Driving the ultimate real-life Forza Horizon 4 road trip
A ferocious sports car and 1,000 miles of beautiful British roads. Bring it on.
Andrew LanxonEditor At Large, Lead Photographer, Europe
Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.
With the release of Forza Horizon 4, the open-world racing game series arrives in Britain, letting you tear around the green and pleasant land with reckless abandon, power sliding across fields and launching through endless farmyard gates.
But what's it really like to drive around Britain, and how much fun can a road trip on this small island be? To find out, I planned the ultimate road trip, designed around Forza Horizon 4.
A real life Forza Horizon 4 road trip is a thing of beauty
My route: a 1,100-mile circuit beginning in Buxton in the Peak District in England, cutting North through the Lake District, into the dramatic Scottish Highlands, before arcing down through Edinburgh, along the east coast of England and back to my starting point in Buxton.
I'd carefully planned the route to tie in as closely as possible with the Forza map. While not everywhere in the game is real (there's no village of "Ashbrook" or "Lakehurst Forest" in real life, for example), there are plenty of real places, including Scotland's capital city Edinburgh and Bamburgh Castle, to let me plan a route that can be pretty accurately followed in the game.
My car? A Jaguar F-Type SVR. Carefully chosen, I wanted a vehicle that was comfortable enough to not shake my skeleton to pieces on the long miles, but was aggressive enough to really enjoy the many twists and turns on the way. With a 5.0-liter V8 engine under the hood, capable of a 0-60 mile-per-hour time of just 3.5 seconds, the SVR was the perfect balance of pleasure and performance for this journey. Also, as a British car, it'll feel right at home on these roads.
The journey begins
My trip began at 7 a.m., beating the morning traffic as I cruised through the beautiful Peak District, past the village of Castleton and Mam Tor hill -- neither are specifically mentioned in the game, but are delightful spots to visit and are surrounded by some excellent driving roads.
While you can find plenty of open roads to enjoy in the Peak District, many more roads are narrow and packed with blind corners. As a result, it's important to drive carefully here -- if you accelerate hard, be prepared to brake twice as hard. But I relished finding a straight, if only for a brief blast of the monstrous sound from the F-Type's V8 engine. There's a button inside the car that makes the exhaust sound even louder. Naturally, I kept it turned on almost the entire journey.
From the Peak District it was an easy run north, bypassing the city of Manchester to Kendal, which marked for the me the start of the Lake District. My arrival in the 'Lakes' signaled a turn in the weather. Hammering rain made for terrible visibility (the F-Type's wipers could barely keep up) while gale-force winds meant the roads were littered with tree branches and, on one frightening occasion, an actual tree. Driving safely meant driving slowly.
But that's often the case in a country famed for its rain. Horizon 4 does have some rain -- not to mention snow and ice in the winter season -- but the landscape seems most often paired with blue skies, flecked with pink-tinged clouds. Real Britain is frequently wet and even the slightest glimmer of sunlight through the clouds will cause a surge in sunglasses sales.
My goal in this area was Derwent Water -- a major lake that features prominently in Forza Horizon 4. I was looking forward to reaching it as the route from Kendal to Keswick (a town just North of the lake) was named the "UK's best driving road" by car rental service Avis, using a formula apparently created by a quantum physicist and an F1 track designer. "How exciting!" I thought.
But the problem with anything 'lab-created' like this is that it fails to take into account the reality of the situation. And my reality was endless slow-moving tourists, made even slower by disappointing weather. There's no question this section of the trip is beautiful -- or at least, would be beautiful, in nicer conditions -- but when you're trapped behind a fleet of compact hatchbacks and bus-loads of day-trippers trundling along at 25 in a 60 zone, it no longer feels like an exciting road trip in a supercar, and more like a Sunday drive to deliver a sponge cake for your grandmother's tea party.
As I passed Keswick, the road became more winding, but also less encumbered by slow-moving traffic, so it at least allowed for slightly more dynamic driving. The road is almost identical to the in-game version, complete with lake views, beautiful, ancient trees and dry-stone walls on both sides.
Now, here's a quick note on dry stone walls. These walls are common throughout much of England and are constructed from small pieces of stone, carefully hewn and placed in such a way as to be supported by themselves, with no addition of mortar -- hence dry stone. Many are hundreds of years old.
They are also solid. Extremely solid. In Forza Horizon 4, however, you can send your car flying through these walls, scattering rocks in all directions without so much as a scratch appearing on your shiny paintwork. As someone who once, in his youth, accidentally span the back end of his mum's Peugeot 206 into a dry stone wall (sorry, mum!), let me tell you; there's no way you can drive through these things without utterly obliterating your vehicle.
