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Kids’ Cars Come With Sticker Shock--and Safety Concerns

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Don’t be surprised if your children ask Santa Claus for their first Range Rover or Mercedes this holiday season. Instead of visions of sugarplums, some youngsters are dreaming of kiddie cars that cost more than the family minivan.

Think you’re stretched thin paying for your Saturn? Imagine buying an $18,750 gas-driven, child-size Range Rover for your 8-year-old. Even a $395 Mercedes-Benz or Jaguar for your 3-year-old to cruise to nursery school seems a bit surreal.

But if Mom and Dad have a Jaguar and a Lamborghini in the garage, why can’t the kids have their own trophy cars?

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If you fall in that category and are looking for the ultimate status symbol to give your children this holiday, you can cash in your CDs, raid their college funds and special-order a $40,000 kiddie Lamborghini Countach from FAO Schwarz.

Face it, said Michelle Prince, a spokeswoman for the New York-based toy retailer: “Some people’s real cars don’t cost that much.”

No kidding.

Cynics may view the exotic kid-car market as a brilliant marketing scheme to hook children into a lifetime obsession with luxury cars.

In the FAO Schwarz catalog, youngsters just a couple of years out of diapers are featured wearing sunglasses and sport coats and sitting behind the wheels of baby Benzes and Jaguars.

Certainly, once you’ve driven your little Range Rover in grade school, you won’t settle for anything less than a Porsche when you’re 16 and a Ferrari at 21.

But BMW of North America, which offers foot-powered kiddie Bimmers for $69 and $79, isn’t scheming to bring preschoolers into the BMW fold, says spokeswoman Martha McKinley.

“We haven’t done market research on what 2-year-olds want,” she joked. “This is for parents who want to buy it for their children. I don’t know if I would call them status seekers. They are BMW enthusiasts. This is for them to have fun.”

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Now if you don’t have children or were not previously clued in to the extravagant toys available these days, you may think this is all a joke.

It’s not.

These vehicles are for real, and the prices aren’t the only scary features. Depending on the model, the cars travel at speeds of 3 to 38 mph. Considering that the drivers are typically only 3 to 10 years old, safety is an obvious issue. And speed isn’t the only concern.

In October, 10 million battery-powered Power Wheels ride-on cars and trucks were recalled by Fisher-Price because of fire hazards caused by flawed electrical systems.

Fisher-Price agreed to recall the kid vehicles after the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission received reports of 150 fires and hundreds of other incidents in which the cars’ electrical components failed and overheated. Nine children suffered minor burns to the hands, legs or feet in the fires, according to reports received by the commission. Some of the fires started while the cars were parked in garages, playrooms and closets, resulting in an estimated $300,000 in property damage.

The commission recommended that parents remove the batteries until they can get the vehicles fixed at special repair shops established by Fisher-Price. Since the recall was announced, hundreds of angry consumers have complained to the commission about delays in the repair process; for its part, the company says it is working around the clock to try to complete the work by spring.

The Power Wheels vehicles in the recall retail for $70 to $300. They have been sold since 1984 and include such models as Barbie Jeep, Speed Sound Lamborghini, Extreme Machine and Barbie Corvette. Power Wheels sold after October are not involved in the recall.

In addition, the commission has received at least 70 reports of Power Wheels failing to stop after the rider lifted his or her foot off the pedal. Six youngsters suffered bruises, scratches or bumps when their cars hit a car, truck, pole, window or fence.

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The European-made battery-operated or gas-driven cars sold by FAO Schwarz are not included in the recall, according to the toy retailer and the federal safety commission.

However, parents need to be safety-conscious if they buy these or other ride-on toy vehicles for their youngsters, says Angela Mickalide of the National Safe Kids Campaign in Washington.

If parents are going to assume the risk of letting their children ride such cars, she said, they have to be willing to supervise and not leave children alone when the motor is on or the car is operating.

Parents should make sure that children wear their bicycle helmets when riding any kind of toy car or truck.

“A fall from one of these cars can be just as dangerous as from a bike,” Mickalide said.

She also warns that children driving battery-operated or gas-driven cars should be kept away from swimming pools, traffic and hills.

“Many parents, we’ve found, overestimate their child’s abilities,” she said, noting that parents should make sure the cars are appropriate for their children’s ages and physical abilities.

In other words, make sure your little ones are really ready to be steered into the fast lane of life. Maybe the Mercedes can wait. What’s wrong with a tricycle?

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Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Via e-mail: highway1@latimes.com.


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