FLEET UPDATE: Do driving modes work or are they just a gimmick used to sell cars?

By Pritesh Ruthun Time of article published Mar 29, 2021

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JOHANNESBURG - Driving modes: one car, multiple characteristics. That’s the promise at least.

These days, most new vehicles come with some sort of driving mode selector that enables you to change the characteristics of how it behaves. The Toyota Agya, for example has an Eco mode that can be turned on or off through the instrument cluster. In the Agya, the economy setting is supposed to enable greater fuel savings by slacking the engine’s throttle response, but the vehicle was just so unrefined that it made no difference what mode we were in; the driving experience was disappointing.

In other cars, particularly turbocharged ones and electric cars, everything from the Renault Sandero to the Porsche Taycan, driving modes seem to work. They transform these vehicles so that you actually do save fuel (energy) if you’re in the eco settings and then in the case of performance cars, you can access so much more performance that you wouldn’t get in the ’normal’ modes.


Our XC60 test car is fitted with a driving mode selector and it’s also fitted with adaptive air suspension. In this car, the driving mode settings work so well that I thought I’d spend some time walking you through the differences and benefits of driving modes in cars.

The car has come a long way in the last century – and one of the biggest areas of improvement has been the addition of driving modes. But exactly what are driving modes and why are they significant? Well, it is all about choice and individualisation.

Prior to the introduction of driving modes, each and every car only had one mode: drive. A particular car exhibited certain driving characteristics and you were stuck with them – whether you liked them or not. Short of expensive and complicated mechanical processes (which would have made your car’s warranty null and void) there was nothing you could do about those driving characteristics. However, along came driving modes and everything changed.

Modern cars like the XC60 and new premium cars you can buy right now from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz feature an Engine Control Unit (ECU), which controls components such as the car’s engine, transmission, suspension and steering. Using that ECU, car manufacturers can offer a vehicle that can switch from comfortable to economical or dynamic – all at the press of a button.


Take the Volvo XC60, for instance. The car’s default driving mode is Comfort, which it reverts to every time you switch off the engine. While in this mode, the car feels especially comfortable, the steering is light, and the suspension is soft. It’s a bit like driving while seated on your couch according to some that have been in the car, but I find it extremely relaxing when doing long-distance highway driving. The relaxed throttle pedal and the slower gear changes all combine, with the air suspension in this car, to give you a comfort feeling that’s akin to some ultra-luxury sedans that cost more than R2 million.

Sometimes, I do feel as though I would like to save the planet and in those instances, I switch the car to its Eco driving mode. In this mode, the engine’s stop/start function is activated, the ground clearance is lowered to reduce wind resistance and the air-conditioning pump will kick in less frequently. When driving in Eco mode, the driver display also shows an eco-meter that indicates how economical your driving is in real-time. Throttle pedal input is further reduced, but it doesn’t feel too laggy and if you floor the throttle to the kickdown switch, it delivers maximum acceleration, the same that you would get in Comfort or Dynamic.

The Dynamic driving mode is right up your alley if you enjoy spirited sessions behind the wheel. Some vehicles will call this mode Sport or Sport Plus, but in the XC it’s called Dynamic and when I switch to it the car drops to its lowest ride height setting and firms up to reduce body roll. It also increases throttle pedal response and it adds some weight back to the steering wheel while sharpening up gear changes. The car also raises its idle point so that input latency is reduced and turbo lag abated.


It’ll depend on the particular car you’re driving, but to answer the question that the headline of this article poses, most new cars offer driving modes that actually work. These driving modes alter the characteristics of the car enough to make them a worthwhile feature to make use of on your daily commutes and long distance trips.

When I’m in Dynamic mode in the Volvo for extended periods and particularly around town, I can easily average around 12l/100km, but when I stick the car into Eco for those longer drives, I’m able to achieve as low as 6.9l/10km, which is remarkable for a two-ton behemoth that’s built like a tank.

When you’re out looking for a new car, cycle through the driving modes and ask the salesperson about what the modes do in that particular car. In some vehicles, you’ll find that the modes will only reduce the engine’s performance in an eco setting to save fuel, while in others it will be a more dramatic series of events such as lowering the car or raising it and deploying aerodynamic aids such as splitters and spoilers (Porsche 911 Turbo S springs to mind here).

One final mode, one that most all-wheel drive SUVs come with (good SUVs in my opinion at least) is an Offroad mode, but there’s a lot to unpack in this mode, so I’ll put together a separate feature on that for next week.

Do you make use of driving modes in your current car or are you looking for a car that might offer these sorts of features? If so, rest assured that these modes aren’t gimmicks anymore and that most cars will perform differently depending on the mode you’re in. Be sure to follow me on social media to see what it’s like to live with a Volvo XC60.


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