By on November 13, 2015

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I was driving around the other day, and I got passed by a mid-2000s Mercedes M-Class. If your brain doesn’t immediately pull up an image of this particular M-Class, I’m not sure how to describe it to you. Just think of a dull SUV with a Mercedes badge on the front.

I remember when this particular M-Class came out, back in 2006, because it was panned for including a column shifter. A lot of automotive journalists — and, frankly, vehicle owners — laughed at the idea that a modern luxury brand would use a column shifter, the mark of the full-size pickup in the 1980s.

“And now Mercedes is using one?” they would say. “Mercedes?! HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!”

Then the journalists laughed and laughed, while Mercedes was simultaneously developing autonomous cars that would one day render these journalists useless.

The truth is, I thought the column shifter was a bit of a weird idea at the time, too. It seemed like a really old-school design decision, and I didn’t really get why an upscale company like Mercedes-Benz would go for it. Can’t you think of anything better? I thought.

It’s been ten years since that column shifter M-Class came out, and Mercedes still uses the column shifter on a wide variety of their cars and SUVs. And do you know what? I’ve really come to appreciate it.

The most obvious reason why I like the column shifter is probably the same reason they decided to start using it: because it gives you more room in the middle of the seats. Sometimes, when I’m getting into a car, I don’t want to go into the back seat to put down a bag, or open the damn cargo area and arrive at my destination to find that my plums have been speared by the cargo tie-downs. All I want to do is open my door, climb into my car, and go. With a giant storage area in place of where the shifter once was, I can do that.

Putting the shifter behind the steering wheel also eliminates the need for a giant lever sticking out of the floor, which you will really only use two or three times during any drive. When I’m driving an automatic car, I think I adjust the stereo more than I use the shift lever. Why is it so big? Why aren’t the stereo buttons so big? Can you imagine that? If the volume lever for the stereo was the size of the shift lever? Now that would be cool.

And here’s another thing about the column shifter: who cares if it’s an old design? A lot of stuff that’s based on an old design still works pretty well, like bottled water. Since I was a kid, bottled water technology has been largely the same: you have a bottle, and there’s some water in it. It’s brilliant. Why does it need to change? Just because Gatorade came along with its cool orange cap and its grippy sides? HELL NO, BOTTLED WATER! YOU KEEP DOING YOU!

I think part of the reason people wanted to dislike the Mercedes column shifter is simply because it’s an old design. Rather than looking at the merits of the column shifter, a bunch of naysayers just decided they’d hate it because they had seen it before. It’s like when a new iPhone comes out and people respond to it with this flippant boredom, because it doesn’t have an electron microscope, when really we should all be pretty damn excited that we can now surf the web while we take a bath.

Fortunately, the complainers seem to be wrong: the general idea of the column shifter seems to be really on its way back. Although few other brands have returned to the column, everybody agrees it’s best to get the shifter out of the center console. Minivans now have it mounted on the center control stack, as if it’s the stereo “tune” button. Lincolns now have push-button transmissions, also mounted in the center control stack. Other car companies have that weird rotary dial (Jaguar and Land Rover) or, in the case of the Prius, a confusing little stick with a button for “Park.” The transmission lever is changing, and Mercedes-Benz now seems to have had the right idea all along.

And so, I say, who cares if it’s an old design? And who cares if it looks a little weird? The column shifter is actually a good idea, and I’m glad Mercedes brought it back. And if you own a mid-2000s M-Class, so are your plums.

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137 Comments on “Doug Drives: An Ode to the Column Shifter...”


  • avatar
    Waftable Torque

    Just wait until someone, most likely the Germans, brings back the bench seat. “Our Sport Activity Crossover seats 9!”

    And the journalists will laugh. And yet it will start a seat-count war.

    • 0 avatar
      cwallace

      I am probably in the minority, but not alone, in saying that a new car with a proper bench seat would be pretty cool.

      • 0 avatar
        Drzhivago138

        Modern sedans are just too narrow to have a 3-across bench.

      • 0 avatar

        I agree completely that the column shifter is a good idea for the reasons stated, and I’d be happy to see some bench seats, too.

        • 0 avatar
          pragmatist

          I understand that police departments favor them so equipment can be placed there.

          When you started talking about bottled water I thought you were going to point out that a spilled bottle is less likely to cause major electronic malfunction with a column shift.

          Meanwhile my old column shift Wrangler has a power inverter, CB,and multiple power jacks where a floor shift would otherwise be

        • 0 avatar

          Great story, Doug. Two observations:

          – I find it ironic that Mercedes embraces the column shifter. has walked away from the floor shifter. In the Seventies/Eighties, E- and S-Class cars had beautifully-made floor shifters with detents for active rowing of the M-B four-speed automatic. Along with the hard yet comfortable bucket seats, that shifter is part of what redefined how the interior of a luxury car should look to American buyers. How long did it take Lincoln and Cadillac to come up with lame imitations? Of course back then an M-B dash consisted of vent, A/C and a Becker AM/FM so things to change.

          – Why not offer a bench seat option on minivans? The last time I was in Europe I rode the center front bench seat of Fiat and VW minivans that crammed in 9 people in 3 rows. The manual shift was rally-style (like a 2002-2005 Civic Si) sprouting from the dashboard. I’m 5’11” 190 lbs. It wasn’t supremely comfortable, but I fit. Toyota, Honda, Chrysler and Kia all have dash-mounted shifters now. Since minivans already have the plebian image, wouldn’t offering this kind of carrying versatility be a great selling feature as an alternative to cramped CUVs?

          • 0 avatar
            bball40dtw

            There aren’t bench seats on minivans in the US because Americans don’t want them. We have decided as a people that we do not want to ride in 9 person Fiats and VWs. If we need to haul that many people, Ford sells a 10 passenger Transit van for $35K.

          • 0 avatar
            Drzhivago138

            “Why not offer a bench seat option on minivans?”

