Vehicle damage is a fundamental aspect in the GTA series where nearly any vehicle is susceptible to damage from the environment, typically in the form of crashes, gunfire, or other external forces, as it does in real life, providing a certain degree of realism and illustrating the vulnerability of vehicles in the series. If a vehicle is sufficiently damaged, it explodes in a fireball, destroying it and rendering it useless. As the series progressed, the variety of damage has been increased, offering additional opportunities on how the player can destroy vehicles. In addition, the manner in which damage is depicted in game has changed as new game engines are used.
Damage resistance should be considered when selecting a car for a task. The high performance of certain vehicles may be offset by a weaker body, while a slow, heavy vehicle may be far more resilient to damage. If a player is not proficient in their driving or has not properly planned their path to their destination, the choice of vehicle may become a hindrance if the player is urgently completing a mission or escaping from pursuers.
Certain missions and tricks throughout the series can create a damage-resistant vehicle, which include resistance to bullets, explosions, physical collisions, and fire. Tanks and certain armored vehicles are also naturally highly resistant to damage and are invulnerable to certain forms of destructive forces.
As the series began, vehicles in Grand Theft Auto 1 and Grand Theft Auto 2 can be destroyed via high speed crashes, gunfire from firearms and drops into water, features which are still present in all games after. The games are also capable of accurately visualizing portions of vehicles which are damaged using collision detection, and each vehicle has a number of sections that represent each part as either damaged or undamaged: Six in GTA 1 and four in GTA 2.
Unlike much of the series after, a vehicle's performance degrades as its damage is increasingly severe. For GTA 1, the only hint to this is a growingly louder clunking engine noise; GTA 2 includes both the noise and an additional fire in the middle of the vehicle, which grows with increased damage or grows on its own.
By Grand Theft Auto III, vehicles are far more sensitive with damage, as parts can show signs of damage with the slightest collision, as well as high speed collisions with pedestrians. However, the performance of vehicles remains unaffected from damage, and imminent destruction of vehicles are represented by a burning engine. If a vehicle is flipped over, its engine may also engulf in flames and result in the vehicle exploding.
Developing from GTA 1 and GTA 2, GTA III's visual representation of vehicle damage improved in complexity. The engine may now emit smoke, providing a gauge on how much damage a vehicle has before it is on fire, indicating the vehicle's imminent destruction. Most road vehicles in the game are also constructed from individual polygons with a central "core" (the wheels, engine, chassis and body of vehicles). The damage system of vehicles represents the minor vehicle parts (doors, frontal quarter panels/head lights and bumpers) as undamaged, damaged or missing, based on collisions detected on the vehicle; the core of each vehicle remains visually unchanged despite heavy damage. Boats and aircrafts, however, will not show signs of damage until they are on the verge of exploding.
Between GTA Vice City and GTA Vice City Stories, various improvements and refinements were made on GTA III's damage engine:
- For road vehicles in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, front windscreens may now be shattered and tires can be punctured using a firearm (the latter affects handling and grip as an affected vehicle is more prone to spinouts; it also allows for the inclusion of spike strips) and melee weapons may be effectively used to damage vehicles, while trunk lids may detach from a vehicle at a certain speed if ajar; motorbikes and helicopters, which were introduced in the game, have only smoke from the engine to show. Smoke effects and color from the engine have also been improved to better depict the condition of a damaged vehicle (from white, to a mix of white and black, to black). Destroyed boats may also sink in the water, as are aircraft and road vehicles that have landed in water.
- Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas forgoes removable front quarter panels altogether (although headlights may still be broken if the same area is damaged), but allows bumpers to dangle before detaching. Doors, trunk lids and boot lids may also be closed shut by physical force (i.e. swaying a vehicle side by side), making detachment of these parts far more difficult. Road vehicles may also explode if its fuel intake cap is shot at. Fixed-wing aircraft in the game may degrade performance-wise with increasing damage, and possess the ability to emit smoke from damage parts (such as the wings and fuselage), while flaps on the tail and wings may dangle for similar reasons. Airplanes and helicopters may also explode on impact with any surface. Bicycles, which were introduced in the game, are invulnerable to damage. Also, cars will emit a subtle clunking sound when the smoke becomes a combination of white and black.
- As Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories reuse GTA Vice City's game engine, their damage engines are exactly the same as in GTA Vice City. However, like in GTA San Andreas, front quarter panels are not detachable.
Grand Theft Auto Advance, which uses an independent top-down game engine, possesses a vehicle damage engine largely similar to that of GTA 1 and GTA 2, except large vehicles (i.e. buses and trucks) may also face the risk of rolling over when cornering at high speeds.
