Shift to fancy gear knobs draws ire of Consumer Reports

WASHINGTON — 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 magazine on Tuesday docked scores of 50 vehicles evaluated as part of its 2017 annual auto brand rankings. It flagged designs on Acura, Cadillac and 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.

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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