With the exception of the wonderful Toy Story 2, Pixar has never repeated itself, exploring an entirely new world with every one of its feature-animation marvels, from bugs to monsters to fish to elastic superheroes. Audiences who've been tickled by the studio's past creations might be skeptical about the appeal of the more inanimate inhabitants of its latest fantasy subculture: the metallic, four-wheeled title characters of Cars. But rest assured, underneath the shiny hoods of these talking autos, there's a lot of heart and soul-complemented by some of the most eye-popping visuals the computer-animation pioneer has ever devised.

NASCAR fans will be the most delighted with the opening scenes, which capture all the speed, frenzy and competitive bluster of the professional racing circuit. At the center of the story is Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), an arrogant young race car who lands in a three-way tie for first (along with veteran Plymouth Superbird "The King" and the ruthless Chick Hicks) in the race which jumpstarts the film. Lightning, The King and Hicks are all set to compete for the coveted Piston Cup in California, but Lightning takes a most unwelcome detour when the Mack Superliner driving him cross-country accidentally loses his celebrated passenger. The racing hotshot finds himself stranded in the near-comatose town of Radiator Springs, on a deserted stretch of Route 66, where he's sentenced by the town judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), to repair the main road he decimated on his frantic arrival.

Once in Radiator Springs, Cars shift gears from a slick and supercharged takeoff on modern sports celebrity to a more gentle and laid-back rural comedy in the spirit of an old Frank Capra or Preston Sturges comedy (with no ethnic or cultural stereotype left untouched). Lightning is aching to leave, but the close-knit community of this humble hamlet begins to disarm his defenses-most especially Sally (Bonnie Hunt), the fetching Porsche and onetime L.A. lawyer who runs the Cozy Cone Motel. And then there's the curmudgeonly Doc Hudson, who Lightning discovers is the legendary Hudson Hornet who won three Piston Cups in the early 1950s before his sudden exit from the sport.

Cars marks the return to directing (following the Toy Story films and A Bug's Life) of Pixar co-founder John Lasseter, who has proclaimed a lifelong passion for automobiles. That fondness shows in the variety and careful detail he and his crew bring to the more than two-dozen vehicles with significant speaking roles here. Lasseter also clearly has a thing for the American road: The landscapes the Pixar brain trust creates on their computers are often so breathtakingly beautiful, you'll want to get in a car and drive cross-country as soon as you leave the theatre. No mere child's play, the movie has a serious and poignant message about what the nation lost in its quest for modern, efficient and impersonal expressways-and how revivifying a drive to nowhere in particular can be. And the tentative, touching romance between Lightning and Sally is more sophisticated and persuasive than anything you'll find in the last three Jennifer Aniston movies.

By the time the film is over, you'll feel like you know every corner of Radiator Springs-a tribute to the sensationally meticulous, artful work of the Pixar designers. And you'll have gotten to know a warm and funny "melting pot" community of broadly drawn characters voiced by the likes of Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, George Carlin, Paul Dooley, Jenifer Lewis and Katherine Helmond. Leads Wilson, Newman (a racing icon himself) and Hunt are all excellent, but the film is pretty much stolen by, of all people, Larry the Cable Guy as Mater, the slow-witted but good-hearted tow truck who becomes Lightning's unlikely best friend (and drives backwards better than Audrey Tautou in The Da Vinci Code).

Cars also boasts a terrific soundtrack, with new versions of "Life Is a Highway" by Rascal Flatts and "Route 66" by John Mayer, and songs by James Taylor, Sheryl Crow and Brad Paisley. And be sure to stay through the entire end credits, which include an automotive salute to past Pixar hits and a brief tribute to co-writer, co-director and Pixar veteran Joe Ranft, who died tragically last August.

-Kevin Lally