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If there’s one crucial component to the Grand Theft Auto series, it’s the vehicles. Stealing cars, boats, planes, and helicopters is the cornerstone of the thrills the game is known for, and how you have fun with them has changed a lot since the first title.
Having played every GTA entry in the series except for a couple of spin-off titles, I’ve spent hundreds of hours driving and flying. Like everyone, I initially had to go through the learning curve of adjusting to the mechanics of each vehicle, so I understand that it can be pretty overwhelming at first.
Not only do you have to build the physics and handling of each vehicle into your muscle memory, but you’ve also got to navigate a living, bustling city while doing so. In this GTA vehicles overview, I’ll be overviewing everything you need to know about the history of vehicles in GTA and the most important aspects of utilizing each type.
Whether you’ve never played a GTA game or would simply like a refresher on one of the game’s most crucial aspects, I’m sure you’ll learn something new by the end of this article!
Bottom Line Up Front
With vehicles being such a huge part of the franchise, this overview covers quite a lot. Below, you’ll find a breakdown of the differences in how vehicles work and what vehicles are available in each mainline GTA title. I’ll also be covering the different types of missions you’ll run into that utilize vehicles – and I’ve included a section with a few important tips to help you along the way.
As well as the more functional information, you’ll also find a history regarding how each mainline entry has handled vehicles. There’s also a frequently asked questions section at the bottom of the page covering some of the most common points of confusion players face with this topic.
The Evolution of Vehicles in the Grand Theft Auto Series
While many people are only familiar with the 3D Grand Theft Auto titles, the series has been going a lot longer than those games. In this section, we’ll have a look at how vehicles have been implemented in the mainline games.
I won’t be covering spinoff titles like China Town Wars for the Nintendo DS or Liberty City Stories on the PSP; the vehicles in these games mostly function based on the same game engines as mainline titles anyway. In the same vein, I won’t be delving into each piece of DLC (downloadable content) for the games.
While most pieces of DLC do contain some new vehicles, I’ve written this section to discuss the big changes to how vehicles operate due to new game engines and the studio’s creative direction with each big jump.
Grand Theft Auto (1997)
This is where it all began, and it’s quite the far cry from how we drive around a GTA city today. The vehicles in this game are represented as two-dimensional sprites, but that doesn’t take away from the thrill of speeding through these initial renditions of Liberty City, Vice City, and San Andreas.
Naturally, common conventions were first established here. You’re able to steal a vast variety of cars and bikes, and crashing causes damage over time to the point that your ride will eventually explode. While it’s common now, this sort of accumulative damage in a drivable vehicle wasn’t the norm in 1997.
Most driving games were strictly racing games, so to have a title that prioritized the joy and spectacle of crashing and driving recklessly was a breath of fresh air. Aside from cars, you’ll also be able to ride bikes, buses, trucks, and even a tank.
Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999)
Despite still being played from a top-down perspective, vehicles looked much more detailed this time. Cars and bikes are rendered as 2D sprites but were designed as 3D models similar to the Donkey Kong Country series. Naturally, damage, smoke, and fire effects were decidedly more detailed and satisfying.
With GTA 2 being the first entry in the series to give you access to different jobs, your available interactions with vehicles expanded. You could now earn money working as a taxi driver, delivery man, or bus driver, for example.
This game also represented the first time ambulances and fire engines started showing up to deal with the havoc you’ve caused – and you could steal and drive these vehicles too.
While there isn’t much change in the types of vehicles the player can utilize, there are many more models to choose from. My favorite was the selection of muscle cars: I was always impressed with how the developers managed to capture the power of these engines with such limited tech!
Grand Theft Auto 3 (2001)
Grand Theft Auto 3 saw the biggest change in how vehicles work, and that was down to the nature of moving from a 2D engine to a 3D one. We’d seen the implementation of 3D vehicles in games before 2001, of course, but they’d never been executed with the degree of freedom seen here.
Classics like the Banshee and the Infernus made zipping through the new and improved 3D vision of Liberty City an absolute joy, and with a brand new damage system, causing havoc in the way of crashing, jumping, and speeding brought no end of fun.
This was also the first entry to introduce flyable planes and rideable boats, setting the precedence for exploring new ways to travel beyond the roads. We also saw the inception of those iconic radio stations in GTA 3, which have since become a series staple in showcasing Rockstar’s hilarious writing.
