Best driving games to get out while staying in

  • The best driving games can offer excitement, realism, or both
  • Everything from super-karts to supercars - and beaten-up projects
  • Play on your console, smartphone, PC or Mac

Enthusiastic drivers, and those too young to drive, can find the open road thanks to the immense power of consoles and computers these days. Gone are the days of giant-pixels and low-polygon angular cars with unrealistic behaviour – 2020’s crop of driving games is absolutely incredible.

It’s not all about being focused on the screen on your own, either. We’ve brought together some educational, family-friendly and calming driving games that step away from the frantic pace of stereotypical classics such as Need For Speed or Burnout Paradise.

Though there’s plenty to be said for blowing off some steam in a virtual world, when you’re observing lockdown with no realistic end-date in sight it’s just as enjoyable to pick up a game the whole family can enjoy, or one that’s all about the scenery and driving sensibly.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for Nintendo Switch

Console: From £199.99 (Reseller’s ‘shortage’ pricing should be avoided)
Game: £49.99

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a great family racing game

Okay, zero points for realism – dinosaurs can’t drive go-karts, tortoise shells aren’t homing projectiles and antigravity does not yet exist. However, Mario Kart remains the ultimate party game: daft, high-speed fun, where a race’s outcome can depend on either skill or sheer dumb luck, sometimes both at the same time.

The latest release – Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on Nintendo Switch – is also an incredibly good-looking game, with graphics that belie the console’s comparatively humble processing power. The controls are intuitive, the selection of racers and karts is extensive, and the track choice is exceptional.

The solo championships are good fun but the real laughs come when playing in a group. Luckily, online play is near-seamless – you can go in with your friends, with strangers from across the world, or a combination of both. An online subscription costs just £17.99 for a whole year, and we think it’s well worth it.

Recommended by Tom Wiltshire

Car Mechanic Simulator – multiple platforms

Game: £14.99 (£1.49 for Nintendo Switch until 12 April 2020)
PC/Mac: Steam download
Smartphones: Apple / Android
Consoles: Xbox One/PlayStation 4 (£17.99)

Car Mechanic Simulator workshop and office

Normally, we’d recommend spending the time we’re advised not to drive maintaining and learning about your car – but that’s tricky when shops are closed, social distancing is in force, and frankly, no-one wants to spend any money they don’t have to. There’s a brilliant answer, though, and it comes in the form of Car Mechanic Simulator 2018.

This unusual game doesn’t involve the open road or impressive supercars, though you can get some cool muscle cars and off-roaders and drive them on test tracks. Rather than racing, you can progress through barn finds, bangers and classics to work your way up to restoring high-value vintage models. In the meantime, you’re learning about every aspect of how your car works, diagnosing faults, and replacing routine parts as well as repairing damage. Like so many games, it’s free for smartphones but does include in-app purchases.

Car Mechanic Simulator - brakes

The experience on different platforms can vary – be aware that the Nintendo Switch version is closer to the mobile experience than the detailed nature of the Windows PC or Mac game – but in all cases, by the time you’ve been playing for a few hours you’ll have learned about brakes, clutches, gearboxes and engines, and will have more confidence in understanding what your mechanic is showing you or what to look at when buying a used car. It’s no substitute for experience, but it beats trying to work it out from an old Haynes manual!

Recommended by Richard Kilpatrick

Gran Turismo Sport for Playstation 4

Console: From £249.99
Game: £19.99

Selecting a photorealistic dream car to drive in Gran Turismo Sport for PS4

Truth be told, the Gran Turismo nameplate is special for people who grew up in the nineties. Impressionable gamers of this era will practically salivate at the mention of the game.

Memories of Mazda Demios, Nissan Skylines, and of course, the Suzuki Escudo Pikes Peak are instantly conjured just hearing the name.

Gran Turismo Sport has moved the game on a great deal since 1997. It still has tournaments to take part in offline, but its main focus is online. It even has a fully sanctioned FIA championship. We understand that it might seem a bit try-hard for some readers. But in the wider racing game world, it strikes a middle ground between full on sim racer, and light-hearted arcade-ness, all while delivering a huge dollop of nostalgia.