For Grand Theft Auto IV, vehicle damage has improved in leaps and bounds. Imminent destruction is now represented by either a burning engine, a burning fuel tank or both, and clunking engine noises are reintroduced for vehicles with damaged engines. Alternately, the engines of severely damaged vehicles may simply cut off (this can be rectified by calling any number on the player's mobile phone); in addition, vehicles no longer catch fire and explode when they are flipped.
Instead of using readily modeled parts, GTA IV uses a more flexible (but not necessarily realistic) damage engine that allows any part of a vehicle's body to flex and distort based on the force and direction of an impact; the body of boats and helicopters may now be damaged in this manner, while motorcycles still do not. Essentially limitless on the extent on damage that can be done, players can literally flatten or crush any vehicle using extreme force; explosions are also known to damage a vehicle's bodywork severely. In addition, should a road vehicle sustain severe frontal or rear damage, its axle may also bend to a point when it can no longer function, locking and dragging its wheel along the ground as the vehicle moves, greatly affecting performance.
Other minor damages were added in the game. Individual lights (including those of motorbikes) and windows can be broken. Opened doors can be broken off by forcing them against another solid object (as doors are now registered as solid objects). Scrapes, scratches and bullet holes are added for minute damages. Flat tires can break apart at a certain speed, resulting in the wheel running on a bare rim; tires may also be destroyed by fire, burning out excessively, bullets, or extreme pressure (A car that lands on top of or gets T-Boned at the fender by another car, on rare occasions, can pop it's tire). Vehicle bumpers can hang and bounces around from collisions or bullets. They will not detach until the vehicle explodes.
A vehicle's suspension can also be damaged. A common tactic is to partially submerge a car in water (to avoid accidental explosion) and shoot behind the wheels inside the wheel arches. There are two distinct drops in ride height for each wheel arch shot at. The newly-lowered car can be used to drift easily in a similar way to modded PC drift cars, even on consoles.
In GTA: Chinatown Wars, the damage system reverts to that of games prior to GTA IV, limiting visual damage to ajar doors and hood and trunk lids, and smoke or fire from the engine. Vehicles are now certain to explode after sufficient damage, and the player will also be set alight when a vehicle they have damaged heavily ignites. Flipped vehicles will also explode in the same manner as it does prior to GTA IV.
In GTA: Chinatown Wars, Baggage Handler drivers, when killed with a melee weapon, Chainsaw, or Teaser, their foot will hit the gas pedal and the car will start moving, although it was stopped when you were killing him.
Vehicle damage in GTA V remains somewhat similar to GTA IV's. The bodies of vehicles will distort and deform based on the force and direction of the impact with another solid object, although the vehicle's bodies are more rigid to keep some aspect of realism. Wheel axles will break more easily, especially when landing hard on a wheel, and engine performance can be degraded from a head-on collision with another object. Scratches are more visible and longer compared to GTA IV. Individual lights and windows can be broken. However, if a window is broken, small shards of glass will remain portruding from the window slats, unlike GTA IV, where the whole window would break all at once, leaving behind no shards of glass at all.
It is now possible to remove front quarter panels and bumpers, whereas in GTA IV, the bumper would just dangle. Also it is now possible to remove a car wheel when crashing into a heavy object at a high speed, or by crushing the vehicle.
Ejection from the windscreen doesn't happen as frequently. However, ejection is certain to cause severe damage to the player.
In both GTA IV and V, depending on the size and speed of the vehicle, if the player crashes into a civilian's vehicle, the civilian can be killed on impact. The fatal impact is depicted when either the NPC's head hits the horn and it goes off( sometimes they leave their foot on the gas pedal and the car keeps moving) or they slump on the car seat. In GTA IV if you hit a beater, or a Dukes or Taxi (on some occasion) the NPC and car will catch fire and the car will explode.
- In Vice City, if you enable the 'Destroy all cars on screen' cheat in the Pause Menu 15 times, a destructive effect will occur; the area of effect will increase with every subsequent use of the cheat, and within a few seconds of restarting play, destroyed cars will begin to fall out of the sky. This was also possible with trainers where you could hold the keys and due to the repeated blasts, the cars would go up beyond limits by helicopters and after you release it, will fall down. The cars on every blast, rise up and falls. This is the reason for the cars 'flying' high and falling.
- Sometimes, it is possible for a vehicle to be set on fire through external means, such as a Flamethrower, Molotov Cocktails or other stray flames in the game world, without actually exploding. Prior to GTA IV, it is essentially impossible to distinguish these incidental flames from those signalling an impending explosion.
- In some occassions, in all 3D Universe games, vehicles will explode twice when destroyed. Occasionally, the engine will remain on fire after the initial explosion, leading to a second soon afterwards, potentially catching players unaware.
- In GTA San Andreas, all bicycles are completely immune to damage. However, if a bicycle somehow ends up resting upside down, it will catch on fire and explode. This is very difficult to perform, however, because it is next to impossible to make a bike stay resting upside down.