Hello, human beings, and welcome to this week’s version of Letters to Doug, where we tackle some of the key issues affecting the automotive industry, and also shifter placement.
Yes, that’s right: shifter placement. That’s today’s topic. If you want me to cover something saucier, send me your own message to my Facebook account, or e-mail me at Letters2Doug@gmail.com. I will happily read your message and I might even use it here on Jalopnik, assuming it covers something more exciting than shifter placement.
Anyway, on to today’s letter, which is from a reader I’ve named Burt. Burt writes:
At first, I thought about asking, “Why do so many cars and trucks have shifters between the front seats?” But then I Googled it and, combined with common sense, mostly answered my own question.
So my question is, “What do you think it will take for numbskull automakers to stop putting shifters between the front seats?” There are almost no manuals anymore, and many cars have never been and never will be related to a manual version.
Most recently, I am dismayed by the placement of the shifter in the upcoming Honda Ridgeline. The previous version had it on the steering column, which keeps it out of the way and leaves much more room for the front seat.
What Burt is basically asking here is why the hell do cars have shifters in the middle of the seats, considering that virtually no cars are still stick shifts? Burt has not weighed in on what he’d like to see in between the seats instead, but I think it’s safe to say he is hoping for a three-year-old American black bear.
So back to the question: why do automakers keep stuffing shift levers in between the seats, when we don’t really need them there? Well, Burt, here’s the answer: tradition. And basically nothing else.
You see, back in the day, it was very important to have the gear lever in the middle of the car, because the middle of the car is where the transmission was, and by God you were moving around the gears yourself. You wanted to be in second gear? You’d move the lever to “2,” and all the cogs and gaskets and filters and hezzeldorfs would line up, and you’d suddenly be in second.
Well, as Burt pointed out, these days that just doesn’t really happen. Today, almost all cars have an automatic transmission, and when you select a gear, a bunch of fancy electronics get together and do their thing. Some cars—this is true, though it may be hard for you to believe—don’t even have hezzeldorfs.
So why are transmission levers still in the middle? Because that’s what people are used to. And when it comes to cars, it’s really hard to get people to change.
A few years ago, Mercedes-Benz had the same idea Burt did, and they started asking themselves: why the hell are we doing center shift levers? After all, moving the shift lever somewhere else would free up a ton of space that you can use for bags, purses, or that black bear that Burt so desperately wants. So what Mercedes-Benz did was, they moved the shift lever to the column. It was a great idea, and it was smart, and it was practical. And do you know what happened?
People laughed at it! Mercedes-Benz has reintroduced the COLUMN SHIFTER, people guffawed, as if this was some horrible idea that should’ve left us in the ‘80s. The COLUMN SHIFTER! And they laughed and laughed and Mercedes basically said “screw you,” and continued implementing it anyway.
It’s the same story with modern Lincoln products. Spend 10 minutes talking with me about cars and you’ll find that I think today’s Lincoln vehicles are some of the best on the market. But you know what fatal flaw they have? The transmission lever is gone, replaced instead by a series of buttons on the center control stack. Buttons! BUTTONS! DO YOU BELIEVE THAT THEY WOULD ATTEMPT SUCH A THING?! A lot of automotive journalists have torn Lincoln to pieces for this, when in reality it’s probably the greatest thing to happen to the center console since the cupholder.
This is sort of how we are, with cars: we like things to be comfortable, and we get really mad when someone tries to change it. The Lexus Remote Touch Controller is the devil. The new Infiniti naming scheme is horrible.
My personal favorite is the CVT transmission, which is objectively better for performance and gas mileage, and yet people complain about it because of the “droning.” For this reason, Burt, don’t expect your shift lever to leave your center console anytime soon—even if your car isn’t equipped with hezzeldorfs.