The same goes for hay bails, post boxes and motorway guard rails, all of which are seemingly made from children's party balloons in Forza, but all of which will result in your quick and fiery demise should you attempt to drive through them in real life.
The road eventually led me to the base of the Honister Pass -- a single-track road that snakes its way up and over the hills. It's a challenging route, particularly when you have to squeeze your way past oncoming traffic. Various sections give an unobstructed view up the road ahead so you can afford to be a little more generous on the acceleration, as long as you're ready to go back on the brakes in an instant, because it's not just cars you need to watch out for -- sheep roam freely across the moors and roads and are not quick to get out of the way.
From here it was a simple route North across the border into Scotland, around the outskirts of the city of Glasgow and onward to the lakeside town of Balloch, for my first overnight stay and a much-needed beer.
Glen Coe's beauty
I awoke to more rain and gray skies, but with enough sunlight trying to peek through to leave me optimistic for at least a bit of sunshine later on. The wind had raged throughout the night, bringing down a large part of the tree outside my B&B (luckily missing my car by only a few feet), but even that seemed to be subsiding.
After a hearty cooked breakfast I followed the road out of Balloch and North along the banks of Loch Lomond. The main road was busy with commuters, buses and endless juggernauts hauling god knows what, so it was pretty slow going for much of the start of the route.
As the road wound its way farther North the landscape became steadily more wild and the traffic more sparse, allowing me to begin to properly enjoy the F-Type. Graceful corners could be taken at almost any speed with endless grip, and overtaking on the long, wide roads was a breeze thanks to the savagely fast acceleration. Not to mention the bellowing roar of the engine that could almost certainly be heard right the way across the valley.
I headed for Glen Coe; a stunning area full of sweeping valleys, sprawling moorland and dramatic mountains. It's also well-known for its poor weather and that's sadly what I was greeted with as I approached. The rain was again beating down faster than the wipers could cope with and overall visibility beyond a few car lengths ahead was practically nil.
But poor weather in Scotland often blows over quickly and it wasn't long before the valley was draped in dramatic clouds, with shafts of sunlight breaking through, dappling the hillsides in speckles of beautiful golds and ambers. I love the wildness of Scotland and to my eye, it looks all the better with some moody weather hanging above it.
The A82 that cuts through Glen Coe is a stunning driving road. It's wide, smooth and it's flanked by such amazing landscape that you really need several sets of eyes to take it all in and still pay attention to the road ahead. Speed doesn't even matter around here -- the slower you go, the more time spent in these surroundings. My advice? Hit the brakes, and don't hesitate to pull in to the many parking spots along the route to soak up the views
Glen Coe isn't specifically referenced in the game, but you will find "Glen Rannoch" in the Northern part of the map. Loch Rannoch is a real place, however, and it sits right in between Glen Coe and my next destination of the Cairngorm National Park. The "Glen Rannoch" landscape in the game is identical to what I found in real-life Glen Coe, so there's no question I still felt "in the game." Time was a little against me at this point, so I hunkered down in the car and tried to put the miles behind me to reach the Cairngorm town of Aviemore and to finally have my dinner.
While I planned to stay in Aviemore, I wasn't able to find accommodation, so I decided to carry on to the other side of the Cairngorms to the village of Ballater. And boy, was I glad I did. The roads I found on this route provided the best driving experience I have ever enjoyed anywhere in Europe.
I didn't realize this was going to be the case as I took the main road North out of Aviemore. Stuck behind yet another huge lorry going slowly on the twisting road, I was expecting a slow, dreary journey. But about 10 minutes further, I broke off from the main road and with a right turn, found myself on the Highlands Tourist Route.
This road is a magical ribbon of tarmac that spans about 50 miles between Aviemore and Ballater, and it's got everything on it you'd want from a good driving road. Long series of straights, gentle bends and demanding corners made this route endlessly fun to drive. It goes up and over various hills providing intensely beautiful views of the surrounding area and, best of all, I had it all to myself.
After leaving the main road I only passed two other cars coming the other way and I had no car either in front or behind me at any point. I could see any oncoming traffic for miles away so taking dynamic racing lines around corners was perfectly safe and it's where the F-Type SVR really came to life, gripping hard on the bends and firing out of the other side like a rocket -- with a noise to match.
It felt like one massive automotive playground and it's a route I urge you to seek out if you're ever in the area with a good car.
Both me and the car were ready for a good rest when I arrived at my overnight stop.
Into the city
After another big breakfast I was on the road, heading south from Ballater, drizzling rain pervading. It's an area of softly undulating hillsides, dotted with farmhouses and, of course, the odd castle.
