Hollywood movies and TV shows have turned cars into stars, from the Ford Mustang driven by Steve McQueen in the famous Bullitt San Francisco car chase to the DeLorean time machine in Back to the Future. Think of the Dukes of Hazzard, and the first thing you think of is the General Lee Dodge Charger.
The same is true in video games. Some of the most famous cars in racing games are fictional, but real cars can also be synonymous with racing games. Take Gran Turismo for example, which famously helped popularise Japanese cars like the Nissan Skyline GT-R and Subaru WRX in the West.
We recently looked at the most memorable characters in racing games – but cars can be characters too. So, with that in mind, these are our picks for the five most iconic cars in racing games.
OutRun – Ferrari Testarossa Spider
Few cars are as synonymous with a driving game as the Ferrari Testarossa in the original OutRun. In 1986, OutRun hit arcades and was an instant classic thanks to its revolutionary sprite-scaling graphics and iconic soundtrack. Sega’s classic arcade racer let you live the fantasy of going on a road trip in a convertible Ferrari with your girlfriend cheering you on in the passenger seat.
Lead designer Yu Suzuki wanted the Ferrari Testarossa to be OutRun’s hero car after spotting one in Monaco while scouting for locations to use in the game on a road trip in Europe. Licensed cars in racing games were rare at the time, so driving a car that clearly had a Ferrari badge in OutRun was a real treat.
However, Sega didn’t get permission from Ferrari to license the Testarossa for OutRun. Rumour has it this led to legal battles between Ferrari and Sega. They must have reached a settlement though because multiple licensed Ferraris would later feature in OutRun 2 and OutRun 2006 Coast to Coast.
In real-life, Ferrari never sold a convertible Testarossa to the public, but the Italian manufacturer did build a silver Testarossa Spider for Fiat’s Gianni Agnelli in 1986 as a one-off gift celebrating his 20 years as president of Fiat.
Also appearing in the TV series Miami Vice, OutRun turned the Ferrari Testarossa into a pop culture icon.
BMW M3 GTR E46 – Need for Speed Most Wanted
Need for Speed Most Wanted has a host of memorable characters, from undercover cop Mia Townsend to the scenery-chewing antagonist Clarence Callahan. But really, Most Wanted’s main character is the game’s hero car: the BMW M3 GTR E46. After all, the entire plot centres on this modded M3.
The M3 GTR is the first car you drive in the game before it’s stolen by a notorious street racing gang known as the Blacklist. You’re then tasked with defeating every member of the Blacklist and recovering your prized M3 GTR.
With its distinctive blue and grey livery and wide body kit, Most Wanted’s legendary M3 GTR is one of the most recognisable cars in racing games, also appearing in Need for Speed Carbon, the 2012 Most Wanted, and Heat. Let’s hope it makes a cameo in Need for Speed 2022.
Its legacy still lives on: browse the community liveries in Gran Turismo or Forza, and you’ll find dozens of Most Wanted M3 GTR recreations. The first M3 to feature a V8 engine, only ten M3 GTR E46 road cars were built in real life so BMW could race it in Le Mans.
Suzuki Escudo Pikes Peak – Gran Turismo
Hundreds of cars have appeared in the Gran Turismo series. But anyone who played GT2 back in 1999 will remember the Suzuki Escudo Pikes Peak. Costing two-million credits, this was the car everyone save up for in GT2.
A competition car built to tackle the gruelling Pikes Peak International Hillclimb, the 4WD Suzuki Escudo Pikes Peak was made famous in Gran Turismo for its insane performance. At its heart is a twin-turbocharged, 2.5-litre six-cylinder engine cranked up to nearly 1,000 horsepower. It also only weighs 800 kg.
This power-to-weight ratio meant the Escudo was a monster to drive. Rocketing from 0-60 mph in two seconds flat and maxing out at 255 mph, its crazy speed made it easy to win races. It was so fast that it gained massive air in jumps and could even be tuned to perform wheelies.
Driven in real life by Japanese hillclimb racer Nobuhiro Tajima nicknamed the “monster,” the 1996 version appeared in GT2 before it was replaced by the 1998 version, which has featured in every Gran Turismo game apart from GT Sport.
Suzuki’s legendary hillclimb car was recently crowned the greatest video game of all time by the Time Extended racing game podcast community and returned in the latest Gran Turismo 7 update.
Dodge Challenger R/T – Driver: San Francisco
The Driver series is a love letter to classic 1970s car chase movies like Bullitt, Vanishing Point, and the original Gone in 60 Seconds. As the first game in the series to feature licensed cars, Driver San Francisco lets you drive some of Hollywood’s most famous cars. But it also has its own hero car.
Driver San Francisco’s star car is a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T. Finished in yellow with black racing stripes adorning the bonnet and fitted with a custom rear spoiler, the American muscle car is driven by undercover cop and lead Driver protagonist John Tanner.
With over 300 horsepower being sent to the rear wheels, Tanner’s tail-happy car is a lot of fun to drive when burning rubber on the streets of San Francisco.
In the opening mission, Tanner’s car is used in a high-speed chase while trying to catch Jericho escaping in a prison van. It gets heavily damaged in a crash, leaving Tanner fighting for his life in a coma.
While unconscious, Tanner gains the ability to “shift” into any car on the road before but he is reunited with his cherished Challenger after you complete the main story missions.
A white version of the Challenger R/T is also unlockable in the game as a homage to Vanishing Point’s hero car.
#41 Hornet – Daytona USA
Daytona USA ushered in a new era of polygonal 3D racing games when it arrived in arcades in 1994. With its advanced Sega Model 2 graphics, addictive and thrilling gameplay, and infectious soundtrack (sing it: Daytonaaa!), Daytona USA was a huge hit, becoming one of the most popular arcade racers of all time.
Sonic was already Sega’s mascot platform game character, but Sega needed a mascot car for an arcade racer that would rival Namco’s Ridge Racer. Enter the #41 Hornet. Inspired by NASCAR Chevrolet Lumina stock car racer, the Hornet is the only playable car in Daytona USA.
While you could choose multiple paint colours with each paint scheme representing different difficulties with varying handling and top speeds, the Hornet’s red, white, and blue colour scheme is the most iconic.
After starring in Daytona USA, the Hornet made cameo appearances in the Ridge Racer PlayStation Vita game and Sonic & Sega All-Stars Transformed. Bizarrely, it was also a bonus playable character in the Sega Saturn beat ‘em up Fighters Megamix, standing up on its back wheels and punching characters in the face with its front wheels.