Normal, Eco, Winter, and all the other driving modes explained.
When cars were still simple and bereft of modern electronics and car modes, you just got in and drove off. Vehicle manufacturers set up all the components of the car to provide an adequate compromise for all conditions and driving styles. In modern cars, there is often a choice of different drive modes to select, depending on how you want the car to behave. What are driving modes for and is having all these different drive modes useful or a sales gimmick? Also, what is Sport mode for in a car meant for family transport, such as a Toyota Camry or Honda CR-V?
Each manufacturer calls their respective driving modes different things and they don't all work the same. One automaker's default mode might be Comfort and another's Standard, but they might be very similar. Similarly, Sport Plus or Track modes could overlap, each adjusting different vehicle parameters. The number of systems that can be controlled depends on the car but can include the engine, steering, suspension, exhaust, brakes, traction control, and dynamic stability control (DSC).
To make sense of it all, we group similar modes together and explain what automakers typically try to achieve with each of them:
Many pickup truck and SUV models have driving modes for specific off-road conditions; typical off-road modes include settings for:
AWD and 4WD don't work quite the same off-road; read about the differences here. For interesting articles on every subject from optimizing and customizing your off-road vehicle for the bush to engine swaps, interesting SUVs we've forgotten about, and car comparisons, have a look at our car features.
Driving modes give our cars different characters for different conditions and even allow drivers of normal sedans and SUVs to inject a little excitement into their driving by giving their vehicles a more sporty feel - even if a sporty feel in a truck or SUV could be seen as a sales gimmick. On a practical level, modern electronics are genuinely useful for optimizing performance, fuel economy, or off-road driving. The various driving modes help you access these abilities more easily than ever before.
Eco mode should provide a marginal improvement in highway fuel consumption by softening the reaction to the accelerator in order to save fuel. On a steady cruise, however, it is unlikely to be much more efficient than Comfort or Normal, because most cars run on their most efficient setting here anyway. Eco is arguably more useful in city traffic where the languid throttle response and power reduction can more meaningfully affect fuel economy.
Sport mode usually just sharpens the car's response to stepping on the accelerator pedal and might also give more incisive steering responses and stiffer suspension settings. By themselves, these are not bad for your car. However, the hard driving and enthusiastic cornering usually accompanying the selection of Sport mode will accelerate wear and tear on the vehicle's components, such as the engine, transmission, and tires.
Modern automatics are usually more fuel-efficient than manuals. The manual transmission itself might exhibit fewer mechanical losses and be more efficient than some automatics, but a modern automatic transmission usually has more gears and is more vigilant in shifting up to the highest gear automatically and as soon as possible - especially when in the Eco drive mode. Most people tend to leave their manual cars in lower gears for too long, wasting fuel.
Without a back-to-back comparison under similar driving conditions, it's very hard to be sure. However, Eco mode will always cause the transmission to shift to the highest gear possible and will usually automatically switch on the start-stop system to cut the engine when the vehicle is stationary and/or coasting and this definitely saves fuel, especially in city traffic.