            Funny you should mention that…

            From 1984-86, Dodge Caravans and Plymouth Voyagers (there was no “Grand” LWB version yet) came standard with 5-passenger seating (front buckets, 3-person middle bench), but also had available:

            -6-passenger seating (3-person front bench, 3-person middle bench)

            -7-passenger seating (front buckets, 2-person middle bench, 3-person rear bench)

            -8-passenger seating (3-person front bench, 2-person middle bench, 3-person rear bench)

            Theoretically, you could make a 9-passenger by putting a 3-person bench in the middle, but then you wouldn’t be able to get to the back row.

            But to answer the question: people don’t want a bench seat in the front because they like having their own personal throne. I know I do. There’s a reason they’re not called “bucket seats” (a term normally reserved for sports cars), but rather “captain’s chairs.”

          • 0 avatar

            bball40dtw – I think the real answer is that no one has tried.

            A 260-hp V-6 Sienna is a lot more substantial for traveling American roads than those “mini” vans in Europe. And with “just in time” production at their U.S. plants, isn’t this a reasonable thing to try?

            Transit is a fantastic design, but the dimensions, weight and gas-powered thirst make it much more limited than the 1M-plus minivan market here.

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        Won’t happen for the reason CJ pointed out below. In the old days, if the shorter person was driving then the taller passenger would just be a bit scrunched. Now, the taller person would be unsafely close to the airbag.

        • 0 avatar
          derekson

          Don’t airbags in general go against the idea of a front bench seat? I know that in my old Cadillac Deville the passgener airbag was big enough that it also extended in front of the radio and climate controls in the center to theoretically protecgh the center seat, but it seems like modern cars with knee airbags and side airbags and everything just wouldn’t leave room for this to conceivably work correctly to keep the middle passenger’s head from sliding off of the passenger bag and hitting the steering wheel or something. Plus a shoulder belt for the middle seat in the front seems pretty tough to accomplish, and I don’t see anyone being happy with just a lap belt in 2015. I’d imagine the crash test safety ratings would suffer as well.

          • 0 avatar
            Drzhivago138

            All Ford pickups after 2011 with front 40/20/40 benches have an integrated shoulder belt and headrest in the seat. This doesn’t appear to be the case with Ram or GM, although both Ram and Ford have storage space under the seat cushion as well as in the flip-down console.

        • 0 avatar
          pragmatic

          Growing up we had a mini van with a bench seat a 1964 VW bus. Why wouldn’t you want one? Mom and dad can’t get to the back to take care of emergencies or referee fights. Oh right now for safety we are all belted in so this is irrelevant.

    • 0 avatar
      cretinx

      Stickshifts and safetybelts,
      Bucket seats have all got to go.
      When we’re driving in the car,
      It makes my baby seem so far.
      I need you here with me,
      Not way over in a bucket seat.
      I need you to be here with me,
      Not way over in a bucket seat.
      But when we’re driving in my Malibu,
      It’s easy to get right next to you.
      I say, “Baby, scoot over, please.”
      And then she’s right there next to me.
      I need you here with me,
      Not way over in a bucket seat.
      I need you to be here with me,
      Not way over in a bucket seat.

      Well a lot of good cars are Japanese.
      But when we’re driving far,
      I need my baby,
      I need my baby next to me.

      Well, stickshifts and safetybelts,
      Bucket seats have all got to go.
      When we’re driving in the car,
      It makes my baby seem so far.
      I need you here with me,
      Not way over in a bucket seat.
      I need you to be here with me,
      Not way over in a bucket seat.

      • 0 avatar
        cwallace

        You nailed it… I don’t want a bench seat because I want two people up front messing with the radio– I want to be able to whisper sweet nothings to my passenger without a parking brake and cupholders and stuff getting in the way.

  • avatar

    “The most obvious reason why I like the column shifter is probably the same reason they decided to start using it: because it gives you more room in the middle of the seats.”

    The column shifters nowadays are elctronic. Electronic shifters might as well be buttons ala Lincoln’s current setup.

    The sport models go for a monostatic shifter in the center to make the car feel like a cockpit.

    For “luxury” cars – especially those with electronic shifters, you might as well go *buttons* (You hear me Tesla?)

  • avatar
    LeMansteve

    BMW also did electronic column shifters on the 2002-2008 E65 7-series. The placement was annoyingly close to the wiper stalk. As a valet in college, I often cleaned the windshield of these cars when trying to put the car in drive.

    • 0 avatar
      ArialATOMV8

      Lol I was thinking the same thing while reading this colum. We scored a great deal on pre-owned E65 760Li and, kept it for two years! When it was “not” in the shop, it was a great car partly because of the column shifter (allowed for extra center storage and, the pop out telephone keypad ). (mostly the V12 engine and the rear adjustable heated & cooled seats made the car ideal for long road trips!)

      After we got tired of it constantly being it in the shop awaiting warranty maintenance (and frequently breaking down in the high speed lane on the highway). my father decided to sell it and downsize to a 2008 E60 5-series. For around a month after his downgrade, he kept hitting the windshield wiper stalk upon startup instead of putting the iDrive system into drive.

      Overall, I now appreciate the column shifter more.

      • 0 avatar
        Waftable Torque

        You’re crushing my certified pre-owned V12 flagship fantasy.

        • 0 avatar
          dal20402

          Just don’t get a BMW. The E65 has literally one of the worst reliability records of any car of the past two decades, with the F01 not far behind. Benz and Audi 12s are less horrid (although extremely expensive to fix when they do break).

        • 0 avatar
          ArialATOMV8

          Your dream is not over. There are still pre owned V12 flagships out there. (some are bargains and, some are plagued with issues).

          When my father spotted the E65 760Li, he choose poorly (but wiser than the Maserati that was being sold right next to it). He traded in his beautiful (E38) 740Li (a decision he regrets to this day) just because, he wanted to experience the wrath of a ferocious V12 engine.

          If you do want a V12 flagship, do your homework (research) to identify any problems and, know what you are walking into. With a lot of these V12 flagships, millionaires might get a new one every 2 years (even if they are in pristine condition) . The E65 was just a exception to the rule (plagued with electrical problems)

      • 0 avatar
        John

        A car that was constantly in the shop or broken down on the freeway was not a great deal at any price.

    • 0 avatar
      redav

      That’s what I hate about stalk cruise controls. I only want one stalk per side, period.

