DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Often on this program, we've spoken about the Toyota Camry as the bestselling car in the United States, or the Ford Focus as the world's bestseller. Well, it turns out the dominance of the Focus and Camry is being rivaled by an ultra-compact car that's made here in the U.S. We're talking about the Cozy Coupe. The vehicle has zero emissions, and it's highly affordable. It has a red body, plastic yellow roof. It's powered by a parent's push or by a child's feet. You see where we're going. Turns out, the kinds of toy cars that kids play with today can tell us a lot about what they might want to drive later in life. Let's go for a spin with NPR's Sonari Glinton.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: So, if you want to find out about the future of the transportation, there's no better place to come than a playground. I'm here at the Culver City Montessori, where kids are playing in one of the most popular toys, the Cozy Coupe.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I have a car like mama and daddy.

GLINTON: Micah Card is a teacher at the Culver City Montessori School.

MICAH CARD: They really enjoy the Cozy Coupe cars, because it has a roof, it has a door to open. It even has a little gas, you know, nozzle. You know, they'll fight over those cars. They don't really care so much for the open-top type, because it's not as close an approximation to what their family drives. You know, they want to do what their parents do.

GLINTON: Kids are aware of what cars, buses and trucks do very early. Richard Gottlieb is a toy analyst. He says playing with cars is fundamental for boys and girls.

RICHARD GOTTLIEB: When they do these archaeological digs from Egypt or Rome, they'll find little horse and chariots. You know, they're primitive, you know, kind of, you know, that kids played with. And so I think the desire to roll things has always been there.

GLINTON: Gottlieb says the desire to play with cars hasn't changed, and isn't likely to. But what kids think about those cars, that's changed dramatically.

GOTTLIEB: From an aspirational sense, I don't think children aspire to drive as much as they used to. I think they aspire to have a cell phone, but not necessarily a car.

GLINTON: Driving as a rite of passage has diminished greatly in recent years. Teenagers today are far less likely, say, to get their driver's license on the day of their 16th birthday. And while cars still mean freedom, speed and escape for some, they also mean isolation, gridlock and pollution. And Gottlieb says kids pick up on that early. That's why you see more and more toy cars with faces. Sales of toy cars that have faces - like the Pixar film "Cars" - continue to grow.

GOTTLIEB: Because if you really think about it, the children are engaging the characters. They're not engaging the brands - maybe not great news for the car companies, but I think that is - probably signals some of the loss of prestige for driving among youth.

GLINTON: It used to go like this: kid falls in love with toy car, grows up, falls in love with real cars. That's how it went for Mike McGrath. He's an editor at Edmunds.com, where he test drives adult cars and writes about them. But it all started with toys.

MIKE MCGRATH: Mine was probably a pedal car. It wasn't a toy car per se, like a Matchbox or a Hot Wheels. But I remember this small - I think it was rocket-ship designed.

GLINTON: There is something about talking to grown-ups about their favorite toy. Listen to how Mike McGrath's whole demeanor relaxes as he talks about his most important toy.

MCGRATH: It had, like, pedals, and you could run it with your feet. And I would always try to go just as fast as I can down through the kitchen and down the stairs. It's all I wanted, was - because I thought if I hit those stairs fast enough, I would just leave the house. It just ended up with my mom installing a safety gate. But I loved that toy.

GLINTON: The connection between the toy car fantasy world and the real car world is direct - absolutely direct. And car companies take toy companies seriously, just as toy makers take the real car industry seriously, as well. I learned that when I stopped by to meet Felix Holst.

FELIX HOLST: Welcome to the most wonderful place in the world.

GLINTON: Holst is the chief designer of Matchbox and Hot Wheels for Mattel, the toy company in El Segundo, California. He's deadly serious about play. They sell about six million toy cars a week. And somewhere between where they design the Barbies and where they design the Hot Wheels is a race track. Holst challenges me to a drag race.

HOLST: Want to drag race?

GLINTON: Yeah, sure.

HOLST: It'd be wrong for you not to. I'll have to pull some cars together.

GLINTON: The track is about 20 yards long - 20 yards of Hot Wheels iconic orange track, that same orange track that has driven moms nuts for decades - right in the middle of the office.

HOLST: Three, two, one.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOY CARS ROLLING DOWN TRACK)

HOLST: Oh, the green design's not doing so well. My race, I'm afraid.

GLINTON: I'm always a loser.

Holst's job is to listen to little boys and girls and give them - and their parents - what they want. And what kids want can be a little surprising.

HOLST: This new generation is very, very switched on and really does care about green design, right? They...

GLINTON: Three to six?

HOLST: Three to six, yeah. Six-year-olds are talking about green design in school, right? They're learning about gasoline engines versus electric cars.

GLINTON: So Holst has to design toy cars that signal to kids that they're fuel-efficient. Kids want cars that are more innovative and more in tune with their values.

HOLST: The real world implications for kids is that driving is not - it's an appetizing prospect, you know. It's very difficult. It's very costly. It's dangerous.

GLINTON: Don't think that the car companies - the real car companies - don't notice this and take it very seriously. The car companies do everything they can to connect with their future customers: kids.

PATRICK MULLIGAN: We're communicating those brand values directly to another generation of consumers.

GLINTON: Patrick Mulligan works in the licensing office at Ford Motor Company, and he approves the toy cars. And when it comes to toy cars, Ford is extra careful.

MULLIGAN: When a company makes a toy of a Mustang and it's going to have an engine sound, we make sure that that engine sound sounds like a Mustang. That's going to matter if he's going to recognize that.

GLINTON: Mulligan says it's not enough for boys and girls to know the difference between a Ford and a Chevy, which they already do. When a toy gets made, he wants kids to know what the Ford brand means. And...

MULLIGAN: That Ford is onboard with what matters to, you know, the vast majority of people in the world today.

GLINTON: Kids included.

MULLIGAN: Mm-hmm. Kids included - kids especially, maybe.

GLINTON: Because the future of the auto industry depends on it. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

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