I'd taken the "Old Military Road" -- a winding section of tarmac well known to automotive journalists and petrolheads alike for its enjoyably challenging bends, its exhilarating straights and the beautiful mix of forests and open moorland on all sides.
There's little in the way of towns and shops on the road, and I'd wished I'd packed a snack and some water. Even the petrol station I found had just a single pump and a credit card payment machine, with no building -- or, indeed, people -- to buy supplies from.
My goal for the day was for somewhere much more populated, however; the city of Edinburgh. It was an easy run south, across the Queensferry river crossing and follow the GPS toward the Edinburgh city center.
Edinburgh is the main city in the game, and it's certainly worth visiting, but it's not built for cars. The ancient streets in the old part of the city (where you'll find the castle) are narrow, bustling with tourists, and made more difficult to navigate by a tricky one-way system, nose-to-nose traffic and lack of street parking.
Luckily, the game reproduces this part of the city so well that if you do feel a mad urge to hoon a car around the old streets, the game will scratch that itch admirably. I was amazed as I played Forza at home, how realistic Edinburgh was and was even able to take almost the exact same route through the city that I had done only days prior -- even pulling up outside the same cafe!
Edinburgh is a magnificent city to explore but it's worth parking up further out of the centre and walking in. Unfortunately for me, time didn't allow that, so I had to plough my way through with no opportunity to stop and take photos. Ho hum.
Eventually I was able to get out of the city and made my way south, out of Scotland and into Northumberland -- Britain's last real wilderness. There's miles of unspoiled coastline here, and due to the often colder temperatures the beaches tend only to be populated by a handful of dog walkers.
At late afternoon I arrived at the village of Bamburgh, flanked by the magnificent Bamburgh Castle. You'll find the castle -- and the surrounding beaches -- reproduced perfectly in Forza. The game allows you to drive through the castle itself, as well as buy it as your home if your funds allow. In real life I was only able to get my car as far as the front driveway before turning round and parking up in the car park opposite.
Instead, I wandered down the almost entirely deserted coastline in the evening sunset and pick my way through the sand dunes, the sharp sea air more refreshing than a trio of strong espressos.
The scenic route home
My final day on the road meant plotting a course for home, but rather than take the direct motorway route, I'd planned a much more scenic journey to squeeze the last bit of fun from the car.
From Bamburgh I headed inland in a westerly direction, driving through the Kielder forest reserve. This heavily forested area, dotted with lakes and rivers, is known for its dark skies due to the overall lack of population. As a result, it still felt truly wild as I was driving through.
As I continued further south, leaving Kielder behind and passed into the Pennines, forests gave way to long-sweeping hill roads surrounded by moorlands. They were immense fun to drive, although sheep -- and cyclists -- were numerous so I had to keep a careful eye out.
Moorland became undulating farmland as I entered the Yorkshire Dales National Park. It was by no means the quickest route home and indeed the car's GPS was so insistent on taking me to a fast motorway that I ended up picking my way through the "Dales" village by village, pulling in at each one to find the next stepping stone on my journey. But that was no problem, as these countryside villages are mostly adorable, with a scattering of old stone houses, usually clustered around a quaint village green with a pub never more than a stone's throw away.
The roads between the villages were more perilous here, though. Narrow, single-track roads, flanked by high hedges, and tight, blind corners meant that my speed had to drop significantly. No more so than on the occasion when, as I drove up a narrow lane, I came upon a farmer shepherding hundreds of sheep up a lane, with the help of his two exuberant sheepdogs. I followed the immense flock up the road at no more than a slow walking pace until they eventually entered a field and cleared from the road.
It delayed me by a good 10 minutes, but did I mind? Not a single bit -- it's that sort of rural charm that makes visiting areas like this so wonderful, and feels like a real escape from the day-to-day stresses of city life.
I'd put many miles behind me as the afternoon progressed and soon the landscape became flooded with a glorious golden sunset. As I parked up and looked out over the stunning scene, it almost didn't seem real -- particularly when a majestic hot air balloon gracefully soared into view -- and I couldn't help but feel that it was the countryside's way of thanking me for tolerating Scotland's harsh weather only the day before.
It was a wonderful end to the trip, and as I hit the motorway to power my way back home, I reflected on just what a great journey it had been. Britain's penchant for speed cameras and strict road rules may often make it seem unwelcoming of vehicles, but the journey I'd taken had not only showed me the best of Britain's landscape, but had been immense fun to drive -- despite the frequently bad weather.
Back home in London, the awesome Jaguar F-Type SVR has gone back, my clothes are washed and my boots have dried out, but I already can't wait to fire up Forza and do the whole journey again.