      After driving a Tesla with the Mercedes gear selector and the Lincoln with the buttons, I’d take the buttons.

  • avatar
    tonyola

    My ’94 LeSabre has the column shifter as well as a bench front seat. The dash is resolutely horizontal in the classic American vein without any pretense of a center stack. All that suits me fine given the car’s mission.

    • 0 avatar
      formula m

      I drove a hand me down 10yr old, 92′ Buick Regal in college with column shift and bench seat. It’s shifter seemed unique compared to most GM corporate column shifts. So much leg/foot space under the digital dash area and very comfortable. Could easily have sex in the front seats.
      Summer going into my senior year I bought a 95’MonteCarlo which is a very similar car with the same engine, but it had 2 dr front bucket seats with are large pointless console/shifter. It was still comfortable but much less space upfront. Luckily the back seat provided plenty of space once you got back there. The way the front seatbacks would push forward without having to press/pull a release was convenient in certain situations.

      Console shift = over rated

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Hey, I’ve got a great idea! Why not use push buttons? And why not put them on the steering wheel?

    I am sure that will lead to sales success and a legendary status for innovative design.

    • 0 avatar
      55_wrench

      Mr. Dailey, I see what you’re doing there. Too bad your name isn’t Ed.

      Then we could say, ‘Let’s show how easy it is to tell by touch what gear you’re in. Sell’em, Ed, Sell!

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        @55-wrench: I am appalled that you are the only TTAC poster who ‘caught’ the reference.

        For the rest of you: http://justacarguy.blogspot.ca/2011/03/push-button-gear-selector-switch-aka.html

  • avatar
    hriehl1

    My 1964 Dodge Polara Custom 880 had pushbuttons… they never should have abandoned them.

    Sorta like the SUV craze when for families, a minivan has twice the utility at less cost.

    People have a herd mentality and choose form over function… as if an SUV is stylish.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      I believe what happened to Chrysler’s pushbutton transmissions was that the government said that any vehicles purchased for their fleets had to have standardized controls and control locations.

  • avatar
    davefromcalgary

    The storage between the seats in my brothers 14 Sierra SLT with front buckets is simply awesome. The bench seat version of the same truck, you could put a cooler on the middle between the seats and dash, and still have quite a large center console to store other misc things. I like this.

    I’m pretty sure the column shifter in his truck is electronic, but the lever itself still has a pleasing amount of tactile feedback.

    I like this system.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      I like the column shifter on my F150 and 60/40 bench.. Occasionally I need to carry 5 pre-pubescent boys (arrrggghhh) in my truck. It is actually a mechanical linkage on my F150. I assume the console shifter would be the same on the Ford. It may have changed with the 2015’s.

  • avatar
    Richard Chen

    It’s all good until someone gets killed:

    http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/donohue-suv-gearshift-design-eyed-metro-north-tragedy-article-1.2125193

    • 0 avatar
      Chan

      That incident does not prove anything wrong with MB’s design. Several very poor decisions and traffic violations caused it.

    • 0 avatar
      APaGttH

      From the story…

      … Traffic inched slowly toward the juncture. Brody, who had just left her job at a jewelry store in Chappaqua, was not familiar with the normally quiet crossing at the edge of a vast cemetery.

      She inched too far. As the train approached, the arm of a crossing gate came down on the back window of her Mercedes ML350…

      So she entered a railroad crossing past the stop lines in stop and go traffic and surprise, a train comes, and the gate comes down on the BACK WINDOW of her vehicle – meaning she is all but on the tracks to begin with. Yet somehow this is Mercedes fault???

      Yup your honor, my daughter was drunk, speeding in the rain and driving recklessly at night but that GM ignition switch killed her I tell you, KILLED HER!

      Yup your honor, the data shows my dearly departed wife confused the gas pedal from the brake pedal in her Prius, but I tell you Toyota killed here, KILLED HER!

      Yup your honor, I know the gas pedal is bent in the Audi because I was pushing it down so hard as I ran my own child over, but Audi killed my son, KILLED HIM!

    • 0 avatar
      Richard Chen

      Also: http://jalopnik.com/was-mercedes-gearshift-design-to-blame-in-in-fatal-trai-1689604456

      Remember the runaway Lexus from a few years ago? http://www.boston.com/cars/news/articles/2010/12/23/report_toyota_to_pay_10_million_in_lexus_suit/

  • avatar
    eManual

    Being protected by the wheel, the column shifter is less likely to be accidently moved by someone else or if something moves in the car. Also, in an emergency, like a skid or needing to downshift for braking, you can see the shift indicator quicker without taking your eyes off the road as long.

    It is somewhat safer, and it allows my 2000 Chevy Impala to seat 6. ;-)

    • 0 avatar
      Sigivald

      “Also, in an emergency, like a skid or needing to downshift for braking, you can see the shift indicator quicker without taking your eyes off the road as long.”

      Well, cars have had the gear indicator in the control cluster these past 50 years or so no matter where the shift lever is, so that’s not so relevant…

      (Also, if it’s an emergency, you don’t need to downshift for braking, you need to hit the brakes. If the emergency is that they’re out, the e-brake is about as important as the shifter, if not more.

      Honestly, I suspect it’d be ideal if the system would detect “main brakes out, driver hitting pedal” and respond by automatically applying the parking brake and downshifting as far as redline…

      It’s not like the ECU can’t do that now anyway, on modern cars [with electronic parking brakes].)

      • 0 avatar
        sgeffe

        “Well, cars have had the gear indicator in the control cluster these past 50 years or so no matter where the shift lever is, so that’s not so relevant…”

        American cars with floor shifters that I’ve known (Chevettes, Corvettes, ’67+ ‘Stangs, Fairmonts, et. al.) haven’t had a position indicator on the IP, just down on the console. I don’t know about foreign cars before 1990; all the Hondas I’ve known since 1990 had the position indicator on the IP, along with a secondary indicator at the shifter.