As opposed to the extensive visual and mechanical shift we saw from GTA 2 to 3, Vice City mostly refined the core elements from the last series. Vehicle physics improved, and the handling of cars and bikes feels much snappier. This was also the first title to feature an assortment of helicopters.
Even though Vice City was released just a year after GTA 3, vehicle textures and effects also looked better, and the number of vehicles in the game nearly doubled from 56 in GTA 3 to 102 in Vice City.
San Andreas continued the trend of more is better. It introduced the fan-favorite feature of car modification: taking your vehicle to a tune-up shop enables players to customize every aspect of their car for a bespoke feel – both mechanically and aesthetically. Naturally, the number of available vehicles to choose from doubled to 212.
Being based around the 90s hip-hop culture of the time, you’ll also be able to bomb around in novelty vehicles like the low rider. This was a car with dancing hydraulics you could control as you drove by maneuvering the right analog stick. You can even find a jetpack to fly about it, and there’s also a cheat code for a flying car.
San Andreas experimented with vehicles beyond the standard choices, which was a direction that would be scaled back in the next entry but ultimately brought back later.
GTA 4 was a major leap in more ways than one, but perhaps the biggest changes came with the vehicles. Every model was wholly different from what we’d seen in any of the other 3D entries, but the new damage system was the most notable addition. With this being the first Grand Theft Auto title to release in the 6th generation of gaming, real-time mesh-altering physics was now possible in-engine.
Rather than settling for pre-rendered damage meshes, whatever you crashed into would be represented by an appropriately formed dint on your vehicle. You’d even get launched out of your vehicle’s windscreen if you crashed at a certain speed, and glass now broke and fractured realistically.
While there were many cars, bikes, boats, and helicopters to use in GTA 4, there was a notable absence of planes. Apparently, this was because the city layout was too dense to warrant the use of these vehicles, and it didn’t make sense to use a plane to get from one end to the other. Generally, this entry was more scaled back – but it had the most detailed representation of vehicles we’d ever seen, that’s for sure.
It’s no surprise that Rockstar’s latest entry has the most varied selection of vehicles from any GTA title. Your cars, motorbikes, planes, boats, and helicopters are all back and better than ever, but the developers went to town with the amount of wacky vehicular experience available to the player. Series favorites like the push-bike return, and you’ll even ride a submarine at one point. The rest I won’t spoil.
Vehicle handling and physics tightened substantially, reflections and effects looked more realistic than ever, and the fourth game’s damage effects were tweaked to perfection.
There’s a positively huge array of different vehicles at a total of 348, and Grand Theft Auto 5 also widely expanded air travel. From private jets to Cargobob helicopters complete with a retractable hook, taking to the skies is one of the most enjoyable ways to experience the city’s thrills. You can also steal a full-size airliner for the first time — something fans have been waiting for since the third game.
Of course, the game offers a huge difference in vehicle controls on account of the added first-person mode. The feature brought a completely different feel to all vehicles in the game, and it gave players a detailed visual representation of car interiors, cockpits, and handlebars for the first time.
Rockstar also substantially expanded on the number of vehicles available through GTA: Online: there are currently 692 vehicles available that range from flying cars to quad-propeller battleships!
Types of vehicles
Cars are your main form of transportation in any GTA title, and they control the same as nearly every car you’ve ever driven in a 3D racing game.
There are a large variety of different types of cars to choose from in most games, but they generally siphon off into three different categories. You have your character’s unique vehicle which will be distinct both in appearance and performance from other vehicles, and then there’s the assortment of NPC vehicles traveling up and down the road for you to steal: these range from sedans, coupes, hatchbacks, and SUVs.
Finally, you have supercars, which are either available by acquiring them through specific missions or by purchase.
Trucks and Vans
These vehicles behave and control identically to cars but they have much stiffer handling. In most games, you’re able to get your hands on standard vans to big delivery trucks, and on the freeway, you’ll come across 18-wheelers and oil tankers to steal.
Larger vehicles have worse handling but have a higher damage threshold. They also offer more force when plowing through other vehicles on the road.
Bikes represent the second most common vehicles in the game. They’re more unwieldy than cars but can often be faster and nimbler. It’s also possible to wheelie on a bike, and your in-air maneuverability is substantially enhanced compared to cars. Their types range from large, Harley Davidson-style models and fast Ducati replicas.
Bicycles are also available in a select few GTA titles, but given that they were in GTA V, they’re probably here to stay now. They control very similarly to bikes given their extra ability to wheely, but acceleration is treated much the same as sprinting: the faster your tap the sprint button, the quicker you’ll pedal.
