Jeep Shifter Recall: NMA E-Newsletter #391

By K.C. Green, P.E., NMA North Carolina Member

I think that Fiat-Chrysler (FCA) has been unfairly criticized for the (joystick-style) shifter in the 2014 and 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokees, and as a result, they’ve made a change to the shifter in their 2016 Grand Cherokees that I’m not real keen on.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or bridge abutment), you’ve probably heard about the death of Anton Yelchin – a young Russian-born actor who played Chekov in the latest Star Trek movie – as a result of being crushed against the gate of his driveway by his 2015 Grand Cherokee.  This incident happened shortly after I got a recall notice about the shifter in MY 2014 Grand Cherokee.

I received the recall notice a month ago.  It basically states that drivers of certain FCA vehicles – 2012-2014 Dodge Chargers and Chrysler 300s, and 2014 and 2015 Grand Cherokees – may be misled when shifting (i.e. thinking the vehicle is in Park when it’s really in Drive or Reverse).  In the case of Mr Yelchin, it’s believed he (thought he) parked just beyond his mail box, as he was leaving his house, to retrieve the mail… and that his Grand Cherokee backed into him.

I can definitely see this happening… but I can see this happening with ANY vehicle.  Who hasn’t inadvertently attempted to exit their vehicle when it’s in gear or turned the engine off before shifting to Park?  It’s called NOT PAYING ATTENTION.

I have never had a problem with the shifter; nor has anyone who’s driven my Grand Cherokee.  Like any other vehicle I’ve driven, it displays Park (or Reverse or Neutral or Drive) and I get the physical sensation of PRN or D.  But auto safety advocates don’t like the joystick-style shifter (it’s ALWAYS in the same position).  They claim that a more traditional shifter – that locks into a particular position – is more intuitive.  So FCA has relented; thus the recall.

The shifter is electronic; meaning it sends a signal to the transmission.  It could just as easily be a set of buttons on the dashboard… or even an app on your phone.  FCA was initially going to replace it with another electronic shifter that had the FEEL of a traditional shifter.  However, I just learned (last week) that they plan to reconfigure the software instead (to make it failsafe).  According to the service manager at my local dealer, the vehicle will sense pressure in the driver’s seat and automatically shift into Park, if it’s not in Park, when that pressure (presumably a human body) vacates the seat.

I’m OK with that.  What I’m not OK with (besides all the time devoted to a non-existent problem) is the reconfigured shifter on the 2016 Grand Cherokee.  It’s electronic too and has the feel of a traditional shifter (so it doesn’t necessarily need the software update scheduled for the 2014 and 2015 models), but it sticks up too high – obstructing access to the front cupholder and dash bin MORE SO than the 2014 and 2015 shifters.  That may seem like a trivial matter, but when you’re on the fly, you don’t want your right hand obstructed when reaching for something.  (Center bin and other interior storage is a topic I hope to cover in more detail in a future article.)

I wrote to FCA about this and sent some pictures.  I also asked about the 2017 model, which I assume is nearing production stage.  They indicated the 2017 shifter will be the same as the 2016 shifter.  But, hopefully, they’ll heed my complaint for the 2018 model.  Who knows, maybe they might even move the shifter to the dashboard and open up even more space, in the center console, for unobstructed storage.

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