        Up until my 2013 Accord in the avatar, I’ve had PRND321 on my Hondas, 4-speed and 5-speed, but Honda went to PRNDS (Sport) with the 9th-Gen Accord, and didn’t fit paddles (except for the automatic version of Jack’s Accord Coupe on “normal” planetary-gear slushboxes and CVTs, and the Sport Sedan CVTs).

    • 0 avatar
      redav

      If it is located where the driver’s fingers/hands can hit/move the shifter, it is not in a ‘safer’ location.

  • avatar
    Chan

    The only reason console shifters remain is because traditional rear-wheel-drive manual gearboxes sit under it, necessitating the shifter to be placed atop for the most direct mechanical action. Somehow people have not let go of the idea of a giant shift lever on the console, and manufacturers have been afraid to stray from tradition.

    Modern automatic transmissions are controlled by a computer. The shifter could be located on the sun visor, between your legs or on a touchscreen, and the functionality would be the same. The lever (or knob, or buttons, etc.) just provide electronic signals.

    MB’s column “shifter” is just a neat space-saving trick, and that is a good thing for luxury cars. Some cars also place the shift lever below the stereo, another clever way of opening up the space between the front seats.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Actually many cars still have a mechanical connection between the shifter and transmission. Yes on many it only engages the parking pawl though reverse is still mechanically engaged on quite a few.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      There is a very good reason for having an actual shifter control, rather than a dial and for locating it where it can easily be seen by the driver.

      Have you ever tried to rock a car out of a snowbank? It requires constant shifting back and forth between reverse and 1st. One mistake and you can toast a transmission.

      How many auto designers/engineers/journalists have even taken this into account?

      • 0 avatar
        Sigivald

        The engineers will tell you “don’t !#$!^ do that to my design”, I imagine.

        Also “call a tow truck”.

        But if we want to support that, how about “snow-bank mode”, where the ECU does all the shifting for you so you can’t make a transmission-toasting mistake?

      • 0 avatar
        Steve Biro

        As CVTs continue to proliferate, rocking a car out of a snow bank will be seen less and less.

      • 0 avatar
        John Horner

        Rocking a car in the snow in the way you describe is a really good way to destroy a very expensive transmission. There are much smarter ways to prepare for and drive in snow.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      I feel better when there’s a mechanical link (or foolproof emergency fail-safe) if I have to go to Neutral! “Sudden acceleration” and all! That’s first on my “checklist” before attempting to emergency-stop the engine!

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    …Putting the shifter behind the steering wheel also eliminates the need for a giant lever sticking out of the floor, which you will really only use two or three times during any drive. When I’m driving an automatic car, I think I adjust the stereo more than I use the shift lever…

    THIS. With the rare instance of driving in severe weather or a complicated towing effort through mountainous terrain, this.

    The GLK350 we had as a rental had a very bizarre, flimsy feeling sort of column shifter that I wasn’t very fond of, but what struck me immediately was the volumes of room in the center console and how far more practical it was for storing the various stuff we carry. I had an actual place for my wallet and cellphone, and still room for two drinks. Of course Mercedes takes up the space where a shifter would go with their knob for their infotainment system, but I’m going to use that a lot more than a shifter.

    For the average SUV/CUV or non-performance sedan driver, meh, what’s the point. There are lots of cars with a console shifter and semi-automatic modes that have zero, zilch, nada, nothing in the form of sporting pretense. If we want to mock “old school” what about the push button selectors that are appear? That is sooooooooooooooooo your grandpa’s car dude.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    IMHO, Mercedes had the perfect console shifter for about 40 years. Just a neat little lever with a zigzag. You never had to look at it to use it, it worked brilliantly, and it didn’t take up much room. Then they had to f’ it up with this mess. If you aren’t going to do a decent console shifter, just use buttons.

    Though there are worse things – I have changed gear in Chryslers when intending to change the volume of the stereo. And the stupidity in modern BMWs is an affront to the science of ergonomics.

    • 0 avatar
      Sigivald

      Where did they use this perfect shifter?

      I was thinking “maybe in the RV bodies/vans”, but the T2/508 seem to use a floor shifter.

      Nothing they ever sold in the US seems to have had a column shifter in the 70s or 80s?

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        CONSOLE shifter, not column. But Mercedes did actually offer a column shifter until the w123 debuted in the mid-70s, as an option on the w115/w114 cars. S-classes up to the w116, also mid-70s. Pretty sure you could get column shifters on the w123 in other markets, but not the US.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      WHAT is the purpose for staggering the shift pattern? I understand if you’re setting up a “semi-auto” mode in a separate gate, e.g. old Hurst shifters or Fiatsler AutoStick back in the day.

      Otherwise, what’s wrong with a button to lock out various gears depending on lever position and vehicle speed?

  • avatar
    dal20402

    I haven’t used a current Mercedes column shifter. Do they feel more refined than the old ones used to?

    My big problem with column shifters I’ve used isn’t the idea, but the execution. The physical stalks and the shift action both feel janky and cheap. Of course, that’s an issue with a lot of floor shifters too, including some in expensive high-end cars.

    • 0 avatar

      I own a 2011 certified pre-owned Mercedes CLS550. Took it in for warranty service, and they gave me a shiny new C300. Pretty nice car, but I have to admit I found the electronic column shifter pretty confusing. You push it up for forward, down for reverse and you push the button on the right for park. At first I didn’t know how to get park and the guy had to show me how it worked.

      In the past, I owned a Mercedes 280SEL 4.5. That car had an old-style mechanical column shifter. It was loose and imprecise. The new car’s column shifter is just fine as a positive, nice-feeling control. It just confused me for a while before I got used to it.

      I figured the CLS, being a drivers’ car, would still have the center console shift, which I prefer after using both. Alas, no. The 2013 CLS I checked out has the column shift and a gigantic circular control for the infotainment system where the old shift was. So, really, the room taken up by the controls is no different. Today’s priority just shifts towards infotainment.

      I still love my CLS. Wish it had the newer infotainment gadgets with working audio bluetooth. But alas, I will have to sacrifice my favored shifter position if I eventually got one. I checked and even the latest and greatest ultra-pricey cars still have the column shift. There is one new model that looks a lot like a 911 that has a tiny console shift but it doesn’t seem like it would feel the same.

