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Hot Wheels ID is the new NFC-equipped Nintendo Amiibo of toy cars

Mattel's new phone-scannable smart cars aim to turn Hot Wheels into a gaming platform.

Sarah Tew/CNET

My kids have Hot Wheels scattered all over our house, in boxes, under chairs. At a dollar a pop, they're the cheap consolation prize at the supermarket. Hot Wheels is going a little more upmarket this year, embedding NFC chips into its newest line of cars. Hot Wheels ID (technically it's "Hot Wheels id") is like the Nintendo Amiibo of toy cars, aiming to be a new line of toys that scan into phones and tablets, and track lifetime race stats on a little chip inside. I got to play-race with the cars and Mattel's Smart Track set that are launching today: here's what they're like.

Read more: Best tech toys for kids in 2019

I say Amiibo because, really, Hot Wheels ID cars aren't smart cars. They're NFC-enabled, but they store data, they don't actively record it. To know your Hot Wheels' virtual miles an hour, or rpm, or laps raced, you'll need some extra hardware: either a $40 Hot Wheels Race Portal, or a much more expensive $180 Smart Track race kit. In another unusual spin, Hot Wheels ID will be an Apple Store exclusive for now before expanding to Android later this year.

Now playing: Watch this: Test driving the new Hot Wheels ID smart cars

Hot Wheels have been around for 51 years, and Mattel has experimented with funky tech in its cars before. A video racer doubled as a video camera. A GoPro-connectible Hot Wheels car could record close-ups of stunt footage. There was even a Rocket League Hot Wheels game set.

Hot Wheels ID cars don't have cameras, unfortunately, but the cars do look nice. They're also more expensive than normal Hot Wheels, at $7 a pop. The packaging feels collectible, and the boxes are designed so you can scan your car into the Hot Wheels app without ever taking it out of the box. The car designs, including a funky hammerhead shark (my favorite), are...well, they're Hot Wheels.


The $40 Portal piece that's needed to record stats on the cars.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Tracking speed, laps and more (but you need the extras)

When Mattel first described Hot Wheels ID, I expected a truly self-contained smart car. That's not what these are. In fact, all sensing data is done off the car. It's a basic toy, plus an NFC chip. The base Race Portal launcher has Bluetooth, IR sensors, and NFC, and measures the speed of a Hot Wheels ID car as it passes through.

The speed is calculated into an estimate of the scale car's miles-per-hour equivalent. The little smart gate can also count laps raced. The $40 portal comes with two cars, so it's clearly the gift package Mattel envisions as the "starter pack." The portal connects with existing Hot Wheels race track sets, so it can basically turn your old track into a "smart" one.


The launch cars for Hot Wheels ID (the shark one is my favorite)

Sarah Tew/CNET

But for the full experience, there's the Smart Track ($180), which has a pump-accelerating launcher and zips cars along the course one by one. There's not much to the "game"'s nothing like what Anki's robotic race cars did. Instead, you're just seeing how fast you can get those cars to do laps before they fly off the track. (Hot Wheels fans, you're familiar with what's going on.) The Smart Track can also measure launch rpm and lifetime mileage for your cars, but $180 is a pretty big gift to ask for.


NFC-equipped iPhones can scan the cars directly, something other toys haven't done yet.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Scanning your car into an app game

Mattel has a new Hot Wheels ID game app that stores the cars you scan in and turns it into a museum/arcade of sorts: you could look at details up close, study stats, or race in video games with the car. That's a lot like many other app-ified toys, but Mattel sees this "mixed play" strategy as a way to not need the iPhone or iPad around all the time. Kids would play with the real toys in real life, and sometimes go to the screen, but not necessarily both. It'll be interesting to see how that plays out over time as Hot Wheels ID expands.


Racing on the $180 Smart Track, which needs a lot of table space (and pocket change).

Sarah Tew/CNET

A world of NFC toys to come?

Maybe the most interesting part of Hot Wheels ID is that it can use the NFC capability on iPhones to scan directly in (for iPads, you'll need the $40 portal as a car-scanner). iOS devices haven't unlocked NFC for a lot of uses, and Hot Wheels are the first toys I've seen that do this. (The cars will work on Android in July, timed to Amazon Prime Day.) If Mattel is launching a bunch of cars that do this, maybe a lot more toys with NFC chips are next.

Hot Wheels ID don't seem revolutionary, and they're not magic robot cars. But they look like a model for where all action figures, toys and collectibles are going next: being scannable.