Piston Slap: Design Week: Crooked Shift Patterns

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta

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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detent), 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.

[Send your queries to mehta@ttac.com]

Sajeev Mehta
Sajeev Mehta

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  • Lorenzo Lorenzo on Nov 19, 2009

    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.

  • Daniel J. Stern Daniel J. Stern on Nov 19, 2009

    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.

  • John The answer is to wipe it off? I don't recall ever having to "wife off rust" in any car I've ever owned. Well... once a year claybar for rail dust maybe.
  • Scott What people want is the Jetson Car sound.This has come up before.
  • Joerg I just bought a Corolla Cross Hybrid SE a few weeks ago, and I regret it. But not for any of the reasons stated so far. It drives well enough for me, gas mileage is great for a car like that, the interior is fine, nothing to complain about for normal daily use. I bought this relatively small SUV thinking it is basically just a smaller version of the RAV4 (the RAV4 felt too big for me, drives like a tank, so I never really considered it). I also considered the AWD Prius, but storage capacity is just too small (my dog would not fit in the small and low cargo space).But there are a few things that I consider critical for me, and that I thought would be a given for any SUV (and therefore did not do my due diligence before the purchase): It can’t use snow chains per the manual, nor any other snow traction devices. Even with AWD, snow chains are sometimes required where I go, or just needed to get out of a stuck situation.The roof rack capacity is only a miniscule 75 lbs, so I can’t really load my roof top box with stuff for bigger trips.Ironically, the European version allows snow chains and roof rack capacity is 165 lbs. Same for the US Prius version. What was Toyota thinking?Lastly, I don’t like that there is no spare tire, but I knew that before the purchase. But it is ridiculous that this space is just filled up with a block of foam. At least it should be made available for additional storage. In hindsight, I should have bought a RAV4. The basic LE Hybrid version would have been just about 1k more.
  • MaintenanceCosts Looks like the best combination of capability, interior comfort, and subtle appearance can be achieved by taking a Laramie (crew cab, short bed, 4x4 of course) and equipping it with the Sport Appearance, Towing Technology, and Level 2 packages as well as a few standalone options. That's my pick.Rebel is too CRUSH THAT CAN BRO and Limited and up are too cowboy Cadillac.
  • Xidex easier to buy a mustang that already sounds like that. love the coyote growl
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