It is about a rookie racing car named Lightning McQueen who wants to win the Piston Cup, but gets lost in the Radiator Springs, a town on the scenic U.S. Route 66. The Incredibles was made before Cars and Ratatouille was made after Cars.
The last race of the Piston Cup car season ends in a three-way tie between retiring veteran Strip "The King" Weathers (Richard Petty), perennial runner-up and dirty fighter Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton), and the self-centered rookie Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson). A tiebreaker race is scheduled for one week later at the Los Angeles International Speedway. Lightning, eager to start practice in California as soon as possible in order to become Piston Cup champion and take The King's place as the sponsored car of the lucrative Dinoco team, pushes his driver Mack to travel all night long.
Mack (John Ratzenberger) tries to avoid falling asleep, but becomes a victim of a gang of reckless street racers, subsequently causing the sleeping Lightning to come of the truck unnoticed. Lightning finds Jerry Recycled Batteries (Joe Ranft), but mistakes Mack, becomes lost and ends up in the run-down town of Radiator Springs. A mishap with the local Sheriff (Michael Wallis) causes Lightning to inadvertently destroy the town's main road. Lightning is promptly arrested, then tried the next day by the town's judge and doctor, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) who at first wants him to leave Radiator Springs immediately; but at the insistence of local lawyer Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), Doc instead sentences him to fix the road.
McQueen initially tries to rush through the job, but makes a sloppy, bumpy mess of the road and is forced to do it all over again. As the days pass, he becomes friends with many of the townsfolk, and learns that Radiator Springs was once a popular stopover along Route 66. However, the construction of Interstate 40 had caused cars to bypass the town to save 10 minutes of driving, thus causing many of the businesses and residents to leave. McQueen also discovers that Doc is actually the Fabulous Hudson Hornet, a three-time Piston Cup champion who was forced out of sight after a serious racing accident ended his career over 50 years ago.
Encouraged by his new friends and a countryside cruise with Sally, McQueen successfully completes the road and spends an extra day in town, visiting the local shops to outfit himself with new tires and equipment. That night, Mack and the media converge on the town, having been tipped off by Doc as to Lightning's whereabouts, and Lightning reluctantly sets off for California. Sally is upset with Doc for thinking only of himself, and the other townsfolk are saddened to see McQueen go. As they retire to their homes, the town's neon is turned off, and as the town returns to its previous quietness, Doc realizes just how much that McQueen meant to the town.
As the tie-breaker race begins, McQueen's thoughts keep drifting back to Radiator Springs and he is distracted from performing well. However, he is surprised to discover that his new friends have come along to serve as his pit crew, with Doc — once again outfitted in his old racing colors — as his crew chief. Heartened by their presence and Guido's incredible pit stop speed, and using tricks he learned during his time among them, McQueen is able to counter Hicks' dirty driving tactics and take the lead of the race. On the final lap, Hicks, fed up with being seen as the perennial loser, purposely rams The King, causing him to veer off the track and end up in a terrible wreck as deadly as the one that ended the career of the Fabulous Hudson Hornet.
Lightning sees The King wreck out, and stops just short of the finish line, letting Chick win. Lightning thinks back to Doc's career-ending shunt, then backs up to push The King the rest of the way across the line so he can finish his last race and retire with dignity. Chick's win is rejected and booed off the awards ceremony stage, his Piston Cup victory hollow and meaningless, while Lightning is praised by The King and his wife, Dinoco, the press and the crowd. The King is given as the winner. Lightning is offered the Dinoco sponsorship but turns it down, saying that he would rather stay with the team that brought him this far. Lightning returns to Radiator Springs and decides to move his team's headquarters there, helping to revitalize the town and its businesses, much to the pleasure of his new friends.
- Owen Wilson: Lightning McQueen
- Larry the Cable Guy: Mater
- Michael Keaton: Chick Hicks
- Richard Petty: The King
- Paul Newman: Doc Hudson
- Bonnie Hunt: Sally Carrera
- Cheech Marin: Ramone
- Tony Shalhoub: Luigi
- Michael Wallis: Sheriff
- George Carlin: Fillmore
- Paul Dooley: Sarge
- Jenifer Lewis: Flo
- Guido Quaroni: Guido
- John Ratzenberger: Mack
- Jeremy Piven: Harv (U.S./Canada)
- Jeremy Clarkson: Harv (U.K.)
- Lynda Petty: Lynda Weathers
- Mike Nelson: Not Chuck
- Katherine Helmond: Lizzie
- H.A. Wheeler: Tex Dinoco
- Mario Andretti: Mario Andretti
- Joe Ranft: Red, Jerry Recycled Batteries
- Tom Magliozzi: Rusty Rust-eze
- Ray Magliozzi: Dusty Rust-eze
- Frank Oz or Arnold Schwarzenegger: Sven
- Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
The original script (called The Yellow Car, about an electric car living in a gas-guzzling world) and some of the original drawings and characters were produced in 1998 and the producers agreed that Cars would be the next movie after A Bug's Life, and would be released in early 1999, particularly around June 4. However, that movie was eventually scrapped in favor of Toy Story 2. Later, production resumed with major script changes.
In 2001, the movie's working title was Route 66 (after U.S. Route 66), but in 2002, the title was changed to prevent people from thinking it was related to the 1960 television series with the same name. Also, Lightning McQueen's number was originally going to be 57 (Lasseter's birth year), but was changed to 95 (the year Toy Story was released), the number seen in the movie today.
