Imagine that your parents just bought you a car. And not just any car; a bright yellow Mercedes-AMG GT sports car.
And now imagine that you're only 3 years old.
Although technically toys, ride-on vehicles — a category that includes cars, trucks, tractors and the occasional front-loader — have equipment that mirrors their full-sized cousins. That Mercedes, for instance, comes with power steering, leather seating and spring shock absorbers.
The 4-foot-long electric vehicle — a single-seater convertible that sells for $400 — is licensed by Daimler to Moderno Kids. The battery drives it to a top speed of 4 miles per hour. A touch screen in the dash displays videos and plays music. The "headlights" are LEDs, just like those in Mom's or Dad's $70,000 Benz.
"Kids mainly want to be like grown-ups, and grown-ups have cars," said Heather MacKenzie of BestReviews, where she assesses dozens of children's toys and even drives a few. "But beyond that, these toys represent a degree of independence. They let the little ones keep up with the bigger kids. It evens the playing field when everybody's on wheels."
Ride-on vehicles are aimed at a wide swath of boys and girls, ranging in age from 1 to 6 and even older. And they are a big business for the toy industry. In the category that includes electric and pedal ride-on toys (but not bicycles), annual revenues are about $625 million.
There also are benefits for the brands that license their names to these products,
They are not necessarily financial: Licensing royalties paid to Daimler Mercedes amount to about $10 per toy car, said Andrew Topkins of Brandgenuity, a licensing agency in New York. "But it's more a marketing thing."
What Mercedes, Jeep and Ford, among others, care more about is: "Does this do something for us that is a value to promulgate the brand?" said Martin Brochstein, senior vice president of Licensing International.
"It's the beginning of building a relationship with the child," he added. "And from the parent's perspective, it's 'Hey, I'm able to give my kid a Mercedes.' In that sense, it connects the adults to the brand even more tightly."
Wide range of prices
Basic pedal-powered or push-powered rides sell for less than $100. At the luxury end, consider a Jaguar gasoline-powered version from FAO Schwarz for $10,000. But the Jag is far and away the exception: Most of the electric products, sold through stores including Walmart and Target and from Amazon online, cost $300 to $400.
While some parents consider ride-on toys a rather innocuous excursion for tots, others take a different view.
"Electric toy vehicles are much more than mindless playthings," said Neve Spicer, founder of We the Parents, a website that reviews gear for children. Electric ride-ons, she said, "can offer rich learning opportunities, especially in the hands of a parent who is mad about mechanics."
"Then," she added, "kids can learn some serious engineering and electronics in a very fun way."
Here are some things to consider before investing in a ride-on, according to MacKenzie.
• Safety: There are no governmental safety standards for these toys. Parents are advised to dress youngsters in bike helmets and supervise their travels. Some electric ride-ons come with remotes that allow some form of parental control.
• Age: "We think 3 years is the minimum for an electric ride-on. It may not go fast, but it feels fast to a little kid."
• Size and rider weight: The child's feet must be able to reach the pedals comfortably. Most ride-on products list recommended ages and weights, and whether the toy accommodates more than one rider.