That “S” button – sports mode explained

Last updated on November 25th, 2021 at 09:28 am by Bill Tsouvalas

If you’ve been in a petrolhead’s car (or perhaps your own!) you might have spied an “S” button, or “sports” mode button (also called Dynamic mode) on the console or dash. Sports mode isn’t for a trip to the local oval; many believe it’s for enhanced performance, much like a “turbo boost” on a computer increases the MHz of the CPU. There is some overlap between the two “boosts,” but it’s a lot more complicated.

Driving by a wire

Most modern car systems – transmission, suspension, traction control and so on – are regulated by an on-board computer. These computers are growing in complexity all the time; in the 1990s computers may have identified faults (the dreaded ‘check engine’ light, for example.) Now they can control the in-cabin climate, infotainment system, lane change warning, reversing camera…you name it, the computer controls it in some way. Sports mode is an on-the-fly tuning of certain parameters of your car to achieve “sports” performance. But what does that mean for you and your driving experience?

Normal or drive mode

Normal, or “drive” mode is your car’s optimal tuning for fuel economy. Drive mode tells your automatic transmission to shift up to a higher gear as fast as possible to save fuel. Drive mode also leaves your suspension and steering tuned to “default” stiffness or response. Note that “manual” mode on some cars is separate to sports or dynamic mode.

Sports mode explained

When you hit the Sports mode, your car computer changes your engine to match certain tunings. Sports mode will keep your car in lower gears for longer, so you can hit the “sweet spot” of RPMs quicker. This makes for faster, more aggressive acceleration. This is especially useful for overtaking or driving up steeper hills. Some more advanced luxury or sports marques can increase throttle response, add weight to steering for a better road-feel, and firm up the suspension for increased handling. Exhaust flows can also change, depending on the vehicle. Of course, you are paying for it with higher fuel consumption.

According to some enthusiasts, leaving sports mode on and using a higher octane (RON) fuel such as 95 or over (the average in Australia is 91) can improve fuel economy. This is all up for debate, however.

The end of Sports mode?

With automotive computing and control mechanisms becoming ever more intelligent, sports mode may be a thing of the past. Cars with intelligent shift programming can “sense” when you require more torque or acceleration using several sensors. This provides a short burst of speed when necessary, instead of when toggled. If you love sports mode now, your next car might do away with it entirely!

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