What is drive mode?

  • What are drive modes?
  • How do they work: Parkers explains the tech
  • Do you need them on your car?

If you’ve test driven any cars lately, taken a look at a spec sheet or endured the sales spiel from a dealership, they may be extolling the virtues of the ‘drive mode’ buttons. Using an increased amount of electronic systems in our cars, engineers have been able to use ‘electronic throttle control’, also known as ‘drive by wire’, to offer a choice of how the car behaves, based on driver preferences, road conditions and weather.

In other words, drive modes can alter the gearbox, suspension and steering weight to make the car feel more sporty, more comfortable or less responsive, thus becoming more fuel efficient.

On some models there is an automatic drive mode. This allows the vehicle to switch between settings depending upon how it’s being driven and the prevailing conditions. For example, a motorway run with the cruise control on might send the car into Comfort or Economy mode, while an enthusiastic drive along a country road could activate a sportier configuration. 

How do drive modes work?

More and more vehicles are coming onto the market with selectable drive modes. There’s often up to four or five settings, all of which have their own distinct pre-set configurations. These can take the form of Economy, Comfort, Sport, Race or Off-road/Winter modes.

Eco- or Economy mode
The whole point of ‘economy’ mode is to save on fuel consumption. By selecting the economy button, often displayed as ‘eco’, the engine will change to be a bit less responsive. This is because it limits the top end power and reduces the accelerator’s response to any input from the driver, gradually gaining speed through the gears, rather than throwing down all the car has right from the get-go .

Switch your car into Comfort mode and the adaptive suspension (if fitted) will become softer, the throttle and gearbox (if automatic) slower to respond and the steering lighter. This mode is for times when you’re in the car for the daily commute, the automotive equivalent of a ‘gentle stroll’ rather than a ‘lively jog’, as is the case in Sport mode.

It’s the most common driving mode, since it makes driving very easy and doesn’t compromise fuel economy like the racey ones do. Some premium cars also allow individual changes to be made to existing settings and saved in a personally tailored mode, meaning sporty heavy steering can be teamed with comfort suspension settings, for instance.  

Sport driving mode is for keen drivers who are inclined to eye a winding country road with mischievous enthusiasm. The gear changes are longer, so the engine can use the torque produced at higher revs to climb to higher speeds faster. The steering is heavier to insist on greater driver input and offer increased feedback. More cautious drivers might consider this a more aggressive mapping of the engine, but to driving enthusiasts, such changes signal fun, provided the weather conditions allow for it.

Other changes in more premium models can result in a change in the suspension so dampers become stiffer and allow for less body roll. Electronic Stability Control (ESC) may also be affected, which again lessens the car’s automatic response to a loss of traction and gives the driver more to do.

Race mode is essentially all electronic input from the car is off and the driver is left to ride solo, handling the car’s behaviour without any assistance. It’s like Sport mode on steroids and it tends to be reserved for performance cars that are likely to be taken to a race track, rather than on public roads.

Over decades, engineers have developed electronic controls so the car can respond appropriately to mistaken inputs, or lack thereof, by the driver. With such controls disengaged, the risk of accident is greater.

Off-road drive mode engages whatever all-wheel drive capabilities the vehicle has. With power across both axles, rather than just front- or rear-wheel drive, the vehicle handling at lower speeds is more controlled, using electronic hill descent control. The greater traction and raised suspension, which gives greater ground clearance, are features that also lend themselves well to driving in adverse snowy conditions.

Do I need it?

The best drive mode selectors can really change the feel of a car, like on the new BMW 7-Series. One minute you can be driving along in what feels like a nimble sports car, and the next in a comfortable motorway cruiser.

However, other systems make little discernible difference, especially if the car doesn’t have an automatic gearbox or expensive adaptive suspension – features which help make the most of switchable driver profiles.

If you’re not convinced, take a test drive and see if you can tell the difference between each drive mode.

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Drive mode selectors can be specced as an option on more humble cars such as the Hyundai i20 and Audi A3, yet feature more commonly on expensive models such as the BMW 3 Series and Jaguar XF.

Similar to

Adaptive suspension, Drive Select, Driving Experience Control, Dynamic Select.

Looking for more jargon-busting motoring meanings? Head over to our Parkers Car Glossary page and take a look at our other definitions