If you ever wished you could get better fuel economy in your SUV with the push of a button or wanted to upgrade your sports car for track day by turning a dial, well, you probably can.
Many vehicles today offer multi-mode drive systems that allow drivers to do exactly that, and sometimes a little more. Some vehicles with all-wheel drive, for example, provide systems that automatically customize performance for different surfaces and weather conditions. It’s a far cry from the old days, when even switching from two-wheel drive to four-wheel drive meant stopping your SUV, leaving the comfort of the driver’s seat and using tools to physically lock the front wheels to the front axle.
Of course, there are still physical changes going on when you use one of the newfangled multi-mode drive systems. They’re controlled by computers and occurring behind the scenes.
What Does the Eco Button on My Car Do?
One of the most common multi-mode drive systems lets you operate your vehicle in a normal mode or one specifically developed for improved fuel efficiency. Generally activated by a dash- or console-mounted button that’s marked “Econ” or “Eco” or something similarly green, the mode initiates a number of changes.
Consider the setup found in millions of four-cylinder Chevrolet Equinox models from 2010 through 2017. Like many multi-mode drive systems engineered to boost fuel economy, the Chevy version adjusts when the vehicle’s automatic transmission shifts so that the Equinox stays in the higher gears more. This can ease how hard the engine has to work, although it leads to slower acceleration, too.
Additionally, the system reduces the engine’s idle speed, so it uses less gasoline, and it’s quicker to lock up the vehicle’s torque converter for low-speed driving. (Without getting too deep into the details, the torque converter helps transfer power from the engine to the wheels, but there’s usually no direct physical connection between the two. The “locking” process creates a physical connection to improve how efficiently the power is transferred. In normal driving, however, this only occurs at higher speeds.)
Other systems, including the one for the 2018 Honda Accord, save energy by reducing power to the air conditioner and modifying how the gas pedal responds. When Honda’s Econ mode is engaged, the technology smooths out driver inputs to minimize unnecessary, fuel-wasting minor changes in speed, and it requires more of an effort on the gas pedal to accelerate in the first place.
The Accord builds on those advantages by matching its Econ setting with a Sport mode.
What Does the Sport Button on My Car Do?
Actually, the optional drive-mode system for the 2018 Accord features three settings with specific transmission-shift points and gas-pedal response levels for Econ and Sport driving, as well as for Normal operation. And, as you’d expect, and as you’d find in rival systems, the Accord emphasizes using the lower gears in Sport mode, for maximum acceleration and engine RPM, while the gas pedal reacts noticeably quicker to changes in foot pressure. But the Accord’s Sport mode also initiates a surprising variety of other changes, following right in the tire tracks of more typical sports cars.
High on that list are Sport-mode adjustments to the Accord’s electric power-assisted steering system, which is automatically re-tuned to provide a firmer, sharper response and a better “feel” for the road. Also significant are the modifications to the car’s adaptive damping system. “Dampers” area fancy name for a car’s shocks, and the “adaptive” part means they can adjust to conditions by changing how they react to bumps in the road and changes in direction. A firmer suspension makes for more athletic handling, but often at the cost of comfort. Because of this, high-end sports cars such as the 2018 BMW M3, and a wide range of luxury vehicles, satisfy customers who prefer a softer ride by supplying a dedicated Comfort setting as one of their drive modes.
On the other hand, the M3 and friends are better known for raising the bar with not just Sport modes, but “Sport+” or “Track” modes. Here, traction-control features can be adjusted, or turned off entirely, and in a supercar such as the 2017 Ford GT, the vehicle’s ride height and rear-wing position can be varied depending on the drive-mode setting. BMW and Ford, and their competitors, additionally offer customizable systems so drivers can create their own settings. Nor are Track modes limited to cars, as proven by the 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk.
What Does the Terrain-Management System in My SUV Do?
Beyond sharing the M3’s race-ready approach to the technology, the Grand Cherokee follows the modern-day SUV template with its own trail-friendly version of the multi-mode drive system. Thus, the Cherokee’s Selec-Terrain feature, though not offered on the Trackhawk, enables “Snow,” “Sand,” “Mud” and “Rock” modes, plus an “Auto” mode for normal driving. For all settings, this allows drivers to automatically modify the Grand Cherokee’s ride height, torque distribution, braking performance, stability-control system and engine output to best meet conditions. All with a minimum of driver effort and while remaining safely in the vehicle at all times.
And, just to be clear, the Trackhawk comes with a multi-mode drive system; that model adds Sport and Tow modes to Jeep’s Auto, Track and Snow settings.