Ultimate Lightning McQueen: taking Disney and Sphero's talking, racing Cars toy for a test drive

Ultimate Lightning McQueen launch video

Disney-Pixar and Sphero have announced a robotic version of the iconic film character that talks, moves and drives just like the animated version.

Just in time for the release of Cars 3, Disney-Pixar has unveiled a talking, racing, robotic version of the franchise's main character.

Part remote control car and part cute interactive pal, the device is dubbed Ultimate Lightning McQueen and is made by Sphero — the consumer robotics company behind last year's hit Star Wars BB-8 toy — under the supervision of Cars creative director Jay Ward.

And they're not kidding when they say "ultimate". This toy car is equipped with five touch panels to sense when you're grabbing it. Its LED panel eyes work together with an animatronic mouth and motorised suspension to let it emote the way Lightning does in the films. It speaks with lines specially recorded by Owen Wilson. Its lights turn on in the dark. And not only can it drive, it can drift.

If an authentic real-world recreation of an animated car is want you want, and you're happy to pay for it, this is the ...
If an authentic real-world recreation of an animated car is want you want, and you're happy to pay for it, this is the toy for you. 

Everything Sphero could have done to make this Lightning look and act like the one in the movies is here, and it shows in the Australian asking price: $499.99.

The attention to detail was obvious as soon as I opened the box and saw the immaculate paint job on Lightning nestled inside. The included service manual suggested I set him to charge, and I was tickled to find the plug goes right into the car's fuel tank.

While he was filling with gas Lightning's eyes opened and he began to glance around impatiently while rocking his chassis back and forth. But if you want him to do anything more than that, you'll need to fire up the companion app on a phone or tablet.

Apart from providing the controls to drive him around, the app is basically where all of the toy's smarts and data lives. It's a clever approach as it means future updates to the app could bring totally new animations, sound bytes and features to the device, but the downside is the toy is basically an expensive plastic car without it.

For me the most impressive part about the toy is how uncannily identical it looks to its on-screen counterpart when all its bits of technology are working at once, so I was pleased to see a section of the app dedicated to making it do just that.

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The 'acting studio' has a collection of dozens of animations, so you can have Lightning wince his eyes, rev his motor and shake from side to side, or even deliver a trademark "ka-chow". You can put any number of these animations in the order you like to make a "script" that you can then get Lightning to act out when he's driving around. Within half an hour I had the device delivering a speech, expertly racing around the kitchen and then basking in his own glory at the end (I'd set up a disappointed script as well, just in case I crashed into the dog's water bowl).

Actually driving the car is a cinch once you get used to the fact that it's a little more like controlling a video game character than operating a vehicle, with the controls relative to where you and Lightning are positioned. The advantage of this setup is it makes it easy to whip him really quick around corners.

Buttons on the app allow you to chuck Lightning into reverse, temporarily boost him to his top speed of not-quite 10kmp/h or lean into a turn. Skillful use of the latter button will let Lightning drift, do a tight 180 or even spin around on the spot, assuming you're driving on a hard surface. It goes slowly on carpet too, but the rubbery animatronic front will pick up fluff immediately. If the car is fully charged (it takes around 2 hours to fill him up), you can drive for around 40 minutes.

Beyond driving and acting, the app offers a lot of cool ways to play with Lightning, including some simple touchscreen games that the toy will narrate along to while you play. If you set the app to movie mode and fire up your Blu-Ray player you can watch Cars while Ultimate Lightning McQueen reacts to his favourite parts.

Ordinarily I'd say $500 is way too much for a toy from a kids' movie, no matter how charming it is. But for the right customer I think Sphero's McQueen could offer a lot of value. A kid who really loves the character will certainly get a kick out of rubbing its bonnet or picking it up and having it react believably. And while younger kids will get into the mini-games and be able to watch one of their favourite movies with the character, older kids (and mums and dads) will dig the performance side of programming the robot or perfecting a run in the back yard.

The device is currently up for pre-order from EB Games.

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