For generations, having an automatic transmission has meant using a lever on the car's console or steering column to change gears.
But with more electronic transmission controls eliminating the need for a mechanical shift control, it's no longer as familiar or simple. Knobs, toggles and push-buttons are coming on strong to give cars a more high-tech feel in their controls. Examples:
•Lincoln. A row of push-buttons on the center dashboard control shifting selections in the new MKC crossover.
•Chrysler. The new 200 midsize sedan has a rotary knob shifter on the console, much like the Ram 1500 pickup, which puts the device on the dashboard.
•Acura. Honda's luxury brand is just now launching its key new TLX midsize sedan, which uses a push-button array on the console in place of a traditional gear lever in V-6 models. Acura says that frees up center-console space while making it look futuristic.
•Mercedes-Benz. Knobs in place of shifters have been a mainstay of several models for several years.
•Jaguar. The British performance brand says it was among the first in the modern age to use knobs. Introduced in 2008, a knob controls shifting on the center console of the XF. Making it even more futuristic, it rises from being flush with the console when the car is turned on. "The car comes to life," says spokesman Stuart Schorr.
With such alternative controls, automakers also are employing small "paddle" levers on the sides of the steering wheel that can be controlled by fingertip touches to let drivers manually shift through the transmission's gears.
In a way, the move to push-button shifting is a back-to-the-future moment. A half-century ago, several models had push-button shifting -- particularly Chrysler models, which had the buttons on the dashboard. Ford mounted shift buttons in the center of the steering wheel for its ill-fated Edsel sedan.
Today, the new systems require drivers to adjust to a new protocol. They no longer slap a big handle into "Drive." Now shifting is a flick of a finger or twist of a wrist before stepping on the accelerator.
For automakers, the choice is as practical as it is aesthetic. "It opens up a lot of space," says Chrysler spokeswoman Kathy Graham, about why knobs are showing up on the new 200. The knob-control electronic module is about the size of a fist, which opens room for a large storage bin in the console.
The change is made possible by the move to electronic shifting, instead of a lever control with mechanical linkages to the transmission. Electronic shifting is a key component to a raft of new safety features, Graham says. Like adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist, "it's all controlled by computers," she says.
A row of push-buttons on the center dashboard control shifting selections in the new MKC crossover.
Push-buttons on the TLX console replace a traditional gear lever.
The Chrysler sedan's console holds its rotary shifter.
Original headline: Crank that, hit this, Go!
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