Sunday, May 19, 2024

What Does Eco Mode Mean on a Car Dashboard?


Even if you’re not driving an electric or hybrid car, you may see “eco mode” on your car dashboard. What does eco mode mean? Does it make your car more fuel efficient?

Eco mode is a feature available in many modern cars, aimed at improving fuel efficiency and reducing the vehicle’s environmental impact. In essence, “eco” stands for “ecological” or “economy,” reflecting the mode’s primary function — to enhance the vehicle’s economy by saving fuel and reducing CO2 emissions.

The adoption of eco mode in modern cars symbolizes the auto industry’s shift toward more sustainable practices. By improving fuel efficiency and reducing emissions, eco mode helps drivers minimize their environmental impact. This feature, along with advancements like hybrid and electric vehicles, indicates a more eco-conscious future for the auto industry.

What is eco mode?

In today’s climate-conscious world, “eco mode” certainly conjures images of a magic button making the car essentially no different from a hybrid or EV. But that’s not exactly the case. And, in fact, eco can mean different things on different cars. But generally speaking, it means “economical” as in, more fuel efficient and thus more cost-effective.

What is eco mode on a car?
What is eco mode on a car? Courtesy Toyota

According to Car Cody, early use of eco mode was found in the 2006 Toyota Prius, working only when the car was traveling at less than 34 mph. The 2008 Nissan Leaf hybrid also came with an eco mode, followed by Honda, Ford, and Chevy. Most manufacturers now offer some sort of eco mode in their cars.

And while each car manufacturer can slightly vary what eco mode means on a particular car model, generally it’s an indicator that engine performance is limited in order to reduce fuel use.

The working mechanism of eco mode

In vehicles equipped with an eco mode, the feature typically adjusts various aspects of the car’s performance to prioritize fuel efficiency. This adjustment can include the car’s engine performance, air conditioning, and in some cases, even the transmission settings.

range rover
Photo courtesy Opollo Photography

Engine performance

The primary focus of the eco mode is to tweak the engine’s performance. It achieves this by adjusting the throttle response (the time it takes for the car to accelerate after the pedal is pressed). Eco mode reduces throttle response, meaning the vehicle accelerates slower than it would in regular mode, subsequently using less fuel.

Transmission settings

In automatic vehicles, eco mode often affects how the car’s transmission operates. The transmission system might change gears at lower RPMs (revolutions per minute) when in eco mode. By shifting gears earlier, the engine doesn’t have to work as hard, and therefore, uses less fuel. This change can make acceleration smoother and slower, contributing to fuel efficiency.

Air conditioning and other accessories

In certain vehicles, eco mode can influence the operation of air conditioning and other electrical systems, such as heated seats or heated steering wheels. In eco mode, these features might operate at lower power levels, reducing the load on the alternator, and subsequently decreasing fuel consumption.

Start-stop systems

Eco mode is often linked to start-stop systems in cars, where the engine automatically shuts off when the car is idling (for example, at a red light) and restarts when the driver is ready to move again. This feature is helpful in reducing fuel consumption and emissions, especially in city driving where there are often frequent stops.

The impact of eco mode on driving

Eco mode can affect the overall driving experience. When activated, drivers might notice slower acceleration, less responsiveness when pressing the gas pedal, and in some cases, a quieter engine due to reduced RPMs. The air conditioning may not cool as rapidly, and other electrical systems might operate slightly differently.

Courtesy BMW

While this could slightly alter the driving experience, most drivers quickly adjust to the changes. Moreover, it’s important to note that using eco mode is generally optional. Drivers can turn it on and off depending on their preferences and driving conditions.

Benefits of using eco mode

While the fuel savings from eco mode may not be astronomical, every bit counts in the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change. But, if you see that eco button in your vehicle, remember that it’s a step toward a more sustainable future.

Fuel efficiency

The primary advantage of using eco mode is improved fuel efficiency. By adjusting how the engine and other systems perform, eco mode reduces the amount of fuel the car uses. This reduction in fuel consumption can lead to significant cost savings, especially for drivers who do a lot of city or highway driving.

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Courtesy Volvo

Reduced emissions

Alongside improved fuel efficiency, using less fuel also means emitting fewer pollutants into the atmosphere. As such, using eco mode contributes to environmental preservation by reducing the car’s carbon footprint. According to the EPA, 29 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector, so if you’re not yet driving a zero-emissions vehicle, eco mode can help reduce your carbon footprint.

Increased engine lifespan

By operating the engine at lower RPMs, eco mode can help extend the engine’s lifespan. When the engine isn’t worked as hard, it experiences less wear and tear, which could potentially translate to fewer repairs and a longer life.

Complications with eco mode

But use caution, says J.D. Power. Using eco mode all the time can lead to additional wear and tear. “Driving at low speeds and low rpm increases the intensity of engine, clutch, and gearbox wear,” writes Dustin Hawley for J.D. Power. “Low-volume engines in particular suffer from this, as they have to strain hard and drag a heavy car when operating in Eco mode at low speeds.”

Mercedes-Benz electric SUV
Courtesy Mercedes-Benz Group

According to Hawley, lower speeds decrease the volume of oil in the engine system. “In Eco mode, the engine does not receive enough lubrication,” he writes. “Due to friction and high temperatures in conditions of oil starvation, the wear of engine components increases manifold. At the same time, almost all components of the cylinder-piston group are hit. The cost of replacing them can more than outweigh the savings on fuel.”

There are also threats to the transmission system, as eco-mode sees it switch gears at lower speeds, putting pressure and strain on the gearbox.

When to use eco mode

Eco mode is most beneficial in certain driving situations. It’s particularly effective in city driving, where there are more frequent stops, and the start-stop technology can significantly save fuel. Eco mode is also useful on long, flat highway stretches where steady speeds are maintained.

However, in situations that require rapid acceleration or when driving up steep hills, eco mode may limit performance. As such, drivers might prefer to switch off eco mode in these circumstances for better power and control.

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