The "Sport Mode" button: Useless or fantastic? In this era where every function on your car is regulated by a computer, they have become an almost ubiquitous presence on everything from humble economy cars to high-end luxury and sports cars. But do they really add anything to the car?
A "gimmick" is best defined as a special feature that adds some novelty and excitement to a product, but may not actually be that useful in realistic applications. New cars may be faster, safer, more efficient and better made than ever before, but they come with plenty of gimmicks.
Instant MPG readouts are gimmicks because I already know when I'm using a lot of gas; rev-matching manual gearboxes are gimmicks because if I bought a manual transmission car, I'm by God going to heel-and-toe shift myself, thank you very much.
But where do sport mode buttons — or rather, the sport mode itself, which can be engaged either by button or fishing through menus on an infotainment screen — stand in all that? Are they just gimmicks or welcome additions to modern cars?
Being able to adjust a car's settings on the fly is hardly anything new. Certain versions of the E30 M3 had electronic damping control switches in their cabins, for example, and sport modes that adjust the car's overall behavior have been present on luxury cars since the 1990s. They're just way more common now than they used to be.
First, it's good to define what sport mode does on most cars. Typically it adjusts a variety of engine, transmission and even suspension settings. "Sport mode" often tightens up the steering, sharpens the throttle response, and raises the shift points or holds gears for longer on automatic transmissions.
It may also adjust the suspension to give you a stiffer ride, and if it's worth its salt as a feature at all, dials back the traction and stability control to let you have more fun on the track or a particularly twisty and cop-free back road.
I have driven cars that do just some of these things and cars that do all of them and more. They vary widely from car to car. Sometimes I found myself using sport mode a lot, and sometimes I downright hated how the car behaved in that setting.
But most of the time, I think sport mode is an excuse not to make a car feel balanced.
I feel like sport modes are present on a lot of cars that shouldn't need them at all. See that up there? That's a sport mode button on an Audi R8 V10. Wouldn't a sporty drive be inherent to an R8? Does it really require a button for added sportiness?
Travis recently drove the new Lamborghini Huracan, and he wrote that like the Gallardo and Aventador before it, it has three drive modes: Strada, Sport, and Corsa. (That's Street, Sport and Course, or Race, if you don't speak Italian.)
Isn't it a little silly for a Lamborghini to have different modes? I mean, if you buy a Lambo, don't you expect it to be batshit crazy all the time? Isn't that why you bought it over a Lexus? You can't even go full manual on the gearbox unless it's in Corsa mode.
Wouldn't it be better to just have a single mode that blends the best attributes of all three modes for a balanced experience, and then let the driver toggle on manual or automatic shifts or traction control settings as he or she sees fit?
But P.G., you might be saying, sport mode unleashes the car's full performance for a track setting! Does it though? So many sport modes — too many, I'd wager — "sharpen" the throttle response to the point that they aren't linear and smooth. That's what you want on the track. Plus, how many drivers really even use these different modes?
I can't really judge the Huracan because I haven't driven it yet, but I can judge the sport modes of other cars I have driven. And the results are kind of all over the place. Here's a few recent ones I can think of:
Mini Cooper S: This is my daily driver, and most of the time the poor bastard is just stuck in endless Washington D.C. traffic. In normal mode the Cooper S is a high-strung, sprightly little car that's quick on the throttle and eager to engage in shenanigans. That's why I almost never use its sport mode. It makes the throttle response too sharp to use comfortably in everyday driving, and the difference in steering is negligible. Sometimes I'll use it on backroad driving, but it never feels like more than gimmick to me.
Fiat 500 Abarth: For a car that's so similar to my own, its sport mode couldn't be more different. Sport mode here gives you access to the car's full amount of horsepower and torque, so it's noticeably quicker and more potent. I kept it in sport mode most of the time I was in it, but at the same time, it stiffens up the steering so much that it's almost too much in, say, a parking lot. Why not just give me the full power and more neutral steering?
Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG: The centerpiece of the CLA45 is its crazy 355 horsepower engine (its interior sure as hell isn't), which is the most powerful turbo four currently in series production. In Comfort/Eco mode, its non-sport mode, the car feels too restrained. You only get to tap the full well of insanity in sport mode. You bought an AMG. When would you ever really want it to be restrained?
Porsche Cayman S: You get three modes on the Cayman S with the optional Sport Chrono Package. The steering stays the same in all three. In its normal mode, the Cayman feels kind of neutered, held back; it's much more palatable in sport mode. There's a "track only" Sport Plus mode, but that comes with rev matching you cannot turn off, so it's kind of annoying. Sport mode should be the only setting offered here.
Hyundai Equus: Sport mode doesn't do a damn thing here, really. It certainly doesn't make the car faster, handle better, or generally feel more sporting.
Mazda Miata MX-5: The Miata doesn't have a sport mode because it doesn't need one. It's perfect as-is.
To wrap up this rambling screed, I'd rather see more cars with just one mode that's balanced for the street and the track, rather than a bunch of different modes that are only marginally useful and come with too many compromises.
And don't even get me started on Eco Mode. That's a rant for another day.