Reader Question: Sport Mode?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply! 

Dave asks: I keep reading about “sport” mode in new cars but no one seems to be able to tell me what that means exactly. How does pushing the “sport” button make a car “sportier”?

My reply: It doesn’t, really. It makes an automatic-equipped car feel – and sound – “sportier,” usually by electronically disengaging the overdrive, which reverts the transmission to the next-lowest gear, which increases engine RPM and that makes the engine feel more responsive (and sound it). Sometimes, engaging Sport mode will also change the shift programming to feel sharper, or to hold revs longer between gear changes, or to hold a gear longer (as when cornering and an upshift would not be desirable for best performance).

All of this can be done manually – even with an automatic – by using the manual-shift capability (either the gear selector or the + and – paddle shifters many cars have) to do the same thing pushing the button does. In both cases, though, the parameters of “sportiness” are set by the programming; e.g., the transmission will shift up (or won’t shift down) according to the limits programmed into the thing.

Some new cars also have “sport” modes for the suspension – if the car has adjustable dampers – and for the exhaust – if the car has “active” exhaust (a baffle opens up when you engage the “sport” mode, which increases the “sporty” sound of the exhaust).

Is it all a gimmick? That probably depends on your perspective. There isn’t much objective difference – in terms of how quick a car is or how quickly it can slalom a road course – between Sport and Normal modes. But the feel – and sound – difference can be significant.

. . . 

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  1. I have ECO, Sport, Snow/Ice modes etc., on my 2020 F150. From what I can tell, mode affects how much the gas pedal responds. ECO mode, you really have to mash the pedal to get it to move, sport mode: not so much.

  2. As mentioned, the vast majority of cars’ Sport modes don’t actually do much in terms of absolute performance. Typically the shift points are changed and that’s about it, so it sort of feels more aggressive when it shifts. A full bore launch from a stop, though will create the same 0-60 times and 1/4 mile times in both, for most such vehicles.

    Somewhat less common are vehicles with adjustable suspensions of some sort where the ride can be stiffened up or shock rates adjusted dynamically. This may improve handling at the cost of a harsher ride and can benefit track times even without a horsepower boost. Because such suspension systems are expensive, these types of vehicles are higher end.

    A few can remap the computer tuning slightly and generate a little more power, but these are rare vehicles that tend to be pretty expensive, often of German make. These almost always have adjustable suspensions, too.

    Conversely, a few high-performance cars have a Valet mode which will handicap the engine performance, sometimes limit top speed or other parameters, when handing over the keys to a valet or a teenager. This may even be accomplished with a separate physical key or key fob so that the car knows it should limit performance.


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