Pixar’s original Cars movie worked because you believed cars had feelings.
Anthropomorphized vehicles talking, fighting, falling in love. It all clicked because of Pixar’s animation prowess and the voice talents of people like Owen Wilson.
That magic, though, doesn’t always translate to the real world. Toys built around these movies are generally disappointing because they can’t capture the personality and emotion of the original characters.
Sphero’s Ultimate Lighting McQueen animatronic toy car may be that breakthrough product. It gets virtually every detail right (at nearly $300, it should) and is instantly captivating.
Obviously, it looks just like Cars’ Lighting McQueen, right down to details like the detailing and lug nuts on the wheels, but that’s the easy party. It’s when the toy car starts talking, moving and looking around that you realize, this isn’t just another movie tie-in. In fact, it’s a robot.
Made by Sphero, the company that brought you the tiny, adorable Star Wars BB-8 robot (and assisted on the design for the one in the movie), Lightning McQueen was designed in close cooperation with Disney’s imagineers. As a result, the animations, like the robot’s ability to tilt on its wheels just the way McQueen does in Cars, is spot on.
Behind the windshield is a specially designed trapezoidal LCD that displays McQueen’s recognizable and expressive animated eyes.
One of the best touches, though, is the front fender, which is an animated mouth that perfectly replicates McQueen’s mug. And when the robot car speaks, the mouth, which is made of a soft, yet durable rubber, moves. They synchronization I saw in a pre-production model wasn’t quite perfect, but it wasn’t bad, either.
And, yes, the voice is — well, Sphero would neither confirm nor deny that it’s Owen Wilson, but it sounded exactly like him.
Unlike Sphero’s popular BB-8, the voice comes from the car and not the associated app. In fact, this is Sphero’s first robot with a built-in voice. There’s no microphone, but the Ultimate Lightning McQueen can watch the original Cars film with you, using your phone’s built-in mic to listen for and react to key moments in the movie.
As soon as you tap “Start” on the app to connect (as with all other Bluetooth-connected Sphero products, you only need to hold the phone near the car) the Ultimate Lighting McQueen starts talking and looking around with its animated eyes.
Capacitive touch panels are hidden throughout the car’s body. If you touch on the hood, roof, side panels or near the tail fin, it responds, the car moves slightly, sometimes making very Lightning McQueen-like comments. There’s also an accelerometer, which means the car knows if you pick it up and turn it over.
To drive, race and program Lighting McQueen, you need the free app (iOS and Android). It offers responsive remote control for driving, rewards for winning virtual races and a collection of interactive games, some of which you can play with Lighting McQueen.
There’s also an Acting Studio, which lets users take any of the car’s 300 built-in animations, most of which include a bit of dialogue, like “Focus, Focus” and “Come on, let’s go!” and associated car animations, to build their own Lighting McQueen scripts via a drag-and-drop interface. You can instantly replay scripts or save and edit them further later.
On the driving front, the virtual joystick is responsive and precise, and the car can speed along at up to six miles an hour. The controls were easy to use and I was soon doing quick turns, drifting and spinning out. Yes, I could go backwards, as well, though the app forces you to switch to reverse before you can go backwards. It would make more sense to have the car move in reverse when you pull the virtual joystick back.
Even when driving the Ultimate Lighting McQueen, it looks just as it did in the movies, leaning into turns and lifting up its front end. That’s due to the unusual suspension system, which Sphero told me was designed by an engineer who has engineered motorcycle suspensions. There are also Boost and Skid modes. I’ve never really seen a remote-control car move quite like this one.
Among the games is one where you have to quickly figure out which parts to replace in virtual race cars arriving in the pit. McQueen plays along with you.
There’s also a racing mode that keeps track of achievements.
You charge the car through a port hidden under the rubber gas tank; it’s a clever touch. Each charge promises 40 minutes of continuous playtime. Oddly, there’s no off switch; Ultimate Lightning McQueen simply goes to sleep after a period of inactivity.
Oh, and remember how I said Ultimate Lighting McQueen is a robot? It’s priced like one at $299. Not sure how well that will go down with the Cars fan crowd.
Sphero starts shipping Ultimate Lighting McQueen on Wednesday.