What does ‘S’ on the gear shifter mean?

Updated Mar 11, 2021 | Same topic: Let's Drive Smart!

For a more spirited driving feel.

What does the S mean in a car?

Unlike cars with a manual transmission, automatic transmission cars come with letters on their shifters instead of numbers. For the most part, these letters or modes usually include P, R, N, D, and S, with some automatic transmission cars including B or L.

The S mode stands for sport. It provides you a more dynamic driving experience as the S mode varies the sensitivity of your car’s throttle response. As a result, you would feel that your car’s RPM will climb faster than usual as more fuel is injected into the cylinders as compared to using the D or Drive mode.

An automatic transmission

Give your car's S or sport mode a try

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Another purpose of the S mode is it stays on a gear longer than usual. This means that your car will reach higher RPMs before automatically shifting to a gear. Generally, the higher the RPM, the faster the acceleration.

Not only will the S mode help you reach higher speeds, but also enable the loud rumbling sounds of your engine which all ultimately results in a sportier driving feel.

What Do The Letters On The Gear Shifter Mean-2 Minute Driving Lesson

It is ideal to use the S mode on open highways where you need the power to overtake the car in front of you. Using the S mode will hold a certain gear depending on your throttle.

Your car’s engine control unit (ECU) will try to read how you like to drive so it automatically shifts to the gear best suited for the situation.

2020 Subaru XV GT interior

Some manufacturers label their transmission gears differently

Some cars come with paddle shifters that are best used whenever you shifted your AT car to the S or Sport mode. Paddle shifters are placed behind the steering wheel and are used to whether you like to downshift or upshift your vehicle. Some AT cars are instead installed with manual shifters on the gear selector similar to shifters in racing arcade games.

However, there are also drawbacks in shifting to the S or Sport mode. Your car will suffer in terms of fuel efficiency as it will require more fuel to hold a gear and reach a high RPM. If you decide to save on fuel, then it is recommended to stay off the S mode and go for the D mode.

How to use S gear in automatic cars?

Now you know what the S gear or mode does, you might as well give it a try and see it for yourself. Observe how different the throttle response and automatic gear shifting are in the S mode and D mode. To get started, here are the steps in using the S mode in cars.

  1. You should use the S mode in open highways instead of areas with traffic or when your car is parked to avoid sharp accelerations.
  2. Start by shifting to the D mode. This will help you drive as fuel-efficient as possible. Find first a road where high-speed runs are less dangerous.
  3. To shift to the S mode, you need to press the button on your gear selector then bring it down to S mode. It is the same button as the one you use to shift from P to D.
  4. Another thing you should take note of is that you shouldn’t press the button on the gear selector if you are going back to N mode or D mode. Just push it back to place after using the S mode. This will help you prevent shifting to unwanted gears such as R and P which will damage your transmission.

A driver shifting a gear selector

Be careful not to shift back to R mode or P mode while the car is moving forward

How about other letters on the gear shift?

1. Parking Mode (P)

You use the P mode whenever you are done using your car, not when you are sitting in traffic. In those situations, you should use the N mode instead. The P mode will lock your car’s transmission by placing a rod in between your car’s transmission gear’s teeth. As a result, your car will not move. Always use the P mode with the parking brake on to achieve maximum braking power especially in sloped areas.

2. Reverse Mode (R)

As the name suggests, the R mode drives your car backward. When you are in N mode or D mode, you cannot just push the gear selector back to the R mode for safety reasons. You should press the button on the gear selector before shifting back to the R mode or P mode.

3. Neutral Mode (N)

In a neutral mode, your gears are not connected to the engine. As such, your wheels will not be driven. The N mode is similar to the P mode. The main difference between the two gears is that the P mode engages a rod that locks the transmission gears, while the N mode doesn’t. 

4. Drive Mode (D)

The D mode engages the transmission gears to the engine so the wheels can spin. In an automatic transmission, the car’s ECU will determine which gear should be used depending on your throttle and the car’s speed. This mode is suitable in most daily driving conditions.

>>> Related: What does D3 mean in automatic cars?

5. Brake Mode (B) or Low Gear Mode (L)

Some cars label their cars with L mode, or low gear mode, instead of B mode. Both are the same but it differs based on the manufacturer. The B mode retains a low gear for various reasons. A low gear provides more torque but less speed. You need a high amount of torque in situations such as uphill drives and towing. You can also use the B or the L mode for engine braking while going downhill.

>>> Related: Here are several reasons why your car is not shifting into gear

A car with an electronic parking brake

Modern cars come with an electronic parking brake

FAQs about S mode on a car

Q: What does the S stand for in automatic transmission?

The S mode stands for sports mode which provides more spirited driving.

Q: What does the N mode mean?

The N mode means neutral which disengages the gears from your engine.

Q: Is the S mode bad for my car?

Using the S mode is not going to hurt your car. However, it will affect your car’s fuel efficiency if used frequently.

Q: What does the D mode mean?

The D mode means drive which helps your car move forward.

Q: How to use sport mode in AT cars?

Press on the button on the gear selector and push it down to the S mode.

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Rex Sanchez

Rex Sanchez


Rex Sanchez grew up in Saudi Arabia where he saw and got into the automotive scene. He started his career for an aviation company in the said region, writing about turbines and rotors which are later distributed for educational purposes. And now, he joined Philkotse.com as a staff writer. Currently, he is the youngest on the team and is more than ready to grow in the field.

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