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Toyota rolls out car for kids at Tokyo toy show

TOKYO It sounds counter-intuitive, to say the least, but one of the latest offerings from Toyota is aimed at getting kids behind the steering wheel.

Billed as the world's first car designed for juvenile drivers -- with two cramped seats in back for their parents -- the "Camatte" concept car was unveiled this week at the 2013 International Tokyo Toy Show.

"It's basically no different than a regular car," said Kenji Tsuji, a project manager for Toyota. "The power-train is an electric motor. The accelerator, brake, dashboard meters and seats are identical to those in conventional vehicles. The main difference is that it's shorter, and sized to a kid's proportions."

About two-thirds the length of a conventional small car, the Camatte's controls are geared to children as short as 120 centimeters, or around four feet. While the speedometer reads a top speed of about 44 mph, the car has an actual maximum speed of closer to 28 mph.

If even that cruising speed sends grownups into white-knuckle territory, the manufacturer has thoughtfully installed an override feature that allows parents to knock that top speed down to a crawl; as low as three mph.

"We exhibited at the toy show because we wanted parents and kids to interact with the car," he said, "with mom and dad in the back, the kid in the front. We wanted them to enjoy it as a family."

The lineup includes a sporty coupe convertible, and a "cute" model, with cartoony, eye-like headlamps. Molded steel and fiber-reinforced plastic have been replaced with 57 body panels, attached with pins, that the maker says even very young children and the technically challenged can remove within an hour. The panels can be swapped out for a range of colors, from candy-pink pastel, to GI Joe-camouflage. It's a dress-up doll on wheels.

Someone demonstrates the ability to swap out the 57 body panels of Toyota's concept "Camatte 57"
Someone demonstrates the ability to swap out the 57 body panels of Toyota's concept "Camatte 57" car for others of various colors. CBS/Lucy Craft

Tsuji says the vehicles are a dream come true for any kid who's owned a matchbox car and fantasized about being able to zoom off in it.

While kiddie cars may be paradise for the Harry Potter set, the idea is clearly aimed at forestalling the Japanese auto industry's worst nightmare -- a generation of young Japanese with a waning appetite for car ownership.

After peaking at 7.7 million units back in 1990, domestic new car sales in Japan have been on a steady, inexorable slide. Last year, thanks to an eco-car subsidy and a bounce in demand after the 2011 earthquake and subsequent nuclear disasters, sales surpassed the 5 million mark for the first time in years.

But the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association expects that even under the aggressive economic expansion led by Prime Minister Abe, sales will tank again in 2013, falling below the five million mark, as Japan's population shrinks and ages, and amidst a plethora of non-car distractions for Japanese youth.

Tsuji remains hopeful. "By conveying the idea that cars are fun and exciting, we can win customers back."

If the notion of kids driving before they're old enough to get a license doesn't sound unsettling, don't get out your checkbook just yet -- the kiddie cars have no price tag, and are destined for go-kart tracks, theme parks, and Toyota's own promotional facilities in Japan. There are no plans yet to export the vehicles to the U.S. or other markets abroad, although Tsuji says strong interest in Japan may one day mean pint-sized drivers burning rubber somewhere in America.

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