Sport modes are ev­ery­where… it’s a shame most have the sub­tlety of a sledge­ham­mer

Evo - - DRIVEN -

THE FER­RARI 250 GTO DID NOT HAVE A SPORT but­ton. Nor did the Lam­borgh­ini Coun­tach or the Lan­cia Delta In­te­grale. And I’m not sure any­one has ever marked them down for this. Now, how­ever, ev­ery­thing has a Sport mode. Su­per­cars, sa­loons, hot hatch­backs. Even my dish­washer has one, though it just makes ev­ery­thing faster and there­fore even more likely to bake a trace el­e­ment of Weetabix into a di­a­mond-hard scab you have to smash the bowl to re­move.

I’m not sure when the Sport but­ton be­came a thing, but it was al­most cer­tainly in the ’ 80s when in­creas­ingly ad­vanced con­trol mo­d­ules al­lowed large Ger­man sa­loons to sprout a Sport mode on their au­to­matic gear­boxes. You dabbed a but­ton by the se­lec­tor and the changes got a lit­tle less slur­ring, al­though only in the same way that a fat bar­ris­ter might be less slur­ring if you caught him in the bar at 7.30pm rather than 8pm. And that was it for Sport mode for the ’80s and into the ’90s. It made au­to­matic ’ boxes al­most im­per­cep­ti­bly snap­pier, which is to say not very snappy at all.

How­ever, some­time in the ’90s and into the new cen­tury, with greater com­put­ing power and the rise of adap­tive damp­ing, Sport mode be­came more com­pre­hen­sive. I re­mem­ber the first time I no­ticed this, in a Mercedes E55 AMG. Not the slabby one that al­ways de­vel­oped crusty arches; the softer shaped one that came af­ter­wards. The W211, if you’re a proper Merc nerd. Push­ing the Sport but­ton didn’t just make a half-hearted stab at tak­ing some slack out of the gearshifts. It sharp­ened the throt­tle and firmed the air sus­pen­sion too. If you dabbed it in traf­fic you felt the revs rise a lit­tle, like the car was tens­ing it­self. The dif­fer­ence be­tween nor­mal and Sport was ob­vi­ous. Ex­tremely ob­vi­ous. You might al­most say too ob­vi­ous.

And this brings me to where we are to­day, in Sport mode Baby­lon. Even quite or­di­nary stuff has a Sport op­tion and, by and large, these set­tings all be­have the same, mak­ing an im­me­di­ate and ap­pre­cia­ble dif­fer­ence to the su­per­fi­cial feel­ing of the car. Which is where the prob­lem lies. They’re like Vic­to­ria Beck­ham’s suit ‘n’ sun­glasses body­guards. Mas­sive, ob­vi­ous, not nec­es­sar­ily use­ful in the cir­cum­stances where you’d hope they would shine. Whereas what I’d like Sport mode to mimic is the se­cu­rity setup I once saw pro­tect­ing Prince Harry, which was two peo­ple in ca­sual clothes dis­creetly hang­ing around in the back­ground, blend­ing in, mon­i­tor­ing the sit­u­a­tion but, you could bet, quite able when re­quired to snap some­one’s arm off. That’s the sort of sub­tle but use­ful backup I want, yet few car mak­ers do it. Porsche is a no­table ex­cep­tion, and As­ton’s DB11 is pretty good too.

These, how­ever, are the ex­cep­tions. Most per­for­mance-ori­en­tated cars lack this sub­tle ty. They feel as if Sport mode isn’t set up as the en­gi­neers and test driv­ers would like it be­cause they’ve been over­ruled by the mar­ket­ing de­part­ment and mar­ket re­searchers who told them cus­tomers don’t want a snadge more re­bound damp­ing and a whisker of ex­tra re­sponse from the throt­tle. They want a car that feels sporty, even if that re­sults in an id­i­ot­i­cally stiff ride, point­lessly heav­ier steer­ing and need­lessly bru­tal tip-in on the ac­cel­er­a­tor pedal, none of which makes for bet­ter or more sat­is­fy­ing progress down a wig­gly road. As a demon­stra­tion of how the av­er­age Sport set­ting is stiff­ness over sub­stance, we once con­ducted an ex­per­i­ment on Top Gear in which a Golf GTI was lapped in Sport mode and then in its Com­fort set­ting. It was ac­tu­ally a tenth quicker in Com­fort.

Oh but wait, you think, lots of cars now have a pro­gram­mable set­ting that lets you choose from a small smor­gas­bord of func­tions and blend them to your choice. And some­times that helps. I’ve spent a lot of time in cars where you flick it into Sport mode and then five min­utes later start prod­ding des­per­ately through sub­menus to stop the damn thing feel­ing so art­lessly leaden, and the so­lu­tion to this is al­ways, ab­so­lutely al­ways, as fol­lows: softer sus­pen­sion, nor­mal steer­ing, sharper en­gine/ gear­box re­sponse. Then later you go back to de­fault nor­mal mode and the throt­tle feels re­ally flat, so you end up driv­ing it the whole time in your per­sonal con­fig­u­ra­tion and won­der­ing why the car wasn’t just sold like that and the bloody Sport mode blanked off.

Which is, I’m afraid, where I’m go­ing with all this. I’m bored of Sport modes and their fake ‘sporti­ness’. The 250 GTO didn’t have a Sport mode, nor did the Coun­tach or In­te­grale. Per­haps be­cause their cre­ators just got the ba­sic set-up right in the first place.

‘I’d like Sport mode to mimic the se­cu­rity set-up pro­tect­ing Prince Harry – ca­sual, dis­creet, but quite able when re­quired to snap some­one’s arm off’

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