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Shifter shows how wrong right can be

The shifter on the Mercedes R-Class, such as the 320 is potentially problematic.

A top engineer has agreed there may be a need to modify the shifter to avoid accidentally disengaging the gears. The shifter, mounted where the indicator stalk would normally be in a right-hand-drive market, can be knocked into neutral by a driver attempting to indicate a left-hand turn but reaching for the wrong side of the steering wheel.

The puzzling thing is nobody at Mercedes saw any need to have some form of lockout on such a shifter.

Carsguide first raised concerns over the potential to unintentionally leave the car without drive as far back as the international launch drive of the R-Class (the first model to have the new shifter) in August 2005.

Since then, the protocol has been rolled out to the M-Class, S-Class and GL. At each step Mercedes was again asked to explain the strategy, to date without a satisfactory answer.

Last week at the US launch of BlueTEC and a revised M-Class, somebody finally took the matter seriously. Johannes Reifenrath, a senior manager for powertrain, components and telematics, says that although he had not been made aware of any instances where an accidental disengaging of drive had resulted in

an accident, he at least conceded it indeed had the potential to occur.

“The issue you raise would never happen — has not been considered — in a left-hand-drive market where we sell most of our cars,” Reifenrath says. “The indicator is always on the left and there is rarely anything on the right-hand side of the wheel. This scenario [right-hand-drive] is a special consideration that we will have to take into account from now on.”

“It is always possible to have this challenge when people change cars to one they may not be used to. They have a responsibility to be aware ... but

I can see how this [disengaging drive] could happen.

“To be honest, this is the first time

I have heard of this potential problem but I will take it to the people in charge of the gearbox development and ask them what would be required to change that. It shouldn't be too difficult because we already lock out the reverse gear. It should be possible

to do the same for neutral when the car is being driven.”

Reifenrath says the original decision to shift the gear lever from its more traditional position on the floor in front of the centre console was a combination of interior styling and reducing engineering complexity.

“The reason why we moved away from central gearshifts in the first place is one of convenience,” Reifenrath says.

“People expect to have lots of storage space in a car and one of the places where you can add storage is in the central console. A gear-shift lever occupies lots of space in that area.

“There is also complexity and cost of manufacturing where you have to have two different centre consoles and gear levers for left and right-hand drive markets. Also, the seven speed automatic transmission [launched around the same time] allows for electronic gear shift change rather than mechanical. That saves cost and also room around the gearbox for packaging the drivetrain.”

oFirst drive of new ML in The Sunday Telegraph Carsguide this weekend