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The Grand Garage | Improving Shifter Mechanics: Go Big or Go Home?

One of the most endearing aspects of Top Gear and the upcoming Grand Tour is the blisteringly awesome cars and hilarious chemistry of the boys. However, beyond all the road trips and car tests is something that is very close to my heart: car modifications.

Lots of us take our cars and do what we can to make it better, whether it’s more power or better handling, but our boys really take it up a notch, don’t they? They have built everything from the Hovervan to the most perfectly named vehicle on the planet, the Hammerhead Eagle i-Thrust….or simply “Geoff.”

I personally look forward to the crazy things they build more so than any other segment on the show, so it should come as no surprise that I like to tweak and add things to my own car. This week, we’ll start small and actually provide some useful information. However, I can’t promise that I won’t go back through some old episodes and wonder how I would tackle some of the projects the boys have done….

I have been driving cars with a manual transmission on and off for probably the better part of two decades. It’s interesting to see that sometimes the best shifters come in clunky old beaters, while more expensive cars end up with a shifter assembly of questionable quality.

A manual car involves so many different components that can affect the overall feel and smoothness of shifting, and there are no shortage of products out on the market that claim to improve your overall shifting experience.

My 2015 Mustang GT
My 2015 Mustang GT, photo by Alexey Efros

Today, I want to talk about the different options at your disposal if you want to tweak your shifter for a better feel. To better illustrate my point, I’ll be using my personal car as an example; my 2015 Mustang GT.

You would think that a $30,000+ performance car would have a pretty decent shifter; but, as with many things in life, money doesn’t always buy quality. And let’s be honest, this is a Mustang we’re talking about, not a BMW (I love my Stang, but am well aware that its overall quality could use a bit of work).

The Issue

When I first took delivery of my car, I was surprised at the clunky and sloppy feel of the stock MT-82 transmission setup. I wish I was joking when I said my buddy’s 2001 Honda Civic had a much better feeling shifter, but I admit that with 100% truthfulness. That Civic may have been a clunker and that poor transmission looked like it went through a war, but at least I knew when and where I was shifting at all times. It felt like what a shifter is supposed to feel like.

Why would a relatively pricey performance car utilize a shifter setup that felt so poor? Part of it has to do with the way the MT-82 is set up in the first place; it uses a remote, multi-jointed linkage system to connect the shifter to the transmission.

To put it simply, the shifter assembly is mounted to the body of the car, then a long linkage arm with multiple swivels and joints connects the shifter to the top of the transmission. Instead of a solid link between these two important components of a manual drive car, you have a floppy, barely connected system where the transmission and shifter move independently from each other when you’re driving about, banging through gears.

Multi-jointed linkage arm
Multi-jointed linkage arm

Unlike a top loader transmission (where the shifter is mounted directly to the top of the tranny) or a solid linkage rod (which allows little to no independent movement between the shifter and tranny), a remote linkage system will often cause your shifter to misalign with the gates, occasionally causing lockout. It’s terrible in terms of performance, but it massively reduces NVH (noise, vibration, harshness), and it seems that Ford really hung their hats on the NVH stand.


The Solution

With this knowledge, I was left with three options to deal with my less than impressive shifter:

1) Swap out the entire transmission. Steeda Autosports, for instance, sells the Tremec Magnum XL, which features a top loader design. This option would run me roughly $4,700.

2) Retain the stock MT-82 and switch out the entire shifter assembly with the numerous aftermarket options available (MGW, Steeda, Barton, etc) This option would run me somewhere in the neighborhood of $500.

3) Retain both the MT-82 and the stock shifter assembly, but swap out individual parts to try to improve the feel. This is the cheapest option, with parts ranging from approximately $50-$200.

So, to paraphrase Mr. Clarkson…which is best?

None of us were born yesterday; we know that every company out there is going to claim miracles with their products, so we should probably think twice before believing a $50 shifter base bracket will change the entire shifting experience and fix everything that we dislike about the shifter. Swapping out the entire transmission is probably not an option either given the high price, though it’s probably the one option that is 100% guaranteed to fix your problems, given that you find the correct tranny for your needs (in my case, the Magnum XL).

