Doug Drives: An Ode to the Column Shifter

Doug DeMuro
by Doug DeMuro
doug drives an ode to the column shifter

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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4 of 137 comments
  • John Horner John Horner on Nov 14, 2015

    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.

  • JohnTaurus JohnTaurus on Nov 15, 2015

    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.

    • See 1 previous
    • RideHeight RideHeight on Nov 15, 2015

      @JohnTaurus 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?

  • Probert Sorry to disappoint: any list. of articles with a 1 second google search. It's a tough world out there - but you can do it!!!!!!
  • ToolGuy "We're marking the anniversary of the time Robert Farago started the GM death watch and called for the company to die."• No, we aren't. Robert Farago wrote that in April 2005. It was reposted in 2009 on the eve of the actual bankruptcy filing.The byline dates are sometimes strange/off with the site revisions (and the 'this is a repost' note got lost), but the date string in the link is correct (...2005/04...). Posting about GM bankruptcy in 2005 was a slightly more difficult call than doing it in 2009.-- The Truth About Calendars
  • Kat Laneaux Agree with Michael500, we wasted all that money just to bail out GM and they are developing these cars in China and other countries. What the heck. I understand the cheap labor but that is just another foothold the government has on their citizens and they already treat them like crap. That is pretty disgusting to go forward to put other peoples health and mental stability on a crazy crazed, control freak, leader, who is in bed with Russia. Thought about getting a buick but that just shot that one out of the park. All of this for the greed. They get what they lay in bed with. Disgusting.
  • Michael500 Good thing Obama used $50 billion of taxpayer money to bail them out and give unions a big stake. GM is headed to BK again with their Hail Mary hope of EVs. Hopefully a Republican in office will let them go BK the next time, and it's coming. The US economy is not related/dependent on GM and their Chinese made Buicks.
  • MaintenanceCosts "Rural areas hardly noticed COVID at all."I very much doubt that is true in places like the Navajo Nation or the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, some of which lost 2% or more of their population to COVID.No city had a death rate in the same order of magnitude.Low-density living is a very modern invention. Before cars, people, even in agricultural areas, needed to live densely to survive.