      By the way, apropos of the comments about 12 cylinder CPO cars, the CLS has been just perfect after a year of ownership. I’ve had two warranty repairs, both of which were done at no cost to me. True, the CLS is a 8-cylinder car, but I can say that the warranty has been scrupulously kept even though I do the regular maintenance at an independent shop.

  • avatar
    Jack Denver

    Bottled water is a really lousy example. Bottled water (meaning the ubiquitous single serve bottles) was very uncommon until maybe 20 years ago. They always sold spring water in 5 gallon jugs for office coolers (you would drink it from little cone shaped paper cups) and in gallon bottles (milk jugs) for people who had well water that was not good to drink, but personal sized bottled (non-fizzy) water was pretty much non-existent. I know this is hard to believe for someone in the younger generation, but people just drank the stuff that came out of their faucet or the nearest drinking fountain, for free. And when they were walking on the street (or even jogging in the park), they didn’t drink water at all (and yet they didn’t die of dehydration). If they got really thirsty and they couldn’t find a water fountain, they would buy a coke, but they would never pay money for something that came free out of the faucet.

    When I read stuff like this, it makes me feel old, as if I come from the era when dinosaurs walked the earth.

  • avatar
    MBella

    The Mercedes column shifter is great. If you can’t figure out how to use it, you shouldn’t be driving. Up for reverse, down for drive, button for park. The first time I drove a ML it took me all of half a second to figure it out.It really frees up a large amount of room in the center console.

    • 0 avatar
      APaGttH

      I agree in principal, but in the MLK350 I drove the shifter stalk felt like it was made by GM. In 1986.

    • 0 avatar
      Richard Chen

      I see that the BMW i3 steering wheel gear selector has R and D opposite of Mercedes’ order.

      Reminds me of Mazda’s +/- manumatic gear selector the opposite of many other manufacturers’ layouts.

      • 0 avatar
        turf3

        What is wrong with the generations-old standard of PRNDL?

        • 0 avatar
          Pig_Iron

          My dad drew the three-in-the-tree shift pattern on the top of my brother’s hand so he could see it while he learned. It was probably one of the last GM vans so equipped.

          • 0 avatar
            Drzhivago138

            Wikipedia say 1982 was the last year for 3OTT in vans, and that they moved to 3OTF after that. I’ve also heard elsewhere that it wasn’t until the new pickups in ’88 that GM decided to make 4OTF standard in vans.

        • 0 avatar
          redav

          I don’t like PRNDL because it requires moving through reverse. The PRNDL standard came about to separate reverse from drive, but IMO, neutral isn’t particularly effective (a lockout switch is what really works), and since going backwards is about the most hazardous movement of a car, I dislike *always* creating the possibility of backward motion in order to put it park.

          • 0 avatar
            Drzhivago138

            Fair enough. PRNDL has only been the standard since 1968. The reason for the mandate was so you didn’t drop into R when you tried to engine brake.

            http://jalopnik.com/5870701/why-prndl

      • 0 avatar
        Lack Thereof

        Mazda’s manumatic layout is the correct one. Push forward while decelerating, pull back while accelerating. Trying to do the opposite is awkward.

        And I’m glad someone at Mazda agrees.

        • 0 avatar
          Drzhivago138

          My sister’s Kia has it the other way, I think. It makes sense to a farm kid because on Powershift-equipped tractors, “shift up” is always forward.

          http://www.cheffins.co.uk/assets/catalogues/lots/206/1237__6.jpg

    • 0 avatar
      redav

      And neutral is what?

      (Also, it seems odd to push the lever seemingly forward to go backward and seemingly backward to go forward.)

  • avatar
    Jack Denver

    Floor shifters for automatic transmissions never made any sense. There was some reason to put the shifter of a manual on the floor where it could engage directly with the transmission and this came to be associated with “sporty” vehicles, but automatics were mounted on the column from day 1. https://i.ytimg.com/vi/-J9cV-oSak0/hqdefault.jpg (1940 Olds Hydramatic). Moving it to the floor was just form over function to give cars with automatics a “sporty” air.

    In this age of electronics, there is really no need for a big giant lever to operate the auto shifter, either on the floor or the column (or even the dash). Either push buttons or a rotary selector on the dash makes the most sense, plus paddles on or near the steering wheel for up/down shifting.

    • 0 avatar
      redav

      There was a lot of sense–the gear selector was in the same place regardless of manual or auto, thus simplifying architecture and minimizing different trim pieces.

      If there is no manual option, then it makes sense to move the selector out of that space.

  • avatar
    turf3

    And while they’re at it they should start getting rid of those ridiculous enormous center consoles.

    I never understand the huge center console in a front wheel drive car, where there’s nothing under there but an exhaust pipe, a wire harness, and a fuel line. The floor could be damn near flat, with a little raised part say 2″ high. Somehow up till the 1990s cars were able to fit A/C controls, radio controls, A/C vents, and a glovebox in a dash that was basically straight across. Now, with the marvels of miniaturization, it takes a huge plastic box 18″ high and a foot wide, shoved in between the seats, to fit the same equipment. Yet another triumph of perceived style over function.

    • 0 avatar
      slap

      The huge and high center consoles are stupid. Why do you make a large car feel small and the driver feel confined?

      • 0 avatar
        Steve Biro

        Some people like the “cockpit” feel that consoles bring. Also, consoles and cockpit feel have been long-associated with sporty cars and it’s kind of baked into the psyche of many enthusiasts. For everyone else, consoles bring more storage space. And you gotta have places for your stuff so you can multitask while driving…. right?

  • avatar
    kars

    well I have a GLK with the column shifter and I don’t like it that much. Yes it is easy to use, but I think it is counter intuitive. Up for forward and down for reverse would be better. Also if you rent other cars where the washer stalk is on the right side and they have a button at the end of the stalk for the window wash you had better remember that when you get back in you MB as putting the car in park while moving doesn’t sit well with the transmission.

    • 0 avatar
      turf3

      What’s the matter with PRNDL?

      • 0 avatar
        Sigivald

        No need for L (in that I think every GLK lets you manually select gears, AND the computer ought to be able to do it anyway).

