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By Thomas Wheeler

Despite somewhat mixed reviews from the critics, most of whom particularly criticized the implausibility of a world of sentient cars with no humans whatsoever in evidence (ever hear of "willing suspension of disbelief, boys?), there can be no question that Disney and Pixar have hit upon yet another major hit with the movie entitled simply - CARS, focusing on the adventures of one sporty race car named Lightning McQueen. The box office has been decent for this movie, but then it seems to have been the pattern this spring and summer for major movies to have a good first few weeks and then fade surprisingly quickly. I think a lot of people are content to reserve multiple viewings, or even first viewings, these days, for the DVD.

Of course, there are going to be toys for this movie, and it is in many ways most fortunate that the main producer of Disney-related toys these days is Mattel. I mean - who better to do cars? This is the company that for over thirty-five years has ruled the die-cast aisle with Hot Wheels, and in more recent years picked up the Matchbox line as well. Right there are the two hottest, longest-lasting lines of die-cast cars on the face of the planet. You want toy cars, you want them from Mattel.

Now, there's certainly no shortage of toys based on CARS. I've seen large vehicles, I've seen plush toys (and there's something sort of weird about a plush toy of a generally rigid object like a car) - I haven't offhand seen any radio-controlled vehicles, which surprises the heck out of me to be perfectly honest, but I'll bet there's some out there if I looked harder. Most of these tend to understandably focus on Lightning McQueen and his buddy, a rustbucket of a tow truck, Mater.

Fortunately, there is one toy line that expands the population a bit, and in my opinion is the best way to bring superb specimens of the characters of CARS into your toy collection. And that's the individually carded small-scale cars themselves.

A lot of people seem to agree with that assessment, too. These cars have not been easy to find. The shelf space allocated to them at the Wal-Mart near me is empty more often than it's occupied. Toys "R" Us, despite a considerable display of Cars toys, can't seem to keep these around very well, either.

The reasons one can only speculate about, but if you consider the various combined factors that would make these especially popular - they're die- cast cars, there's a decent number of them in the overall collection, far more than in any other aspect of Cars toys, some of the character voices in the movies were done by popular racing drivers, and just the general longtime popularity of any car-type toys - it's not terribly surprising that when I finally saw some in a display at Wal-Mart, another collector with an armful of Hot Wheels said to me, "If you want any of those, you'd better get them now, because they'll be gone by tonight."

So I snagged a handful of them for the purpose of this review. How are they? Pretty darned cool, really. They're more or less Hot Wheels scaled, but that's a bit of a stretch given that these cars are, inherently, somewhat cartoonish. It's not really fair to set a Hot Wheels car, even some of the more extreme specimens, next to one of the Cars and try to draw too many comparisons.

Paint work for the most part is excellent. My one criticism is that I've seen some toys in this overall line where the painted on or imprinted detail isn't done very well. In this particular line, Mater is a little off. Granted he has the most unusual detailing. He has to look sort of broken down and rusty. The factory accomplished this by imprinting rusted-looking plating on the sides of the vehicle. But you can all too readily see the "dots" of the printing process. There's a vehicle in the multi-pack line (I'll discuss that in a moment), called Tractor that is even worse off. He has these rust spots on him, and you can very apparently see that they used this dot-printing method. And we know that more sophisticated methods than this exist! It's just one of those sloppy things that seems to unfortunately happen to toys these days. I've seen it in action figures, too.

For the most part, though, I can't find anything seriously amiss with these Cars. They look to be well-made, the paint and detail work is, for the most part, excellent, and any fan of the new movie would enjoy having these, and they're quite probably the most accurate and appropriate renditions of the vehicles in the movie that you're going to find.

And let's not forget some of the "in-jokes". The brand of tires Lightning McQueen uses are labeled "Lightyear". Anyone we know?

Certainly they're the best way to get as many of the characters as possible. There are sixteen cars in this line. Along with the main characters Lightning McQueen and Mater, you can get the repainted Dinoco McQueen, Sally, DJ, Sarge, Chick, Sheriff, Doc Hudson, King, Wingo, Filmore, Nitroade, Leakless, and Ramone.

According to the conversation I had with the aforementioned car collector I encountered in Wal-Mart, the toughest of the lot to find are Sheriff and the hippie-bus Filmore, and good luck finding Lizzie, based on a Model "A", at all.

There are also a number of multi-packs available, in the same scale as these individual Cars, that bring even more characters into the line. These include Flo and Ramone; Luigi, Guido, and Tractor; Boost and Snot Rod; and Red, a very cool fire engine, with what looks like a memorial statue of an antique fire engine called Stanley. These seem almost as scarce, if not a little moreso, than the individually-sold Cars.

It's worth mentioning that, with the recent (as of this writing) fall overhaul of toy departments in certain leading retailers, both Target and Wal-Mart have made specific space for CARS products in their die-cast sections, so clearly this line is continuing, and probably will at least through Christmas.

If you enjoyed the movie CARS, and want some of them in your own collection, these small-scale die-cast CARS are certainly the best way to go, and they have my enthusiastic recommendation!