Fancy Gear Shifts Are Confusing Motorists, Consumer Reports Says

  • Scores reduced for Acura, Cadillac and others on shifter
  • Audi repeats as top brand; Tesla debuts as top U.S. brand

The interior of the Lincoln Continental.

Photographer: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Automakers have been replacing traditional gear shifts with buttons, knobs and wheels to spruce up vehicle interiors -- but that is confusing motorists and diminishing safety, Consumer Reports says.

The Yonkers, New York-based magazine docked scores of 50 vehicles evaluated as part of its 2017 annual auto brand rankings, which were released Tuesday. It flagged designs on Honda Motor Co.’s Acura brand, General Motors Co.’s Cadillac and Ford Motor Co.’s Lincoln as potentially confusing. Certain shift designs from Chrysler, Jaguar, Audi and other brands lack countermeasures to prevent rollaway accidents, the magazine said.

"What we’re seeing is a proliferation," said Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports’ director of auto testing, adding that the new gear shift designs are now appearing in mainstream cars after first emerging in luxury vehicles. "The problem is they’re all over the place, they’re confusing, there are defects out there and there have been deaths."

Concern over the move away from traditional shifters for automatic transmissions -- those with fixed positions for park, drive and reverse -- was the biggest change in the magazine’s 2017 auto rankings, which named Audi the best auto brand for the second-straight year and featured Tesla Inc. debuting as the top U.S.-made brand and eighth overall.

Consumer Reports’ Best Auto Brands for 2017

1. Audi9. Honda17. Chevrolet25. GMC
2. Porsche10. Buick18. Cadillac26. Jaguar
3. BMW11. Toyota19. Chrysler27. Dodge
4. Lexus12. Hyundai20. Mercedes28. Land Rover
5. Subaru13. Acura21. Ford29. Mitsubishi
6. Kia14. Volvo22. Nissan30. Jeep
7. Mazda15. Lincoln23. Volkswagen31. Fiat
8. Tesla16. Infiniti24. Mini

Ingolstadt, Germany-based Audi was followed by Porsche, BMW and Lexus as luxury brands dominated the upper echelon of the 2017 rankings. Audi posted strong road test, reliability and owner satisfaction scores across its lineup and its redesigned Q7 was ranked as the best luxury sport utility vehicle on the market and the best-rated SUV overall.

The magazine’s annual auto rankings influence sales and are based on a score that combines road tests on its 327-acre proving grounds in Connecticut, predicted reliability, owner satisfaction and safety.

Tesla Debut

Three brands received Consumer Reports’ recommendation for each of its models: Mazda, BMW and Porsche. Subaru was again the top-ranked non-luxury brand at No. 5, after taking second place last year.

The only U.S. auto brands to make the top ten were Buick, at No. 10, and Tesla, which sells the electric Model S sedan and Model X crossover and ranked No. 8 in its debut. The Chevrolet Cruze compact and Impala large sedan were both named "Top Picks" in their segments, a win for General Motors after years of trailing rivals from Toyota and Honda.

Consumer Reports’ "Top Picks" for Auto Categories

Category

Model

Subcompact CarToyota Yaris iA
Compact HybridToyota Prius
Luxury SUVAudi Q7
Sports CarMazda MX-5 Miata
Small SUVSubaru Forester
Midsize SUVToyota Highlander
Compact PickupHonda Ridgeline
Compact CarChevrolet Cruze
Midsize SedanKia Optima
Large SedanChevrolet Impala


Honda came in ninth in the rankings, while Toyota fell three spots to 11th. Lincoln ranked 15th and all other U.S. domestic brands ranked in the bottom half of the 2017 Brand Report Card, with three Fiat Chrysler Automotive NV brands in bottom five.

The Fiat brand ranked last, hindered by poor road test and predicted reliability. Jeep ranked 30th while Mitsubishi, Land Rover and Dodge rounded out the five worst-performers.

Biggest Improvement

On the plus side for FCA, the Chrysler brand saw largest improvement from last year, jumping seven spots to No. 19. 

Chrysler’s 300 sedan and new Pacifica minivan were the only Chrysler models tested. Both posted strong road test scores but failed earn the magazine’s recommendation because of below-average reliability. Still, Fischer lauded the new Pacifica minivan as a "real standout," saying in a statement that Chrysler may continue to improve its standing "if the company can spread that quality throughout its fleet and improve its uneven reliability."

Four models lost their recommended status with the magazine from shifter-related deductions: the Chrysler 300 sedan, Lexus CT 200h hybrid and Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan and GLE SUV.

Shift Designs

Automakers have begun replacing traditional shifters by installing knobs or buttons mounted on the center console to cycle through drive modes, for example.

The new designs can be dangerous if used improperly, and Consumer Reports said it had deducted points from vehicles if the car does not automatically return to park when the engine is shut off or when the driver’s door is opened while the engine is running.

The risks attracted fresh attention last summer following the death of Star Trek actor Actor Anton Yelchin, who died after his Jeep Grand Cherokee rolled down his driveway and pinned him against a fence. The Jeep was among roughly 800,000 vehicles recalled last year by Fiat Chrysler to address the shift-related rollaway risk, linked to 41 injuries.

"FCA US acknowledges the observations of Consumer Reports and is reviewing its shifter strategy," Fiat Chrysler said in a statement.

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