        And Park is really not “a gear”, so why should it be in the selection, and why should you have to go THROUGH reverse to get going forward?

        (Probably/possibly because the original Hydramatic did park by activating the pawl when you put it in reverse with the engine off? Which is, well, NO REASON to keep that pattern forever.)

        PRNDL is an artifact of history, not an inherent good to be maintained forever on its merits.

        I mean, I can see an argument for a standard pattern for “RND”, for ease of operation in an unfamiliar car in an emergency or to prevent expensive/dangerous mistakes, but … at that point “up for reverse, down for drive” already follows the pattern, just as a PRNDL column shift has “up for reverse [just don’t go into park]” and “down for drive”.)

        • 0 avatar
          Jack Denver

          The original Hydra-Matic had no “Park”, just neutral and reverse was after drive – it went N Hi Lo R. Hi is what we call Drive today. PRNDL came much later – too many accidental shifts into R.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      Mercedes-Benz pretty much stole that gear selector and its counterintuitive controls (up for reverse, down for drive) from BMW’s 2002 E65 7-Series, so you can blame the Bavarians. The later console-mounted joystick selector that BMW started using in 2007 or so, which I have in my 2011 E70 X5, has a similar layout. Push the joystick up for reverse, and down for drive. I agree, it’s annoying, especially because I switch off pretty evenly with my Golf, which has an ordinary PRNDS gear selector.

      • 0 avatar
        highdesertcat

        I think the time has come for a return to those old pushbutton transmissions of the fifties and sixties. Had a ’57 Mercury and an old Plymouth with the pushbutton setup.

        Add some modern paddle-shifters on the steering wheel and voilà! Beats the BMW 7-series dial selector.

        • 0 avatar
          Kyree S. Williams

          Lincoln uses push-buttons. They’re stacked neatly to the left of the infotainment screen. I don’t like them, myself, but they’re there. Currently, just the MKZ, MKC and all-new MKX use them, to my knowledge, but I suspect this layout will spread to the rest of the models as they are redesigned.

          http://preview.netcarshow.com/Lincoln-MKC-2015-1600-3b.jpg

          • 0 avatar
            highdesertcat

            Thanks, Kyree. I didn’t know that.

          • 0 avatar
            Drzhivago138

            That’s got to be the most non-intrusive design of any “shifter.”

          • 0 avatar
            Richard Chen

            The Start/Stop button was relocated from the bottom to the top of the stack due to inadvertent button pushes powering the car down.

            http://jalopnik.com/lincoln-mkcs-being-recalled-because-of-stupid-design-th-1677660141

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      The computer won’t let you shift into park while you’re moving. Hit that button while moving and nothing will happen.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      My guess is that with a pure e-stalk, the electronics will prevent you from engaging Park below a stop.

  • avatar
    turf3

    Google “1976 Chevrolet Nova interior” to see what I mean. Relatively compact car by today’s standards, bench seat, rear wheel drive car with a transmission tunnel that sticks up the amount that’s actually required (about 4″ high at the front edge of the seat), column shifter. Somehow all the controls manage to fit with NO CENTER CONSOLE. At least, something like this ought to be available in some kind of car. Don’t tell me that a modern Mercedes sedan is so much smaller than a ’76 Nova that it would be impossible to sit three across.

    • 0 avatar
      Drzhivago138

      Remember that old bench seats had absolutely no lateral or lumbar support. After putting the requisite sound-deadening and crash-absorbing materials in the doors, thicker pillars to house the airbags, and bolstering, you wouldn’t be able to sit three across comfortably in a 72″-wide Nova.

      • 0 avatar
        turf3

        Lumbar support does not take up width.

        For normal driving in the city and on the highway, the huge puffy side bolsters that are currently fashionable are not needed. 99% of driving done by real people does not require side bolsters. If you want them buy the bucket seat version of the car, if you don’t buy the bench seat version.

        Haven’t ever tried to close the door of a ’76 Nova on a steep driveway, have you? Believe me they are plenty thick for all the beams you want. Anyway, a heavy gauge channel isn’t that thick.

        Sitting three across was never all that comfy. But it was possible.

        Ask your wife if she would like to set her purse on the seat right beside her, rather than having to reach across to the passenger bucket seat. Ask her if she would like to have access to her purse when a passenger is in the car, rather than having to put it on the floor or in the back.

        • 0 avatar
          Drzhivago138

          I don’t have a wife. ;_;

          My mother puts her purse on or in the center console in her CR-V. It’s enormous.

          But since you brought up “not comfy, but possible,” so was the W-body Impala’s “bench” seat. It was two buckets with a middle seat about 8″ wide.

          • 0 avatar
            Lou_BC

            Drzhivago138 “I don’t have a wife. ;_;’

            Depending on where you are in your life that may be a blessing ;)

            My wife has no problem with the column shifter on my truck. She does however have a recurring problem with trying to make the right side of the pickup box narrower.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    Column shifters are fine for people that don’t care to drive well. Always have been. Wishing for bench front seats is purely about wanting what you don’t have. It is a psychosis. I lived through bench seats the first time. They weren’t usually supportive, nor were they the thing to have if you wanted to drive through a series of corners. Women weren’t as likely to drive when there was a man in passenger seat then, but benches made such a practice a joke by necessitating that the taller passenger kiss their knees so a short driver could reach the controls. Split bench seats addressed this by making the car seat look like a haphazard piece of junk and torturing anyone made to use the center position of the bench. Good riddance.

    • 0 avatar
      pragmatist

      Disagree. Anyone who frequently fiddles with the gear control on a modern automatic is not driving well; just kind of pretending to drive a stick. Let the transmission do its job and concentrate on actually … Driving.

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        I prefer to drive a car with a manual transmission, but have a loaner with an automatic at the moment. I tried driving the car with the transmission in drive, but it upshifts at 3,000 rpm under WOT. I thought it might be a diesel, except redline on the tach was 6,800 rpm. It turns out that any time you want to accelerate into a gap in traffic you need to manually select sport mode with the shift lever and then de-select it before you lift off the throttle in order to have the transmission not hang onto 2nd gear and snap your head forward. The automatic car that’s in the shop for the second time this month doesn’t have a crummy 2.0T engine, so it can usually be left in D, but not all automatics are good enough.

