Consumer Reports: Dangerous car shifters

Some newer cars have shifters that look or function differently. (Photo credit: Consumer Reports)

For decades, cars with automatic transmissions had a simple, straightforward shifter. But some newer cars have shifters that look or function differently.

Carmakers say the new designs can set their models apart or offer a touch of luxury, but Consumer Reports warns those new designs can be complicated and even counterintuitive. The problem with these unconventional gear selectors is that they make it hard to consistently pick the right gear, especially park. And worst case, that means the car could roll away.

In a Mercedes Benz GLC, the shifter is a mono-stable electronic shifter. What that means is no matter what position you're in, it always returns to the center, and that makes it hard to see what gear you're in. And putting it into park is actually a small button at the end, which is completely blocked by the steering wheel.

Another problem: Since it's not immediately obvious whether the transmissions are in gear, neutral or park, on some models it's possible for the car to roll after the driver gets out. But some manufacturers have built in safeguards. Ford, Lincoln, Acura, Honda and GM automatically return to park if the door opens with engine on or if the engine is shut off in gear to prevent those roll-away's.

Consumer Reports believes so strongly that these confusing shifters can be dangerous, it now deducts points for cars that don't have built-in fail-safes that prevent roll away accidents.

So far, in Consumer Reports ratings, more than 50 cars had points deducted from their scores due to confusing shifters. Models from Mercedes Benz, Chrysler and the Lexus CT200 have actually dropped their ratings enough to lose their recommendation.

If you already own a car with one of these shifters, Consumer Reports recommends you always double-check when it's in park and use the emergency brake any time you are going to step out of the car.

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