So that leaves Option #2, buy a brand new shifter assembly to replace the entire stock shifter from the shift knob all the way down to the inner components of the shifter box. By all accounts, this is the option with the least amount of risk involved; you’re not going to spend thousands, and you replace the entire shifter assembly and sometimes the linkage as well (depending on which brand you choose). Simple decision, right?

Unfortunately, my cheapness took over and I was convinced that I could fix my shifter woes with a couple of brackets, bushings, and mounts. I was SO convinced that I had everything figured out that going into the installation of the first part I purchased (a shifter base bushing bracket), I was pretty certain I wouldn’t have to buy anything else.

Go me.

I chuckle at all you silly peasants who spent $500 on a new shifter or even worse, $5,000 on a new tranny.

Almost $400 in parts later, I was left with a shifter that felt pretty much the same as the stock shifter, and a funny feeling that I made an egregious error in my decision making.

Various parts that helped, but didn't solved my problem
Various parts that helped, but didn’t solved my problem

The Actual Solution

What ended up being the issue?

For starters, i want to point out that all these different parts I bought (shorter shift arm, bushings, shifter bracket, transmission mount, transmission bushing) did actually improve the feel, though not to a degree that justified their total cost. I will certainly admit that no one part on its own could make any significant difference at all.

The problem with this approach is that all that parts that weren’t working in the stock shifter were all still there. These individual parts may have been better quality, but the underlying issues still remained. I still had a remote mounted shifter. I still had that horrifying multi-jointed linkage arm. I still had a system that allowed the shifter and tranny to move separately. I trust you’re familiar with the phrase “you can polish a turd, but it’s still a turd?” That applies to this situation.

After admitting my error and swallowing my pride, I decide to upset my wife some more and drop $500 on a MGW shifter.

Why did I choose MGW over Steeda or Barton?

It certainly was a tough choice, I admit, and I have tried both the Barton and Steeda shifters in the S550. They are both fantastic; I have nothing bad to say about either one of them. But, the MGW is the only one of the three that completely does away with the factory linkage arm and replaces it with a solid linkage rod.

The choice to go with a solid linkage rod was a completely personal one; even though Steeda and Barton reuse the factory linkage arm, it’s pretty impressive how solid they were able to make their shifters feel. I just wanted to clarify that I am not saying MGW = good, everyone else = bad. In this case, all three options I tried were leaps and bounds above the stock shifter, so I don’t want to hear any accusations that I was paid off by MGW or anything.

MGW, Barton, and Steeda aftermarket shifters
MGW, Barton, and Steeda aftermarket shifters

While buying individual parts improved certain aspects, swapping the whole assembly out improved virtually everything. The shifter now felt rock solid; in fact, it felt like a top loader. The solid linkage rod was exactly was this setup needed, and that’s not even mentioning all the improvements of the shifter box itself. It feels like a brand new transmission, and I only spent a fraction of a price of a new tranny.

The lesson here is simple: don’t be a cheap dummy like me.

Where the shifter is concerned, just go big, don’t go cheap. If you have the cash, then by all means, find a new tranny to your liking. If not, swap out that shifter assembly entirely. I now tell people that the first mod they should do to their car (in my case, a Mustang), is to snag an aftermarket shifter.

As my friend once said, it’s one of the few parts of the car that you are guaranteed to interact with the entire time you’re driving, so please don’t go cheap.

Tony Hsieh

Cars, the Buffalo Bills, video games, comics, sandwiches, jelly beans, and the shooting star press; these are the things that Tony loves (in addition to his family, of course). When he's not spending his time writing tech reviews for, Tony puts his lifetime love of muscle cars to use on his 2015 Mustang GT. Tony's top three favorite cars are the 1973 Mustang Mach 1, Ferrari 458, and Aston Martin DBS.

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