        • 0 avatar
          dal20402

          If a gas car is upshifting at 3000 rpm under WOT, it’s broken and needs fixing. 5500 with a 6800 redline might be programming. 3000 isn’t.

          The only* time I use the manual shift feature of my automatic cars is when I want more engine braking.

          (*with allowance for the occasional weird situation)

          • 0 avatar
            CJinSD

            It’s a 2015 A6 2.0T with almost 8,000 miles. I was standing on the gas pretty hard since traffic was closing on me and I felt like I was sitting still. In sport mode it upshifts close to redline, but it also doesn’t upshift when you lift off the gas.

      • 0 avatar
        Kyree S. Williams

        My Golf SportWagen has paddle shifters as well as a manual mode on the gear selector. They are useful in certain scenarios, like driving up or down the mountains.

    • 0 avatar
      turf3

      Column shifters are not bench seats.

      You can have bucket seats with a column shifter.

      You can have bucket seats without an absurdly oversized center console that uses up tons of interior space. In fact you can have bucket seats without a center console at all – see 1963 Corvair, and probably many others.

      The center mounted automatic trans shifter just came about through a desire for automatic cars to “look sporty like 4 on the floor cars” in the 60s. As mentioned many times above, once you put it in gear you don’t touch it till you come to your destination, usually. How does the location of that control have anything to do with driving well or poorly?

      Oh and by the way, slamming through corners so you and your passengers slide all over the place is not necessarily “driving well”. When I was taught to drive, I was taught that the ideal would be to put a glass of water on the passenger floor and not spill it during your entire trip.

      • 0 avatar
        Drzhivago138

        I won’t say your education was wrong, but it sounds like it was during a time when the prevailing driving experience was complete isolation in a 78″ wide, 220+” long vehicle with a 120″ WB and two vinyl benches. This is not an inherently bad experience, but it did have its limitations and is mostly outdated. If your passengers are properly belted, they won’t slide anywhere. There is more than one right way to learn to drive.

        I have bucket seats with a column shifter. I thought that bore mentioning, but wasn’t sure how to properly segue into it.

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        I used to subscribe to the Jackie Stewart school of smooth driving, but I woke up yesterday to five film crews shooting the potholes on my street. There’s not much point to imperceptible control inputs when your hypothetical glass of water is spilled on the headliner of your car.

    • 0 avatar
      Sigivald

      The bench on my F250 is actually pretty nice, but that’s beacuse it’s a pseudo-bench made of two buckets and a folding console.

      Best of both worlds; side support and capable of seating three if you want.

      (As for “driving well”, if you need to monkey with the shifter to drive well, you’re *doing it wrong*.)

      • 0 avatar
        Drzhivago138

        Pickups will always have good benches (“40/20/40” is the term you’re looking for), because they’re wide enough for everyone to be comfortable, at least laterally if nothing else. The middle seat/console doesn’t move, but it’s in a good enough place for 95% of the population.

        • 0 avatar
          Lou_BC

          Back in the late 70’s my dad had an F250 that when it got cold i.e. -40c that bench seat turned into a sheet of plywood. Current trucks don’t seem to have that trait.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Holy crap I agree with CJ on something!

      Bench seats are the devil’s work, good riddance.

    • 0 avatar
      JD-Shifty

      People who can’t handle bench seats are people who are old, fat and out of shape. See how you sound?

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    BMW did it first. The E65 7-Series, which debuted in 2002, had an electronic column shifter, as did the 2003 Rolls-Royce Phantom. The BMW brand has since dropped the column shifter, but Rolls-Royce still uses it. Of course trucks with bench seats also have column shifters, but all large GM trucks and SUVs have them. Tesla uses a Mercedes-Benz gear selector (and entire steering column) so they have a column-mounted unit as well.

  • avatar
    Jeff Weimer

    IIRC, at least in the USA, shifter placement is governed by federal regulation – center console or column (or whereabouts as in Chrysler dial-a-gear) only.

    Where else would M-B put the shifter if they wanted space at the console?

    In Japan, they have *5*-on-the-tree manuals (or did 25-odd years ago anyway when I was driving there). Fun stuff, man.

    • 0 avatar
      Drzhivago138

      And they have 6-speed buses.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      The first company to use the dial selector in the modern era was Jaguar/Land Rover, specifically the new-for-2009 Jaguar XF. But in some of the company’s newer and sportier models (Range Rover Sport, F-Type), they seem to have gone for a console-mounted joystick, not unlike the one BMW has used since the mid-aughts.

      Meanwhile, the outlier is Lincoln, who uses buttons arranged on the left side of the center stack. Plus, you have cars like the current Chrysler minivans, the Odyssey, the Ram ProMaster and the previous Prius, whose gear selectors are essentially mounted on the dashboard, to the right of the steering wheel. I don’t know that gear-selector placement *is* governed by regulations…

      • 0 avatar
        Jeff Weimer

        On the dash to the right is roughly “whereabouts”, but I very well may be out of date on the regulation – sealed-beam headlights and 85-mph speedometers went by the wayside after all. I *do* remember reading about it sometime-when in a buff-book complaining about limits on ergonomic placement or whatsuch.

        After a quick search, there *are* regulations on how a shifter may work – neutral must be between drive and reverse, and shifting to drive must be in a clockwise direction and park must be at the end next to reverse. And an indicator must be provided to the driver showing what position the shifter is in. Left side shifters are fine as long as they meet those critera, apparently.

        It seems (to me) the old Chrysler pushbutton shifters wouldn’t meet the regulation.

        https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/49/571.102

  • avatar
    Paddan

    I don’t get Mercedes and we have two of them – both wagons. The ’06 has a mechanical shifter between the seats. The ’13 has the electronic column shifter. That design doesn’t give that much more room for storage. If you open the door when the car is in drive and it’s moving (like the car wash attendants do) the car slams into park. That must be real good for the transmission. Both cars have awfully placed levers for the cruise control. They are placed exactly where the turn signals are on every other car. Dangerous in my mind.