Joe Ranft's Death
Cars is the last film worked on by Joe Ranft, who died in a car crash in 2005. The film was the second to be dedicated to his memory, after Corpse Bride.
Unlike most anthropomorphic cars, the eyes of the cars in this film were placed on the windshield (which resembles the Tonka Talking Trucks, as well as the characters from Tex Avery's One Cab's Family short and Disney's own Susie the Little Blue Coupe), rather than within the headlights. According to production designer Bob Pauley, "From the very beginning of this project, John Lasseter had it in his mind to have the eyes be in the windshield. For one thing, it separates our characters from the more common approach where you have little cartoon eyes in the headlights. For another, he thought that having the eyes down near the mouth at the front end of the car made the character feel more like a snake. With the eyes set in the windshield, the point of view is more human-like, and made it feel like the whole car could be involved in the animation of the character." 
The characters also use their tires as hands, the exceptions being the various tow truck characters who sometimes uses their tow hooks, and the various forklift characters, who use their forks.
The landscape in the distance behind Radiator Springs is made up of rock formations intentionally reminiscent of Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. The road map shown in the montage history of the town calls the area "Cadillac Range." Some of the mountain peaks in the Cadillac Range, shown during the movie, resemble the quarter panels of late-50's Cadillacs, with their distinctive tailfins.
The setting for the fictional town of Radiator Springs is situated between Gallup, New Mexico and Kingman, Arizona. A landmark, called Radiator Cap, overlooks the town, and has two white letters ("R" and "S") written upon it. The style and relative positioning of these letters on the landmark closely resemble the "RS" badge used on the first-generation "Rally Sport" Camaros.
Radiator Springs is loosely based on Amboy, California in the Mojave Desert -- a town that showed a decline in almost all traffic when I-40 opened in 1972. Sally references this in the film.
Nearby "Ornament Valley" (a reference to Monument Valley) is made of rock formations that project from the valley walls or rise from the valley floor and resemble the front ends of late 1930s to early 1940s American automobiles.
The Flo's V8 Cafe logo is similar to that used by the '32 Ford V8, the first V8 for mass marketed cars. This logo also appeared on Ford V8 in the sixties as well as third-generation Ford Explorers.
The track on which the opening race (Motor Speedway of the South) takes place is actually based on and an enlarged version of the real life Bristol Motor Speedway. The venue for the Piston Cup tiebreaker race (the Los Angeles International Speedway) is a conglomeration of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena where the Rose Bowl is located, as well as the California Speedway.
Many characters and places in the movie are directly inspired on the real Route 66 places and people.
To quote the Pixar crew:
- "As we traveled on Route 66, we were privileged to visit many places and to meet a number of people who live and work alongside 'The Mother Road.' The following is a list of the places and people we wanted to honor by including their names in our 'Special Thanks' credits at the end of the film." 
The Cars Soundtrack has two versions of the classic Nat King Cole jazz standard 'Route 66' song, one by Chuck Berry and a new version recorded specifically for the film's credits performed by John Mayer.
Among the many references to Route 66 landmarks and personalities:
- The Cozy Cone Motel's design is based on the two Wigwam Motels along Route 66, in Holbrook, Arizona and Rialto, California. These were once two out of seven built motels (3 remaining), with individual cabins shaped like teepees. The name "Cozy Cone" was inspired by the Cozy Dog Drive-In of Springfield, Illinois, which lays claim to being birthplace of the corn dog.
- Ramone's House of Body Art is based primarily on the U Drop Inn in Shamrock, Texas. It opened in 1936 as Tower Conoco (from its distinctive Art Deco spire) with the U Drop Inn Cafe and a retail building attached. Many other establishments built along Route 66 in its heyday had Art Deco elements that might be reflected in the design of Ramone's.
- In the background of one scene, there is a yellow billboard reading "HERE IT IS" and has an image of a Model T. It is based after the Jackrabbit Trading Post on Route 66.
- Interstate 40/Top Down Truck Stop
- Motor Speedway of the South
- Radiator Springs & nearby locations
- Los Angeles International Speedway
In its opening weekend, Cars grossed $60.1 million, lower than previous Pixar films such as The Incredibles and Finding Nemo. In the United States, the film held onto the #1 spot for two weeks before being surpassed by Click and then by Superman Returns the following weekend. It went on to gross $461,981,522 worldwide (ranking #6 in 2006 films) and $244,082,982 in the U.S. (the third highest-grossing film of 2006 in the country, behind Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and Night at the Museum). It was the highest-grossing animated film of 2006 in the U.S., but lost to Ice Age: The Meltdown in worldwide totals.
The film has 75% on the Rotten Tomatoes.Com Tomatometer, making it the only Pixar film, until it's sequel, Cars 2, and Brave in 2012 lower than 90%.
Critics have stated that Cars did not do as well critically as other films. "The movie is great to look at and a lot of fun," says critic Roger Ebert, "but somehow lacks the extra push of the other Pixar films." Reeling Reviews wrote that the film's "only real drawback is its failure to inspire awe with its visuals and to thoroughly transport with its storytelling."
- Main article: Cars 2
Cars 2 was released on June 24, 2011.