Drivable boats have become a GTA mainstay since the third game. Since then, we have had multiple model iterations. Their control scheme follows the same pattern as cars, and in terms of variety, you’ll be able to take control of speedboats, Yauts, and jet skis. If you beach one of these vehicles, they’re usually stuck there unless you use something like the Cargobob to hook them back into the water.
Notably, you can also stand statically on a boat when you’re not driving and many allow you to take cover around the perimeter. For this reason, they make a great choice for multiplayer escapades.
Planes were one of the later additions to the Grand Theft Auto vehicle roster due to the technical limitations of the time, but now they’re a crucial form of transport for exploring the ever-expanding open worlds. GTA entries that offer planes feature one or more dedicated airstrips where planes spawn and can be stored. These areas range from dirt tracks to huge airports and military bases.
GTA V finally allowed players to ride commercial airliners, but there are many other options so far as planes go, too. Private jets offer a fast, luxury modality of travel, and you’ll also find stunt planes, bi-planes, military jets, and cargo planes in some entries.
If you’re traveling around the inner city by air, you’ll likely use a helicopter. These vehicles are probably the most unique in how they control: you have to pivot the vehicle in the axis you want to move in while simultaneously managing how high or low you want to fly. Many helicopters across the series will feature duel machine guns, missiles, or both. They’re also the main tool used by the police at higher wanted levels.
Helicopters tend to be more versatile than planes in that they can take off and land from just about anywhere. You will also find helipads atop many of the city’s towering buildings.
Alongside traditional vehicles, you’ll also encounter a range of special vehicles you’ll use either in certain missions or come across as a secret. Secret vehicles are usually found in a relatively hidden location, and they usually possess some sort of special ability such as a higher-than-usual top speed or high damage resistance.
You’ll also find other vehicles dotted about the map that are out of the ordinary, such as forklifts, blimps, and subs. More often than not, these vehicles don’t have much utility, but they’re a lot of fun non the less! Some GTA entries, such as San Andreas and GTA 4, also enable you to drive trains.
Common Vehicle-Related Missions
Vehicles aren’t simply a means to an end. More often than not, they’re an essential part of the game’s many mission types. Here are the main missions that involve vehicles.
Races have always been a staple, and these types of missions are the ultimate proving ground for your driving or piloting abilities. Races usually come in two forms. The first function more organically as part of a mission: you might be challenged to a race through the streets by a character to progress the story, for example, or at times, you’ll visit a set story location with the sole express purpose of racing.
The second encompasses traditional side missions: these are dotted about the map as extra challenges that scale in difficulty. In the later games, sometimes what constitutes a race will differ. These days, the devs have found new and creative ways to implement races — from skydive acrobatics to full-scale triathlons.
These will form up a large part of vehicle-based missions, no matter what game in the series you’re playing. Chase sequences nearly always consist of chasing down an enemy and destroying them or their vehicle, so you’ll often need to master shooting out your nearest window as you drive.
GTA games have some brilliantly animated cutscenes, but the majority of the time, you’ll be listening to story dialogue as you drive. You’ll be given a marker on the map to travel to, and while you’re in the car you have a conversation with whoever’s sat in the passenger seat.
On occasion, shoot-outs will erupt, and your passengers will take fire out the window as you chase down a target or try to escape rival gangs or the police.
Heists were introduced with GTA V, and they represent some of the most intense and involved vehicle sections you’ll play through. Given that the game often requires you to switch between its three protagonists on the fly, each could be driving a different vehicle that you’ll have to quickly acclimatize to.
For this reason, you’ll often find heists to be one of the greatest challenges so far as your proficiency across the roster of different vehicles – whether it be on land, air, or sea.
These sections of the game mostly relate to flying vehicles. One of the most well-known training missions types are those that teach you to fly a plane: in GTA V, all players will have to earn their Pilot’s Certificates before being able to fly planes in the game, though in other games in the series, planes can be flown from the start.
In many GTA entities, you’ll be able to take on civilian and special service jobs, most of which take place in various vehicles. Most games allow you to take shifts as a cop, paramedic, fireman, taxi driver, or delivery man.
Extra Vehicle-Related Considerations
Tune-up shops differ substantially from game to game. In most of the older entries, they functioned simply to change the color of a car. From GTA San Andreas onwards, though, the entire car can be modified.
You can change virtually every aspect, from the intricacies of the engine and the efficiency of the breaks to adding multiple paint liveries and even altering the tint of the windows.
