Perhaps it's that first remote control car or loop-the-loop Hot Wheels track. Whatever it is that sparks our love for cars, it often begins in childhood. With that in mind, we've compiled a list of interesting car-themed toys, books and video games cool enough — or hot enough — to ignite that passion in the next generation of car nuts. Prices for these birthday or holiday gifts range from $7.95 up to $299, and all items are new for this year.
Lego makes racer models priced from $3.99 to $49.99, but our favorite is the $39.99 Spider, an authentic 1:17 scale copy of the Ferrari 430 Spider launched at the Geneva Motor Show in March 2005. The 10-plus-inch replica has a convertible top, fully detailed engine, adjustable mirrors, turning steering wheel and decals. If the Spider's not your (or your child's) favorite, Lego has an entire line of Ferrari models. Your child gets more than a toy, he get bragging rights — his folks bought him a Ferrari.
Rated: E for Everyone; best suited for those over 6.
This special holiday pack bundles the Limited Edition Hot Rod Red Nintendo DS portable with the high-quality, kid-friendly Mario Kart DS game. Highly regarded by gaming sites like IGN.com and 1up.com, Mario Kart DS allows players to match their skills against other gamers anywhere in the world through Nintendo's Wi-Fi connection. There are 16 new courses and 16 courses from earlier titles like Super Mario Kart, Mario Kart 64, Mario Kart: Super Circuit, and Mario Kart: Double Dash. Aside from the new Wi-Fi technology, many users appreciate the addition of bright red to the ordinarily dull palate of plastic handhelds. The bundle costs $149.99, but you can of course purchase the game separately ($34.99) if your child already has a Nintendo DS.
Rated: E10+ for mild violence.
Winner of "Best Racing Game" at the 2005 Electronics Entertainment Expo (e3), Burnout Revenge makes rabid fans out of even driving-game haters. In this significant step ahead for the award-winning series by Electronic Arts, airborne maneuvers and dirty driving create total "automotive anarchy." This is no tame track game: Players who want to win have to ram other vehicles and blow away combatants while the new "revenge meter" keeps track. While we question the wisdom of elevating road rage to an art form, this game is just too damn fun to ignore. Available for PS2 and Xbox, $39.99. If your child is always on the go, Electronic Arts offers Burnout Legends for Sony's PSP and Nintendo's DS. Notably, Legends was voted "Best Sony PSP Game" at e3. It retails for $49.99 on the PSP and $34.99 on the DS.
Honorable Mention: If your little tyke is fortunate enough to already have the new Xbox 360 (and you want something less violent), try Project Gotham Racing 3 (Rated E, $49.99) the latest in the series by Microsoft and Bizarre Creations. Hot supercars race in high definition on customizable tracks, and driving style counts.
This Fisher-Price/Toys "R" Us exclusive has almost as many features as the real thing: real FM radio and digital clock, sound-boosting rear speakers, simulated CD player with 10 tunes, a sing-along microphone, battery charge indicator, chrome wheels and grille, and doors that open and close. The two-seater operates at two speeds (2 and 5 mph) on both grass and hard surfaces, with a high-speed lockout to protect the youngest riders. Like its namesake, this top-of-the-line pick has a hefty price tag: $290.
It's also got real appeal. Edmunds' media data director, an Escalade fanatic, couldn't wait to get this "coolest kid on the block" toy for his son — who isn't even 2 yet. His wife put the kibosh on all that bling, though, and instead chose the less flashy Jeep Wrangler, another member of the wide-ranging Power Wheels lineup. Sorry, Charlie.
Safety 1st, General Motors, and Toys "R" Us teamed up to provide one fun ride. Features on this sturdy, super-realistic model include a fully stocked engine, working lights and turn signals, real FM radio, turnkey ignition, racing wheels with traction strips and reflective side mirrors. Perhaps the coolest features are the authentic engine sounds: "change gear," "pass-by," "turn signal," and best of all the "burnout" sound. The two-seater comes in other colors as well: Magnetic Red (sans racing decals) and the cutest Bubble Gum Pink (with flower decals), sure to make any girl a lifelong Vette fan. They're $299.99 apiece, but hey, driving a racecar was never cheap.
By Linda K. Hempel, Kathy Dotson
Eco-rap singer Rock buys a smelly diesel car, Tiny, at a used car lot, and converts it to biodiesel. Now it smells like French fries. The duo then set off on a road trip to the nation's capitol, preaching the bio-gospel along the way. Readers learn how biodiesel is made and used and how to promote its use in their community. Have Fries — Will Travel! is a unique book (complete with a celebrity introduction by Daryl Hannah) that makes the subject accessible and fun. One of our "green" friends already bought this book for his 4-year-old daughter, but older children will appreciate it as well.
New Society Publishers, $12.95.
By Tom Lichtenheld
Author/illustrator Tom Lichtenheld is a longtime kids' favorite, having penned similar Everything I Know books about monsters and pirates. His new Cars book is billed as "Mad Magazine, Jr. meets Auto Repair for Dummies." Crazy, colorful cartoons about made-up cars illustrate the (supposed) history of cars and motor travel, how cars work, and how to be a passenger. ("Your next duty is to test the power windows. Down. Up. Down.") The large-format book also offers tips for kids on how to design and draw their own vehicles.
Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, $16.95
By Joyce Slayton Mitchell, Steven Borns
It's one of life's great mysteries: What happens to a car after it dies? This new paperback edition of the 2001 hardcover shows old cars at the junkyard having their fluids drained, engines pulled, sheet metal removed, and parts such as batteries and radios stored for resale. It details the metal crusher (ouch!) and the recycling process with clear pictures. Through this book, kids (and adults) can glimpse a world they might not ever see for themselves. Isn't that what books are all about?
Tricycle Press, $7.95
By James Buckley
There are plenty of other NASCAR books, but those who have read DK Eyewitness books know that nothing compares to the way they handle a subject. Large color photos, graphs, and fun facts teach readers about NASCAR history, car construction, flag colors, track layouts, and race-day routine, among other subjects. There's a "Who's Who," Q&A section, and glossary to boot. Whether your middle-schooler is a neophyte or a fan, he'll get a detailed depiction of the sport and pick up some great tidbits to show off at school. DK Children, $15.99
Finally, here's a classy gift that even Grandma would be happy to buy. Silversmiths Reed and Barton, known for their flatware and giftware since 1824, offer this 6 3/4-inch, tarnish-resistant model from their Antique Toy Bank Collection. The car's turn-key really turns. If your child's first word (after "Mama" or "Dada") was "car," this shiny toy will elicit the kind of squeals that don't come from tires. $32.95