  • avatar
    wmba

    The Mercedes shifter is a load of rubbish, closely approximating the quality of an old Bic push-on, push-off ballpoint pen. It’s cheap and bendy, and far too likely to overshoot the function you are seeking. Too delicate by half.

    I’ve now driven three Benzes with it and find it far too easy to cycle through the operation rather than getting drive. Useless ergonomics unless you’re MBella. My brother also fumbled it on a recent test drive,

    Sure, you get used to it, just like you do with all the other crap designs for anything out there. But why should you have to?

    The Acura TLX V6 models also have a weird pushbutton setup. No way of holding onto a gear when you need to, and believe me, with that crap 9 speed when you finally find a gear you want with the paddles, you want to keep it! But after two seconds it crawls back to 7th, 8th or ninth whether you want it to or not. Useless.

    Nothing wrong with a column shifter if some effort is put into the design and execution of it. These days we tend to evaluate the idea rather than the execution of it. Decent design covers both concepts, so I mark Mercedes as a big fail here.

    As for those who think they’ve achieved the pinnacle of their day by finding Drive and think the rest of us shouldn’t use paddles or fiddle with the shifter, time for the retirement home.

  • avatar
    Willyam

    My first car/lawn ornament was a Pontiac Firebird from hip-deep in the malaise era. The metallic paint and vinyl was cool, but 16 year-old me just knew that I could increase the coolness factor instantly with a Sun Super Tach! This was, in the best JC Whitney fashion, to be attached to the column with what amounted to a giant hose clamp.

    After figuring out the wiring, and spending quite a bit of time “testing” the gauge as the smog motor wheezed up and down the range, I attempted to drive off. As it went into gear, the console auto shifter also spun the column which moved the tach around like a one-blade propeller. (Aggravating, but pretty funny actually.)

    I still have trouble believing this cross-connection of shared GM parts actually happened, but I swear it was true. They called it a “backdrive” mechanism.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Yes that is how those worked in the 70’s and 80’s GM vehicles. That is how they made the shift interlock work. The column was the same except that collar that moved didn’t have a place for the shifter. At the bottom of the column in the engine compartment the same linkage between the trans and column was used. There was a little add on for the cable to the shifter on the floor. So turn the key off and that locks that collar on the column which prevents you from moving the shifter out of park. Conversely if you don’t put it in park you cant turn the key to the point where you can remove it.

  • avatar
    Dave W

    I drive a ’01 Taurus wagon with a column shift and semi bench seat. As it is my garden business headquarters it’s great for all my work paraphernalia in the front seat as the back is full of tools. It took a bit to get used to as it’s the first column controlled auto I’ve driven.

    Need another digression? I learned to drive in a SAAB 96 and Citroen ID19, both 4 speed column shifts. Fast forward 3 years. My place of employment needed a package delivered, and it turned out I was the only one present who could drive a manual. Not so rare now, but I was amazed it was the case in 1980. So I go down to the garage, load up the ancient Econoline, start’er up, and back into the wall trying to pull out of the space. It must have taken me 10 minutes to figure out that it was a proverbial 3 on the tree that had reverse where everyone (who had only driven 4 speeds) knows first is supposed to be. Fortunately I didn’t do that in traffic.

    I also was driving the SAAB on a cold morning and in shifting to 2nd the pot metal hood snapped leaving me with the lever in hand, and a car in 2nd. I drove for a day using a needle nose pliers as a shift lever once I figured out how to mirror the pattern. Up and down was the same but fore and aft were swapped (getting into reverse was a bitch).

  • avatar
    Hogey74

    Haha my first car was a three on the tree manual. It was so handy. Your hand barely moved off the wheel. Four on the floor seemed cooler but still…

  • avatar
    Chan

    Clearly, since it isn’t going away, the market has overwhelmingly accepted MB’s column shifter.

    When I drove a car with that design, it took a while to get used to, but its operation seems simple enough. I didn’t feel that it would ever be potentially dangerous.

    The space saved between the front seats seems to be worth the risk in turning off a few die-hard PRNDL fans in the MB showrooms.

  • avatar
    JD-Shifty

    Column shifter and bench seat is a great combo, especially in pickups. space robbing floor shifters are just a cop out to try to save money.

  • avatar
    oldowl

    In ancient times the column shifter and bench seat was the slide-across setting for watching “submarine races.” More advanced operations might be launched on the back seat.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    The crazy thing is having a big shifting lever anywhere. Historically, shift levers be they column or floor mounted, moved rods, levers, cables and such mechanical devices which in turn moved things around inside the transmission. The hand levers used needed to provide leverage for the driver to make those mechanical actions happen.

    Today’s automatic transmissions typically don’t have a mechanical connection between the shift lever and the transmission. It is simply an electronic switch which tells the car’s computer which mode has been selected. The “shift lever” could just as well be a rotary knob, push-buttons or selections on a touch screen. Ram trucks has gone back to the future with a small dash knob to select the mode. This makes complete sense. Wasting space on a shifter, floor or column, which mimics 1960s technology is just stupid.

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

    Curious as to why you picked 1980s as an example of full size trucks having coulmn shifters. The decades before and after the 80s had trucks with coulmn shifters. That is the only way GM still builds them. Even the Escalade has a coulmn shifter. Ford’s console shift in the F-150 is optional and/or paired with option groups and certain trims, but you can easily find an F-150 with column shift.

    After having owned many Taurus’ with coulmn shift, I really like and appreciate my current one’s 5-passenger/buckets/console/floor shift setup. I really like it, especially because most Taurus’ had coulmn shift, making mine a little rare and more unique compared to most others from 1986-2007. Sorta makes it stand out from the crowd.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

      Please forgive my misspelling of “column”. I dont know why my brain defaults to that. Ill try to be more careful here on out.

      • 0 avatar
        RideHeight

        As duly appointed consul to the council counseling use of console shifters, I counsel you console yourself with the fact that they’re all still sleeping it off and haven’t noticed your grievous gaffe.

        BTW, I grew up reading “column shifter” (as in steering column) for any “on the tree” AT shifter. Is this wrong?

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