While tune-up shops differ from game to game in the extent to which they allow for vehicle modification, they always allow a quick getaway from the police no matter what title you’re playing. Your wanted level will disappear upon entry.
Your Personal Garage or Airstrip
Some games have physical garages where you can store your vehicles, such as San Andreas and GTA 5, while others simply offer allocated car parking spaces, such as in GTA 4.
Either way, these spaces offer spots to keep cars you’ve found or bought. GTA 5 also enables the player to buy airstrips: these can house multiple planes and helicopters at a time.
This feature is unique to GTA V. If you get arrested by the police, your vehicle will be taken to the station impound car park and you’ll have to pay a fee to get it back.
Of course, this is GTA, so you always have the option of jumping the fence and stealing your car back. You’ll immediately gain a wanted level of two stars, though, so you won’t get it back without a fight.
Another element unique to GTA 5 is vehicle insurance. In this game, you have the option to insure your vehicles via the Mors Mutual insurance company – a service that is accessible through your smartphone. If your car is destroyed or stolen, you’ll have a brand new one delivered directly to you for the cost of what is generally one percent of the purchase price.
If someone steals your vehicle in GTA: Online, it will be tracked unless destroyed. You’ll be able to see its location as a marker on your map.
While GTA has undoubtedly always been a series about stealing vehicles, that doesn’t mean you can’t acquire them via legitimate means. Buying cars works a little differently in each entry, but in the modern games, you can either purchase cars from a physical vendor, or through online stores.
The process isn’t only restricted to cars, either: you can buy boats, planes, helicopters, or bikes online, too. Once purchased, your new vehicle will be delivered to your garage or airstrip.
Car Wash Stations
A cool little extra that many players miss is the car wash. As graphics improved with GTA 4, dirt and grime realistically accumulated on your car’s body and windows, and so there are several car wash stations dotted about the map to provide a renewed and sparkling finish. The feature was brought back for GTA V.
Frequently Asked Question
Question: I’ve noticed a lot of people are using mods to add new vehicles into their games. Is this recommended?
Answer: Mods can be a great way of adding extra content, and given that all the mainline entries can be played on PC, each one is moddable. As you can imagine, there are hundreds of newly modeled vehicles to choose from, whether they be those modeled on real-world brands or brand-new designs. For more information on exactly how you can go about downloading and installing vehicle mods – check out this page. You can browse vehicle mods by game by using the tabs at the top of the page.
Question: I’ve just started playing GTA: Online. Is there an advantage to driving vehicles in either first or third-person view?
Answer: Ultimately, there’s no one best camera perspective for driving vehicles. Some people prefer the extra peripheral vision provided by a third-person camera, while others appreciate the closer connection with the immediate vicinity in first-person mode. You may even find, like me, that for some vehicles you prefer first person and others third. My advice would be to practice with each in a variety of vehicles and find your groove. You won’t be at a disadvantage with either method provided you become skilled at utilizing its unique strengths.
Question: How can I get better at driving?
Answer: As is the case with most things, practice makes perfect. You’ll find that after you’ve spent enough time in a GTA open world that you start to intuitively recognize the layout of certain areas – that familiarity comes with driving around for long enough.
The best way to familiarize yourself with driving is to take time away from missions to bomb around the city (perhaps literally!). Learning the streets, alleyways, and shortcuts of whichever city you’re in makes it easy to anticipate what’s to come when you’re driving fast in a high-pressure mission. If you’re proficient in how you can traverse the roads at the necessary high speeds, you’ve cracked a good portion of what makes driving difficult. Of course, using races and practicing stunt jumps is also a great way to practice for the same reason.
Question: I’m keen to try out the early 2D entries in the series. Is driving from a top-down perspective jarring when coming from the 3D titles?
Answer: You’ll get used to it — but there is certainly a learning curve. The most difficult aspect for me was the fact that you cannot see what’s immediately in front of you. Thankfully, the developers were acutely aware of this limitation: they introduced dynamic zooming that scales depending on how fast you’re going or whether you’re in a vehicle or on foot. While I found the top-down camera restrictive at first, I had no issues with it after a couple of hours of playing.
I hope this guide has offered you insight into the history of vehicles and has provided a useful rundown of the myriad of different types and uses.
I’m sure that once the sixth game in the series releases, we’ll have plenty more vehicle-related content to cover.
Hopefully, Rockstar will give us a taste of what’s to come soon!