Why does your car have drive modes? Are all drive modes the same? We take you through the ins and outs of what happens when you change drive modes.
Most drive modes are installed as a way to maximize a vehicle’s performance on suboptimal road surfaces. For example, many of the earliest versions of drive modes allowed supercars with gobs of horsepower and torque to safely take on roads that were sopping wet. To achieve that goal, the car’s computer could adjust settings to limit power, increase detection of wheel slip, or even adjust the suspension to provide a softer ride and increase traction.
Today, drive modes have a similar intention that has now been applied to more mainstream vehicles. Across the majority of the automotive world, vehicles will come with three main modes. Those modes are Normal, Sport, and Eco but some brands have even more drive modes and some modes that are designed to do roughly the same job are called completely different things. Let’s dive in.
This is the standard mode in most vehicles. It’s likely the default mode that the car goes into every time it’s started. Automakers want their cars to appeal to the largest range of buyers possible so normal mode often aims to strike a balance between all of the car’s best qualities. It’ll provide power, fuel economy, and comfort to the best of its abilities all at the same time. No single facet will be especially highlighted in this mode.
In this environmentally focused mode, most automakers cut back horsepower and numb throttle response in an effort to use reduce fuel consumption. On top of that, automatic transmission shift logic is typically retuned to provide the best possible fuel mileage as well. Combining these features allows the car to get better fuel mileage without requiring the driver to change their driving habits.
Sport mode typically doesn’t (though in some models it can) increase horsepower but instead sharpens throttle response. Transmission fluid hydraulic pressure is often increased as well to provide quicker shifts and oftentimes those shifts will be higher in the rev range. Where possible, the suspension is usually set to be firmer than in normal mode. Traction control and stability control can be tuned to a less sensitive setting or turned off completely too.
When equipped, some automakers can open up the exhaust to allow for more power and a louder tone. Sometimes, automakers add a ‘Sport+’ drive mode which takes the already sporty settings of Sport mode and dials them up even further. Depending on the vehicle this might be the most performance-oriented mode. Some cars have a race mode too though.
Race mode is by far the most aggressive mode and will set the car’s powertrain up with the sharpest throttle response, stiffest suspension settings, fastest shifts, and the most free-flowing exhaust possible. On top of that, race mode almost always disables any electronic safety equipment like traction control or stability control.
Cars with a comfort mode often have adaptive suspension components. When this setting is selected those components aim to provide the very best ride quality possible and prioritize it over handling ability. Additionally, comfort mode can affect exhaust note, steering weight, and transmission shift smoothness too.
As the name implies, towing mode allows the vehicle to optimize settings for hauling. Those settings mainly focus on gear selection. Tow mode also can raise RPM shift targets to keep the vehicle in its power band for longer. Sometimes it holds a higher gear for longer on downhills to provide better engine braking. It’s especially useful for mountain driving.
In Snow mode, the car dampens throttle response and increases traction control sensitivity to aid in getting a grip. Some snow modes will actually allow for a greater degree of wheel slip if the vehicle detects that it’s stopped. This helps the vehicle get going again should it be stuck. No drive mode is a better substitute for having great situational awareness though so don’t rely on snow mode to keep you out of a ditch on its own.
A few manufacturers like Mazda, for example, approach drive modes slightly differently than most. It uses drive modes to keep the vehicle dynamics as close to the same as possible across different surfaces. What’s that mean? Well, Mazda wants its vehicle to drive nearly the same while towing or off-road as it does on the road. To that end, it tailors each drive mode to best match how the car behaves on a paved road.
Another exception is the way that many hybrid vehicles handle drive modes. This is especially true of plug-in hybrid vehicles. Oftentimes, instead of modes like Sport, Eco, and Normal, these vehicles will simply allow the driver to select between using both the hybrid battery and the internal combustion engine together (hybrid mode as it’s often called), the electric motor alone (EV mode), and just the internal combustion engine (Battery Charge mode). Sometimes, these PHEVs will also have conventional drive modes along with these three. For example, the Mitsubishi Outlander offers Sport, Snow, Lock, and ECO modes along with a Battery Save mode and a Battery Charge mode.