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How selectable driving modes are able to turn your car from Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Let’s pretend for a moment that you’ve got an unlimited amount of money to buy any vehicle you want, but just one. Do you buy a Bugatti Chiron, with back-breaking acceleration, laser-sharp handling, and a legendary top speed? Or do you buy a Ford Raptor and jump sand dunes all day long? The odds are great that you’d be happy with either of those vehicles for a while, but that everyday life would eventually come knocking and you’d be left pining for something more practical to haul the kids around, or even just park in a normal parking garage.

This is where selectable driving modes and technology come into play. No, they’re not going to turn your Toyota Sienna into a Ferrari Portofino, but drive modes can dramatically change the way a vehicle feels, performs, and even how it sounds. When done right, a vehicle with a proper sport mode can go from soccer practice with the kids to hot laps at a track day event with the flick of a switch – and hopefully a stop to drop off the kids somewhere in between.

After a week in the BMW M850i Convertible – not the most practical vehicle, but one hell of a grand tourer – I was intrigued by the implementation of the car’s Sport and Sport + modes and wanted to dig deeper.

Goal of Selectable Drive Modes

It’s easy to find a “SPORT MODE” switch in almost any car today, even if that car is about as far from sporty as hot dogs are from sandwiches (fight me).  Even trucks and SUVs use them to change gearing and throttle response for obstacles like sand, snow, rocks, or the parking lot at soccer practice. The goal when changing driving modes means different things in different vehicles.

BMW M850i
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Even if it were legal, not everybody wants to drive around in track-tuned cars with snappy gear shifts and rock-hard suspension. It’s also not always possible or affordable to have a spare car to take out on weekends. Drive modes aim to help solve these problems by changing the dynamics of our vehicles in a way that roughly approximates a sporty car, a beefy off-roader, a plush luxury sedan, or a fuel-sipping econo-box. Some do it much better than others, but the end game is the same across the board.

How They Work

It’s no secret that vehicles today have more computing power than the desktop PCs we had sitting around even a few years ago, and automotive engineers have put all that virtual horsepower to good use. Depending on the setting and the type of vehicle, drive modes can change everything from where and how quickly the transmission shifts to how loud the exhaust sounds on acceleration.

Even the car’s suspension and steering feel can be changed with the flick of a switch. Though it’s not a new innovation, adaptive suspension systems use several inputs from the vehicle’s computer to constantly adjust to changing road conditions – sometimes hundreds of times per second. The systems use pressurized oil or air to soften or firm up the dampers, and newer technologies use magnetized particles in the dampers to adjust the ride.

The changes brighten up the drive dramatically, but they’re not going to make the car into a rocket ship.

In a mode like Sport or Sport + in the M850i, the computer changes transmission shift points to keep the engine revving much higher to maintain power delivery. The shifts crack off more quickly as well, which sharpens acceleration and makes playing with the paddle shifters even more fun. In Eco Mode, the car’s computers optimize shift points to keep the engine as calm as possible to deliver better fuel economy – as calm as a twin-turbo 4.4-liter V8 can be, anyway.

The BMW’s sporty settings also change how the car’s suspension feels and reacts. In its default Comfort Mode, there’s not much between it and your grandpa’s soft-riding old Buick in terms of ride quality and road feel. When pushed into Sport + mode, however, the car tightens noticeably. The car is still “feeling” the road and helping maintain traction, but the ride is firmer and less comfortable for daily driving.

Steering feel changes, too. Since the M850i’s steering is handled electronically rather than with gears and mechanical differentials, the computer can change both how things feel and how quickly they react to inputs from the driver. The BMW’s Comfort Mode allows for a smooth, relaxed feel to the steering that is forgiving and easy to manage. Back into a sportier setting and the wheel feels heavier to turn but faster to react. Steering is sharper, with a much quicker ratio that turns the wheels further with less effort from the driver.