Recommended by Murray Scullion

DiRT Rally for Playstation 4, Xbox, PC and Mac

PS4 Console: From £249.99
Game: From £16.99

Race a Subaru Impreza through your living room with DiRT Rally

The first thing to highlight is the confusing naming structure for the continuation of the rally simulation series that used to carry Colin McRae’s name. This one – DiRT Rally – is the one you want, and the good news is it’s getting on a bit now, so it’s quite cheap. You can download it for £14.99 for PC and Mac via Steam – and it doesn’t require high-spec hardware to run, either.

There are several reasons you need this game – the most crucial is because rallying is the best and most exciting motorsport in the world, and this is the best digital representation of it. Gran Turismo may excel in visual splendor and handling realism, but DiRT Rally stands above all other off-road racers (even the WRC’s own licenced title) simply for being beligerently, grindingly difficult.

You will crash. A lot. And you will finish stone last. A lot. But eventually you’ll start stringing corners together with something like the baletic poise you need in order to shave seconds from your competition. Sooner or later will come the moment you’ve worked and worked for – a stage win – and it’ll mean more to you than a virtual achievement ever has. Much like rallying in real life, winning is far from a given in this game, which makes it all the more satisfying when you do.

Plus the list of cars is simply heroic – ’84 Audi Sport Quattro, ’69 Alpine A110 and the ’88 Peugeot 405 Turbo 16 Pikes Peak to name but a few. Get it bought.

Recommended by Adam Binnie

Forza Horizon 4 for Xbox One and Windows 10

Console: From £225 (Forza Horizon 4 Edition £259.99)
Game: £49.99

Forza Horizon 4 includes British Classic Cars

The fourth instalment of the hugely successful Forza Horizon series sees players take on the familiar surroundings of the Great British countryside. From the snaking B-roads of the Cotswolds to the mesmerisingly lifelike cobbled streets of Edinburgh city centre, Horizon 4 combines iconic UK scenery with a rich and varied list of cars – all with their own individual handling characteristics.

Collect, modify and drive over 670 examples of your favourite real world vehicles, while competing in a variety of championships sprawled across the in-game map. Dynamic weather and season changes bring a new element of fun to open world car games, with icy snow-covered roads quickly turning to a vibrant Spring scene perfect for fast-paced fun and high octane racing.

Forza Horizon 4 also offers the Lego Speed Champions version

Boasting a friendly and approachable handling model, Horizon 4 is suitable for gamers of all levels and offers quick progression through its vast single and multiplayer modes. And, for those who love Lego, a downloadable expansion pack brings the popular toy to life with a whole brick-based world accessible in-game.

Recommended by James Dennison

American Truck Simulator for PC and Mac (Steam)

Game: £24.99 PC DVD-ROM – varies on Steam

American Truck Simulator - Oregon expansion

Taking to the open road for hours might seem like work, but when you’ve got scenery like this, it really becomes almost hypnotically calming. American Truck Simulator can be configured to be as easy or realistic as you’d like, and taking it to the extreme, you can get steering wheels, gear-levers and buttons to build a real cab to drive from.

Starting as a driver for hire, it doesn’t take long to earn enough to buy your own truck; the process, once you’ve learned how to steer, brake and most importantly, reverse that immense trailer, is almost zen-like. Calm, steady progress with just the open road and a photorealistic cab with a full complement of mirrors is unbelievably satisfying, and there’s no need to feel competitive. You’ll be frustrated enough attempting to reach the loading bay straight on.

You don’t need to travel so far – the delights of more familiar HGVs are on offer in Euro Truck Simulator. It’s a little trickier to get into, suggesting how much harder life is for our hauliers, but where else can you play a game delivering carpets from Kidderminster or trying to tackle Birmingham’s roundabouts…

Recommended by Richard Kilpatrick

Looking for more?

Our sister title, CAR magazine, has put together a list of the best racing games – ideal if you’re missing F1 this year as the teams and fixtures have responded to the spread of Coronavirus COVID-19 around the world.

Spintyres is a realistic off-road driving game with unusual Russian vehicles - American ones are available in an expansion

The Parkers team also all agree that a quirky game – Spintyres – is well worth seeking out. It’s focused on driving off-road and forestry vehicles with realistic mud, streams and challenges. It’s not easy, but it’s surprisingly accurate in terms of how challenging off-road driving can be. Console versions are available as well as the Windows PC edition.

As well as ordering online for delivery, many of these games can be downloaded directly from your console’s stores – reducing the strain on delivery services and ensuring contact-free enjoyment.

Read more coping with Covid-19 content:

>> COVID-19 advice for drivers

>> Garages still open during the pandemic

>> How to store your car