What’s the deal with Sport Mode?

Words By: Adam Allen


By now, the vast majority of the motoring public is familiar with Sport Mode. While not every current car on sale has selectable driving modes, it’s beginning to trickle down throughout the industry en masse. This technology goes back quite a ways and we owe it to the Germans for bringing Sport Mode into the collective consciousness of drivers, enthusiasts or not. The objective is simple- press the Sport button mounted on the console or somewhere on the dashboard and your car ‘wakes up’ and suddenly feels more responsive, tauter and faster.

It’s that last one that is problematic and steeped in myth- Sport Mode does not make your car faster. OK, there was the V10-powered E60 BMW M5 that once Sport Mode was activated, it would serve you  100 more horsepower to send to the rear wheels but that is about the only case in existence where more actual power was made available to the driver. Really though, Sport Mode is meant to show you what is possible when you ask your car to crouch aggressively on its haunches, embracing a feral, predatory attitude with an acute taste for hunting unsuspecting apexes, be it a sports car or a minivan.

It’s amazing that with all the advances in current software design- which get better exponentially from one generation to the next- that we have to look back several years ago to the benchmark for what was the best Sport Mode in history. That honor belongs to the E90 BMW 3-series. Made from 2004 to 2013, this generation was famous for overlap. BMW had always staunchly stuck to their formula of custard smooth, naturally aspirated inline six engines and as the E90 generation progressed, turbocharging began to slowly infiltrate the lineup. Purists howled, but this was a grudgingly necessary evolution. Ever tightening fuel economy and emissions mandates left powertrain engineers little choice but to embrace turbochargers. But here’s the thing- whatever the model, turbos or not, BMW’s calibration of Sport Mode was just about perfect. It was so good that we used to include thumbing the Sport button as part of our pre-departure ritual. Which meant that we used it pretty much every single time we were behind the wheel. It didn’t offer different feel to the steering, the suspension didn’t hunker down and no intake or exhaust noise was piped into the cabin through the speakers. Simply put, it just worked.

Nowadays, you can’t use Sport Mode as your default setting anymore. A scant few automakers have gotten the tuning right, but for the vast majority, Sport Mode is just too much to use in everyday driving. It makes the car feel surge-y and nervous. Pulling away smoothly from a stop sign suddenly requires a great deal of concentration and even still you mostly end up looking like a bit of fool to your fellow motorists as the car responds overzealously to the smallest throttle input. And most of these systems now feature a Sport Plus setting that make everything even more aggressive! Seriously, anywhere but a race track- so, a place 99.99% of drivers will never see- these modes are just too much.

If BMW could nail this formula back in the early 2000’s, how it is possible that we can’t collectively do better in our current market? We live in an era where 300 horsepower might be described as entry level, German sedans are packing over 600 horsepower and the humble pickup truck (the Ecoboost powered Ford F150) can dispatch the quarter mile sprint in under 14 seconds. Why, with all the incredible gifts present day engineers have given us can we not have a properly calibrated Sport Mode? With the mastery of software programmers and coders, surely it isn’t a big ask to find that “Goldilocks” setting amongst the many available in a Drive Mode selector. Although we’re in the very early stages of 2019, perhaps this is the year that automakers scrounge up an E90 BMW for benchmarking. We remain cautiously optimistic. What Sport Mode sticks out in your mind as best?