Is It Ok To Always Drive In Sport Mode?

I was driving my wife’s Subuaru Legacy the other day for the first time in a while, and couldn’t resist the urge to fiddle around with the “SI Drive” system that lets you pick between three different modes.

  • ‘Intelligent’ – the default mode, where throttle response is slowed and gear shifts (to the extent that they are shifts in a CVT) are made quickly. The focus of this mode being on smooth, economical driving.
  • ‘Sport’ – a more aggressive throttle response and the car holds gears for longer.
  • ‘Sport Sharp’ – turns everything up to 11; great for pulling away quickly at the lights or for passing on the highway. The car cruises noticeably higher in the RPM range, poised and ready to go.

Now a late 2000s, 2.5L non-turbo Legacy is not exactly the most impressive performance machine in the world. However, the difference between “I” mode and “S#” is very noticeable. In I mode, the car plods along with little urgency, whereas in S# it feels a lot more potent.

An example of an SI Drive button/switch from a Subaru. Different cars have different buttons/switches, but the principles are the same for each.

My wife always drives in I mode; it suits her manner of driving. For me – being used to driving a manual Suzuki Swift Sport which is a ridiculously nippy little car – the Sport/Sport Sharp modes felt a lot nicer to use as I wasn’t used to having such a slow response as in I mode. According to Subaru, “S” should actually be the everyday driving mode, with “I” being more of an eco mode.

This led me to wonder “is it OK to always drive in sport mode”?

Many cars these days come equipped with a sport mode – or some other equivalent – and those who like to drive a bit faster might want to try and keep their car in this performance mode all the time if possible.

For this edition of Car Facts, I’ve done some research and presented it below.

What Is Sport Mode In Your Car?

“Sport mode” is just a general term for any kind of switchable/configurable mode or setting on a car that allows for adjustments to the engine, gearbox, throttle response (and anything else) to change the characteristics of the car to maximise performance. You can definitely get more technical in terms of the specifics of how all this works, but it is greatly dependent on what vehicle you are driving, and also the exact tech specifics aren’t relevant for the purpose of this article.

Something like my wife’s legacy has a very basic sport mode. Even in Sport Sharp mode (S#) all that is really happening is the car alters the responsiveness of the throttle, the gear shift points for the CVT, and the cruising RPM of the engine so that it is ready to respond more rapidly to throttle inputs.

Sport modes have become easier to implement on modern cars, thanks to the use of electronic throttles (as opposed to cables) and more “computer control” of how mechanical components such as the engine work. Even basic cars these days will typically have a normal mode, a sport/performance mode, and often an eco mode that does the opposite of sport – trying to make the car work as gently as possible in order to save fuel.

Some cars – especially more performance focused ones – have multiple sport modes, or more extreme ones, or huge amounts of configuration available.

One of the best examples I can think of is the Hyundai I30n (in the United States, you’ll be more familiar with the Veloster N; I believe this is the same running gear just in a different body).

This car has a normal mode, in which it is a passably comfortable hot hatchback – similar to a Golf GTI – but then with the flick of a switch on the steering wheel, you can put the car into “N” mode which drastically firms up the suspension, changes the steering feel, makes the exhaust louder (including those fun crackles and pops like an old rally car) and alters the responsiveness of the throttle and engine.

 

The chequered flag button on the I30N activates the “N” mode, which is the ‘full fat’ sport mode for this car. You can also customise your own sport/performance modes to suit.

However, with the i30N – as with many more potent and more modern performance cars – you can heavily customise your own “sports modes”. For example, you might want the softest suspension setting with the most aggressive throttle and exhaust options … all of this can be done and saved to the car’s on-board computer.

As you can see, not all sport modes are created equal, and you might need to do some research as to what sport mode exactly entails for your car, or the car you are thinking of purchasing.

With that in mind, let’s return to the focus of this article – can you drive a car all the time in sport mode?

Considering that sport mode affects a number of characteristics of the car’s performance, here’s what you need to think about:

Your Fuel Economy/Gas Mileage Will Suffer (Probably)

The main reason you probably don’t want to drive your car all the time in sport/performance mode is due to the fact you’ll likely suffer worse fuel economy (gas mileage).

Fuel prices have been soaring recently, and most motorists are doing what they can to try and save money at the pump.