2019 BMW X4 M40i review

Finally, the engine and exhaust can be toyed with electronically as well. The noise coming from a big V8 (like the one in the M850i) in any setting is going to be rowdier than one seeping from the rear of a Nissan Sentra, but there are ways to amplify that sound (literally), both inside and outside of the car. Like many other high-end vehicles, the BMW has a baffle system in the exhaust that opens and closes depending on the driving mode. In Comfort Mode, the car’s engine note and exhaust tone are clearly audible but not over the top. In Sport Mode, the car’s exhaust baffles open up and sound more aggressive, with a barking note to announce gear shifts.

The real magic for gearheads like me comes in Sport + mode, where the car sounds a little like a more refined version of your high school buddy’s ’85 IROC-Z Camaro with straight pipes. The sound is both loud and much deeper than in the other modes. Shifts generate a wondrous growl, and lifting off the throttle produces a near-comical number of pops and cracks as gasses swirl around in the exhaust pipes. It sounds like a completely different car and can catch pedestrians off guard if you’re not careful (unless that’s part of the plan…).

Will Drive Modes Replace Buying a Second Vehicle?

The answer here, as it is with so many other things in life, is “it depends”. It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish with your vehicle and what your expectations are. It also depends on what kind of vehicle you’re buying and how much money you want to spend on it – you get what you pay for, after all. Finally, it depends on how the system is implemented, and how much of the vehicle’s overall driving experience hinges on its ability to turn Clark Kent into Superman.

If your hope is that, by pushing a button, you’ll be able to turn your Honda Pilot into a rock crawler, you’ll likely be disappointed by the experience. On the other hand, if you buy something like the M850i or the Acura NSX with the expectation that it’ll be mostly comfortable on long drives AND have the ability to carve up a canyon road in Sport Mode, you’ll find a better balance. The same thing goes for the sporty settings in more down to earth cars, like a Nissan Altima, where the paddle shifters can be engaged to simulate actual shift points and more aggressive driving dynamics. The changes brighten up the drive dramatically, but they’re not going to make the car into a rocket ship.

How the system is set up and integrated with the rest of the vehicle matters too.

In terms of what these things cost, money makes the world go ‘round, and unfortunately for car enthusiasts it also adds up quickly when options boxes start getting checked. More expensive isn’t always better by any means, but the technologies required to pull off well-executed selectable driving mode system aren’t cheap. Add that to the fact that the vehicles that can make good use of full-on independent drive modes are typically more expensive to begin with, and the dollar signs start to flash.

How the system is set up and integrated with the rest of the vehicle matters too. The BMW allows for individual adjustments of each part of the driving mode to completely customize the experience. If you prefer (I do) to scare people with a loud exhaust and show off your car’s big engine while riding in complete comfort with relaxed steering, you can do that. On the other hand, if you want complete track-optimized handling but quiet exhaust, you can do that too. Going back to the money thing, this car is far from budget-friendly, but the ability to fit the car’s personality to your own is a big reason why it works so well.

2018 Honda Civic type R
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Even in cars like the Honda Civic Type-R that don’t have the BMW’s level of a la carte customization, the driving modes are set up to give the widest possible range of performance in each setting. Drivers could use the car in Sport mode every day and get a thrilling ride without breaking their backs, and even the Honda’s Comfort mode is sporty enough to fling the car around. The +R mode is meant for track use, but it’s a usable drive setting as well. Rather than going all-out in every mode, Honda made the best use of each one to deliver a well-rounded, daily-driven-friendly experience.

At the end of the day, the vehicles that execute drive modes well, like the M850i, do it because they have to – justifying a price point is a big job, after all. That’s ok, because as the time has passed, the tech has gotten better and cheaper. Cars like these push development and make it easier for engineers to push some of the features “down” into the cars that more people can actually afford.

Before long, we’ll all be ripping laps in our commuter cars after work on Friday afternoon. That’s probably a bit of a stretch. Hit that Eco button and crank the Kenny G – you’ve got a long ride home.

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Chris Teague
I cover automobiles and tech to find the stories and information that really matter. My background in technology consulting…
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