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By Thomas Wheeler

I'll admit to a certain skepticism concerning this newest entry into the Transformers universe. That having been said, there's no question that Takara and Hasbro have gone all-out in the engineering and accuracy department to produce an interesting and intricate new series of Transformers.

There's no real explanation to the name "Alternators", but if I may be so bold as to offer one. Imagine if the Autobots had not been revived in the 1980's, but rather today, and given highly accurate automotive forms as such, based on modern, up-to-date vehicles. Call it an alternate history, as such.

Hasbro and Takara have taken the step of officially licensing certain cars from their manufacturers, and then turning those cars into Autobots, based on popular characters from the Generation 1 series. Unfortunately, the popular Bumblebee will not be among them. Volkswagen has reportedly stated that they will not license their vehicles to a concept which they believe to be violent. As far as I'm concerned, Volkswagen can take their New Beetle and kiss my tailpipe.

So, what do we have in the Alternators as such? Highly-detailed 1:24 scale replica cars -- specifically stated as such on the box, which is certainly a first, but indicative of the level of attention to detail placed on this line -- that just so happen to transform into Autobots. To me, and this is likely to be my only real complaint about the line, that's a little backwards. I've always thought of the Transformers as robots first and vehicles (or whatever their alternate modes were) second. Still, the results in the case of the Alternators is undeniably impressive.

The first entry in the line is Smokescreen, who is marketed as a 1:24 scale Subaru Impreza WRC. The packaging is interesting. If you ignored the illustrations of the robot on the package, you'd think you were buying a replica car. The box has the Autobot logo on it, but it also has the Subaru logo. The copyright information on the package for all parties concerned is extensive. There's no significant indication in the toy's appearance that it can transform into a relatively humanoid robot. It looks entirely like a car.

It's a colorful car, too. Painted to look like some sort of rally racing car, the mostly dark blue vehicle is covered with swoops of neon yellow and a wide range of sponsor and related logos, even Subaru Web Sites. It's also an intricate car, with plenty of moving parts even just in car form. Hood and trunk open, doors open, the seats move forward, the front tires turn -- there's even an adjustable steering wheel. No Transformer has ever had features this extensive.

As for the transformation into robot -- hoo-boy. I'll grant that I am not an expert at such things. Never have been. But I don't consider myself an incompetent, either. And it still took me 45 minutes to get this car turned into a robot. The various parts, and they are many, are assembled very tightly. Personally, I consider that a good thing. But it does make certain aspects of the transformation difficult. The instructions are illustration only, no written instructions, and that can prove to be a little difficult. Which way is that arrow telling you to rotate a certain section? And does that part really move? It's not always entirely clear.

Still, the robot is just as impressive as the car. One of the most negative aspects of the original Generation 1 Transformers is that once you got them into their robot forms -- they didn't do much. Most had little or no leg articulation. Some could move their arms and head, but not much else. Not this modern Smokescreen. Head, arms, elbows, wrists, finger groups, waist, legs, knees -- a very impressive and considerable range of motion. Not bad for a robot that's just shy of 7" in height.

There's a few deficiencies. There's no character profile, no file card or tech specs with this toy. One would've been most welcome. And try as I may, I can't quite see these Alternators as a "better" version of Generation 1. They're not Generation 1. They're very cool Transformers bearing the same name and allegiance, and a certain structural similarity, a similar physical appearance, but it's still a different 'Bot as far as I'm concerned. But that's pretty much personal opinion.

The Alternators line is going to be fairly limited, compared to the massive Energon or Armada lines. The next one up, based on the information on the bottom of the box, is Sideswipe, his name now two words, strangely -- Side Swipe -- and he'll be based on a red Dodge Viper. That's been a popular car for many years, and I have no doubt this will be a popular Autobot. Reportedly others in the works include Silverstreak, Hound, who will be a 2003 Jeep Wrangler, and the triad of Decepticon jets -- Starscream, Thundercracker, and Skywarp. No doubt all based on the same mold. Not sure how big they'll be. A 1:24 scale fighter jet would be a big piece of work.

It may be just as well the line is limited. Clearly it's collector oriented, with the fancy packaging and a $20 price tag. However, that's actually not a bad price for something this intricate, and that's another point. I wouldn't want to give this to a six-year-old. Between the automotive accuracy and the overall intricacy, it's hard to see this as a child's plaything.

And given the automotive accuracy and the overall intricacy -- I don't even want to count how many separate pieces of plastic had to go together to make this toy -- there's probably a few engineers and designers at Takara that need almost as long a rest as the poor assembly-line people who had to put these toys together. I consider myself reasonably artistic and creative, but I wouldn't know where to begin with something of this complexity.

I have little doubt that the line will be a hit, but given its limited release, the Transformers Alternators line may remain something of a niche collectors' series. That's not a problem from a concept standpoint, but one wonders if the line will do well enough in sales to justify what has to be a considerable design and production expense, to say nothing of the licensing fees.

Still, although I'm not prepared to accept these as the "New Generation 1" or whatever, there's no question whatsoever that the Transformers Alternators are some of the coolest Transformers in years, and the line is certainly off to a good start with SMOKESCREEN! I definitely give him my highest recommendation! One last note: If you're having trouble finding him or any of the others that come out, check the die-cast aisle of your local Wal-Mart or Target. Some of these stores are stocking the Alternators there instead of with the rest of the Transformers in the action figures. Guess the box design and look of the product fooled 'em.