Why rotary gear selectors suck

Give us a proper shift knob any day
by Ollie Kew | May 31, 2020
PHOTO: TopGear.com

Just a quick one this week, because there’s no arguing here: Rotary gear selectors are dumb.

To shift between Park, Reverse, Neutral, and Drive in an automatic car, there are several sensible methods. A big chunky lever, like in, say, a BMW or a Kia. Separate buttons, like in an Alpine or an Aston Martin. A column-stalk shifter is also handy, as per most modern Mercedes-Benzes, leaving the center console free for storage space and teenage canoodling.

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What’s not clever is the rotary selector. Jaguar, Land Rover, and, in the US of A, Chrysler have all been fans of this idea for some time. In the very latest Fords, in fact, the Blue Oval has started using a circular PRND control, instead of a north-south lever. And it doesn’t matter where the spinner is placed, how beautifully it’s machined, what color the letters are illuminated, or how solid the mechanism is. They’re all annoying.

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The thing is, when you’re literally changing the direction your car is about to head into, you need to be decisive. If you’re executing a three-point turn or you’re parking in a tight spot, briskness is key to safety and to maintaining the respect of your fellow motorist.

You don’t want to be looking down to see if you’ve selected to the correct detent. Nor do you want to be guessing, and propel your Range Rover and a decent lick into the garage door, shop front, or spa club jacuzzi you’ve just departed.

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Worse is the Jaguar Land Rover one, because of its insistence on burying itself in the center console when the car is switched off. Nice party piece the first time. Hugely irritating when the car breaks down and the towing crew arrives to find they can’t haul it onto the truck because the car’s stuck in Park, and the gear lever won’t be summoned. I speak from experience.

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Happily, Jaguar Land Rover is learning. It binned the concept in the facelifted XE sedan and the new Range Rover Evoque. In the flagship I-Pace, there are nicely machined buttons that cannot be confused for the task.

The irony here is that we love rotary controls for working infotainment screens. Give us BMW iDrive over Audi MMI Touch any day. The difference is that when you’re clicking around between radio stations, the consequences for missing your target by one detent are merely a second of being exposed to a station you detest, not lurching inelegantly into a fence.

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NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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PHOTO: TopGear.com
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