Unless you love paying more than you need to for fuel, you might want to reconsider always driving in sport mode.

Remember that sport/performance mode in your car is generally going to set up the engine and gearbox to hold on to gears for longer (i.e. rev higher before changing up) and adjust other parameters to focus on performance over economy.

This trade off makes perfect sense for spirited driving, overtaking etc … but if you are just tootling around town to commute to work or pick up the kids from school, is the reduction in fuel economy really worth it?

Ultimately, that is a subjective question and only you know the answer as it relates to your preferences and circumstances. If you’re happy to burn a bit of extra dinosaur juice in order to enjoy driving your in sport mode, then that is ultimately your decision.

Risk Of Premature Wear & Tear

Another possible reason to avoid driving your car all the time in sport mode is because of the risk of premature wear and tear.

Some argue that the permanent use of sport mode can place additional stress on your car’s engine, gearbox, suspension etc.

This argument makes sense, insomuch that if your car is always revving higher and working harder, it will be under more strain.

That being said, compared to the gas mileage/fuel economy issue, premature wear and tear is not such a big consideration – unless you are driving your car in sport mode permanently and truly thrashing it.

However, if you just drive your car “normally” but in sport mode (and occasionally boot it, when it’s properly warmed up, and you stay on top of maintenance) then it’s unlikely to cause any great dramas or massive deterioration.

Personally, I would prefer to buy a used car that had been driven in sport mode all the time but properly maintained, than to buy a car that has been “carefully driven by one lady owner” that has had missed oil changes etc.

Many owners will buy a car with sport mode and use it all the time with no ill effects; it’s up to you to decide whether the risk of additional wear and tear is too great.

Passenger Comfort Considerations

One other reason to carefully consider driving everywhere in sport mode all of the time is passenger (and driver) comfort.

While you might enjoy the more performance-focused ride, chances are your passengers probably won’t.

This is especially the case on sports modes (like the Hyundai I30n mentioned above) where the higher performance options tend to stiffen up the suspension, and can make the ride excessively firm and harsh for those who aren’t involved in the drive like whoever is behind the wheel. When I was taken out for a test drive in an I30n by the Hyundai salesman, the sports mode was fun as the driver but honestly rather miserable when I was in the passenger seat.

That being said, it can also be fun to show off to your passengers what your car is capable of doing, and if you’re going to do that then you may as well ‘go the whole way’ and use sport mode.

Conclusion – Can You Drive A Car In Sport Mode All Of The Time?

Yes, you can drive your car in sport mode all of the time BUT you need to be prepared to pay a bit extra for it (and possibly put additional wear and strain on your car). You’ve also got to decide if the trade off is worth it in terms of a harsher ride and reduced comfort, if your car’s sports/performance mode adjusts anything in this department.

Ultimately, you can most likely drive all the time in sport mode and get away with it. Your car is unlikely to spontaneously combust or blow up. The truth is that manufacturers wouldn’t make sport/performance modes if they were too damaging (although you are starting to see more and more “gimmicks” coming through like time-limited over boost capability on cars such as Hyundai’s new I30n/Veloster N)

However, driving in sport mode will almost certainly cost you more in petrol/gas bills, as the car will be operating to maximise performance and with less consideration for fuel economy. What’s more, with sport mode on you are typically going to be more inclined to accelerate harder and faster as well, as the process is more enjoyable than in normal or eco modes. In an environment where fuel prices are skyrocketing, this doesn’t seem like a particularly sensible option if you are trying to be frugal.

In some cars, sport/performance mode adjusts more than just the behaviour of the engine and gearbox. Your car might also have adjustable suspension, for example, that can go between softer settings for comfort and everyday usability, to harder settings for track use or spirited driving. It’s possible that driving all the time in the sportier suspension settings (especially if you live somewhere with poor quality roads) might lead to premature wear on components – and at the very least you won’t be as comfortable.

Long story short, always driving in sport mode is not the greatest “automotive sin” in the world. Plenty of people do it, because they prefer the way their car drives. However, if you want to be as kind as possible to your car (and your wallet, and the environment) then you are better off to just use sport mode when the situation truly calls for it.

What do YOU think about driving your car in sport mode all the time? Is this something you do? Do you think it is a bad idea? We would love to hear from you – leave a comment below to get the conversation started.

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