There are a stack of reasons I love my 1989 Nissan Sil80. It’s manual. It’s rear-wheel drive. It’s turbocharged. The thing I love about it more than anything else, though, is when you turn the key (oh yeah, it’s got one of those too), that’s it.
There are no buttons to adjust damper settings, engine noise, exhaust volume, throttle response, steering weight, et cetera, et cetera. And best of all, there’s no ‘Sport’ mode. There are no ‘modes’ at all, in fact.
‘Sport’ modes on modern cars have become one of those things many now have - but very few get right.
A brief tangent, if you'll allow...
If you want to drive in comfort, that’s totally fine. And I completely understand why both buyers and manufacturers want the availability of a ‘comfortable vehicle calibration’ setting in their cars. It makes total sense.
Surely, though, a ‘Comfort’ mode should be comfortable, not slightly less firm or fractionally less harsh or not quite as ‘difficult’ to live with than ‘Normal’ mode. Right? Otherwise, what’s the point?
Few seem to be able to nail this to a decent standard. But, more infuriating than a less-than-comfortable ‘Comfort’ mode, is a less-than-sporty ‘Sport’ mode.
Picture this. You’re driving home from a friend’s wedding. Well, not really a ‘friend’ but someone you used to know a while back, but whom you stay in touch with semi-regularly thanks to social media. That kind of a friend.
The wedding was lovely. An afternoon affair in a spectacular garden somewhere, with music in the air and family all around. It was positively delightful.
You’ve done the ‘friend’ thing and made your presence felt, left a gift, and congratulated the newlyweds. Then, as you’re about to make your exit half-way through the reception though, your ‘not really friend’ (aka the groom) asks if you’d mind dropping one of their closest friends – a face you’ve seen tagged in a number of InstaBook selfies – at their place on your way home.
A good human, you oblige. You both walk to your car parked down the street and the individual for whom you are now effectively Uber asks, “Wow, is that your car?” You politely acknowledge that, indeed, it is your car, and ask the mandatory follow up question, being: “Are you into cars?” They of course answer, “No”, and the two of you head off.
Ten minutes into the 20-minute drive, they ask if ‘we’ can make a brief stop at a service station so ‘they’ can buy some milk for their place. A good human, you oblige.
Finally, after 35 minutes of stilted, awkward time together, you arrive at their residence and drop them off. Perfect.
Now it’s your turn. It’s your turn to shake off the wedding present shopping, shake off the inane wedding banter with people you barely know, and, because you’re a good human, shake off the fact you just saved a random acquaintance a $50 ride home without asking for, nor receiving, any semblance of commonly appreciated ‘petrol money’.
It’s now when you push all the buttons or touchscreen menu icons or flick whichever switches are required to transform your car from ‘Normal’ to ‘Sport’. This is your turn to make you happy. For you to get your thrills. To turn your seemingly sedate vehicle into the fire-breathing road racer you want it to be – well, at least from now until you get home, anyway.
So, what do you want? I know what I want. I want induction noise. I want turbo spool. I want supercharger whine. I want to hear the actual engine. I want to hear the exhaust. I want pops and crackles on gear changes and on overrun. I want bystanders to snap their necks and either grin from ear-to-ear or scowl with disapproval – either way is good.
But a great many cars these days – not all, but a great many – simply don’t deliver this. Usually what you get is a slightly touchier throttle pedal, a transmission that wants to hold gears for days, unnecessarily and unhelpfully heavier steering, synthesised engine noises pumped into the cabin, and logarithm-based exhaust farts. And it’s just not great.
It’s all so forced and artificial and underwhelming, it’s just a letdown, and it shits me. So, if you’re going to have a ‘Sport’ mode, get it right. Make it good, make it awesome, or just don’t bother.