixties. MB has used them ever since, and others have adopted this as a status symbol – pure and simple – we are just like a Mercedes.

    • 0 avatar

      lol…except bmw.  My 335i is straight front to back and very simple.  PRND and that’s it.  Paddle shifters for low gear, and move to the left of D for sport mode (which also enables autostick-esque shifting)  No weird gates though, and not even any of the annoying L-whatever positions.

  • avatar

    You guys are nuts. Crooked shift patterns are far, far better than the unidirectional pushbutton shifters!
    First of all, those pushbuttons don’t ever seem to work. I’ve driven a number of old cars (mostly Toyotas), and a few new ones (Camries and rental Kias and Pontiacs), on which the shifter seemed to shift even if I wasn’t pushing the button. Second, the detents in a unidirectional shifter make it hard to be accurate. It’s like the coefficient of static friction is too higher compared to the coefficient of dynamic friction – i.e., it takes a lot of force to move it one detent, but it doesn’t stop there. It’s too easy to move the shifter farther than you meant to.
    I’ve driven two automatics with crooked shift patterns: a 1991 E-class, and a 2006 RSX. They’re great. I can tell by feel if I’ve gone too far, but it’s easier not to. The RSX makes you go right then left to get into D, so it’s pretty hard to screw up.
    I bet all the accidental backing-ups on Youtube (like the Camry that backed over a cop car) are cars with straight shift patterns.

  • avatar

    Here is a weird shifter layout quirk, I have three MB 108/109 with floor shifters. Two of them have the standard shift pattern (dash to seats)  PRN234  – one  of them, a 1969 280se has the pattern backwards, 432NRP!

  • avatar

    I’m also not convinced the snakey shift patterns are safer. More than once I have driven high mileage cars with worn shift linkages, and had the lever pattern keep the car from locking into the correct gear detent.

  • avatar

    Most newer cars have mechanical lockouts to prevent you from shifting from Drive to Reverse at speed.

  • avatar
    Mark out West

    Benz originally started this in the late 1960’s floor shifts and they felt and worked very well.  Old Benz drivers could back hand the car out of park and into drive in one fell swoop without pressing any button.  In 17 years, never once selected the wrong gear accidentially.

  • avatar

          My first experience with a sort of gated shifter was a restored  ’61 Corvette I bought and drove for several years…it was a Power-glide, and the pattern was printed on the tiny console and to the right of the gear lever…it was also backwards from the normal P’glide with L being at the top, or all the way forward, and P all the way back.

       It wasn’t lit so it was a “feel your way through the maze” deal at night.
        An unusual selector pattern I found on a  ’55  GMC truck I bought restored and used around the shop for a number of years…on the quadrant was written GMC Truck Hydra-Matic and the positions were: N  1-4  1-3  1-2  R.  A couple of my buddies, younger than myself, were surprised to learn that, although it had no “Park” position, the gear lever was placed in “R” and, when the engine was turned off, it acted the same as the “Park” position on a conventional auto.

        The push-buttons were on a few Chrysler products, and one Mercury (’57 I believe) that I owned, but I also had a ’55 Dodge with the cool little selector lever sticking out of the dashboard….no “Park” on this one either, but it did have the safer RNDL  pattern, and a very powerful hand-brake that acted on the drive-shaft.

       A friend of mine had a Corvair with a dash mounted lever for the Power-Glide…no “Park” on this one either.

        I think they should bring the push-buttons back, and I like to see the auto/manual gearboxes controlled by a column mounted gated lever affair, similar to the one found on the old Cord’s preselector transmission.

        The push-buttons should also be to the driver’s left…they are on the center-stack on Astons…eeek….too easy for curious fingers.

      And last but not least…’58 Edsel’s pushbuttons in the center of the wheel…fail.


  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    I checked my wife’s 2008 RAV4 (LTD trim, FWD, 4 cyl., 4 speed auto tran.) D is straight back from N. To get 3 you need to move the selector towards the left.
    I remember the old GM PNDLR. The advantage for drivers was that you could easily shift from L to R and back, allowing the driver to rock the car when stuck in snow/ice.  It hasn’t been an issue in the front drive with traction control cars I have owned in recent years.

    • 0 avatar
      Daniel J. Stern

      you could easily shift from L to R and back, allowing the driver to rock the car when stuck in snow/ice.
      You misspelled “allowing the driver to burn out the transmission in a hurry”.

  • avatar

    I’ve always found it ironic that there is a Federal standard that mandates the PRNDL selector pattern, but no regulation of how “manumatics” are set up.  It’s confusing to the driver of multiple vehicles: Some shift up by pressing the stick forward, others by pulling back, still others by flicking the lever to the right, others use paddles and some use a flipper on a column-mounted stalk. It’s amazing that this hasn’t been identified as a possible hazard.

  • avatar

    LOU: Sorry, Mary, I can’t let you drive the mobile unit.
    MARY: I can learn!
    LOU: Mary, I hate to tell you this, but the mobile unit is a truck. A big one!
    MARY: I can still learn. It’s like an H, right?
    LOU: It’s more like an H with a W in the middle of it with a T on the side.

    (Mary Tyler Moore show, ep 1.8 “The Snow must go on.” )

  • avatar

    I suspect all but the mot exotic automagics have a linkage to a  manual valve of some sort in the tranny.  That’s actually a _good_ thing, since it means you’ve always got a positive way to force neutral.  Realistically, there should be at least one system on the car that can cut power to the wheels, no matter what, especially given gas by wire leaves you exposed to the gas pedal having a mind of it’s own, and push button starts (another silly gimmick that’s popular these days) means you don’t have an easy, positive way to chop the power.
    IMHO, gas by wire and push button starters are solutions looking for problems.  Is it really so hard to turn a key?  I think the S2000 started this silly trend.  As for gas by wire – really, are we that desperate to get that last .00001% improvement from car exhuasts that we need the feds deciding how the engine should act when you stomp on the gas?
    I’m pretty sure that even these days, all Airbus planes have at least some semblence of a fully manual backup to the elevator/rudder, in case the fly by wire dies.  In fact, I seem to recall the A320’s rudder is fully conventional…

  • avatar

    If it’s true that buttons cannot be used due to having to need to go past Neutral to enter R or D, couldn’t it be bypassed by having a rocker switch for R N D?  Park be a push button, then R N D on one switch, and then L as its own switch.  And then every time the person pushes Park have it reset to “N” so the car isn’t in Park and Reverse/Drive simultaneously.

  • avatar

    some squiggly gates work well, others are shocking.
    my biggest peeve is tiptronic gates that only have PRND and the +/- gate. a lot of the time i just want to lock out the top 1 or 2 gears, but instead i have to use tiptronic which usually then makes the occasional shifts i have to make all abrupt and rough

  • avatar

    I had to shake my head at the unnatural muscle movement required for column shifters. It’s all muscle memory – if you drive only a column shift, you’ll get used to it. I rode once with a fellow worker (whose own car was a column shift auto) in a console shift company car for several stops. Every time he stopped, my co-worker “shifted” the wipers on. It took him four stops to figure it out. Everybody has a shift-confusion story, and it’s not just the shift pattern.
    But just a reminder: it doesn’t matter where the shifter is placed, on the column or on the dash, the consoles are not going away. They’re getting bigger and more sculpted so there’s only one place the driver and front passenger can sit, right in front of the airbags.  The days of roomy front seats with plenty of leg room (and foot room for my size-13s) are over.

  • avatar
    Daniel J. Stern

    Contrary to popular belief, it was not a Federal regulation that caused Chrysler to drop the pushbutton transmission controls after the 1964 model year. There was no Federal agency or framework under which for such a regulation to be promulgated or enforced until 1968. In fact, Chrysler dropped the pushbuttons because driver training programs (i.e., school districts, at that time) were avoiding Chrysler products because they considered the buttons nonstandard. Chrysler felt that a new driver’s first exposure was crucial to forming later car preferences, and so went to a conventional  lever. Auto safety advocates of the time (*koff*Nader*koff*) actually preferred the buttons, because they eliminated a potentially very hazardous protuberance on which unbelted occupants could impale themselves, and took shift control out of range of the grabbing hands of (unbelted) children.
    There were a few loosely-coordinated voluntary industry actions, such as the universal application of the 7″ round sealed beam headlamp in 1940 and the provision of seatbelt anchorages in 1962. In the few years prior to the establishment of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the system of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, various state and municipal governments effectively forced things like the installation of reversing lamps and the elimination of automatic transmission shift patterns with adjacent forward and reverse driving positions. They did so by writing technical requirements into their bid specifications for their motor pool fleet cars. For several years, the City and County of Los Angeles bought only Chrysler products, for example, because they were the only vehicles that could meet the exhaust emission standards written into the bid spec.
    There is nothing in the applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS #102) prohibiting pushbutton control of automatic transmissions. Many late-model transit buses are so equipped.

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