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Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge is an empty, Frankensteined mess

Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge is an empty, Frankensteined mess
Hot Wheels Ultimate Challenge judges Rutledge Wood, Dalal Elsheikh, and Hertrech Eugene Jr. looking at a Volkswagen Bug that's been turned into the "Monster Bug" (Photo by James Stack/NBC)

We’re late enough into reality TV’s life that most competitions borrow from other formats, and NBC’s new Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge is no exception. Alas, none of its parts fit together.

It’s Lego Masters without the passion for the toy and with the incomprehensible judging and shameless corporate branding.

It’s Pimp My Ride except they don’t get to keep the cars or even drive them.

It takes Baking Championship’s mid-challenge twist but doesn’t even bother with a creative pun, instead labeling that the “Inspirationator 5000,” a label that indicates no one involved in this project had any inspiration at all.

A person in a cowboy hat and a teal cowboy shirt standing by a car's hood
Kevin Lister, a contestant on Hot Wheels Ultimate Challenge episode 2, and a 1977 Ford Thunderbird (Photo by James Stack/NBC)

Each episode begins with what could have been a Quibi: the two contestants share a story about a car that has meaning to them, and surprise surprise, the producers have found that make and model of car.

The stories and emotions are genuinely touching, as is the moment of reconnecting with something from their past.

Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge should have just ended there, because what follows makes less and less sense. Instead of just letting the contestants drive off with their memories, then they tear the car to pieces and turn it into a giant Hot Wheels-style car.

Why? In the two episodes that have aired so far, none of the four contestants have been super Hot Wheels fans, nor are they car fabricators placed into a playground full of tools and elements to build the car of their dreams.

The show brings in fabricators, welders, and bodywork experts to work with each contestant. We get to know one of those team members in each episode. Then they’re replaced by a new team in the next episode, so there’s no one to follow or care about week to week.

The contestant acts as pseudo-creative director. Their design decisions appear to be lines they’re being fed, so I’m not sure how much of this is their choice.

After two episodes, only one car’s design connects to the memory of the original car: Jerzey Jim says he and his dad always wanted to pop a wheelie in the 1969 Dodge Charger they built together, so his team adds hydraulics to his Hot Wheels.

Together, the contestants and team spend a week turning the car into something else—or the team does, while the contestant usually just stands there. The time passes without any acknowledgement of what day it is, while parts appear from nowhere.

I’m not a car fabricator, but this show doesn’t appear to be made for someone who knows what they’re doing, nor does it get into the process enough to teach those of us who are ignorant about it. Who is this for?

Four people standing behind a car that has its nose in the air; the car has purple and yellow flames painted on it
Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge judge Dalal Elsheikh, guest judge Terry Crews, host Rutledge Wood, and judge Hertrech Eugene Jr. at the end of episode 1 (Photo by: James Stack/NBC)

The teams finish the builds without the contestant, so the final build is a surprise reveal. They often look very cool.

Then the judges pick them apart for no reason. The criteria is originality, execution, and “hotness,” which is so amorphous it’s infuriating. Ford designer Dalal Elsheikh warns one team, “this isn’t going to be hot enough to be Hot Wheels.” What does that even mean?

In the first episode, the car that gets the most criticism wins. Of course. (There is an after-show on Peacock that has no color correction and terrible audio, but does show the judges having a more detailed discussion and gives some context to their decisions. Why isn’t that in the episode?)

The real kick in the face: “no one gets to keep the cars,” Rutledge Wood confirmed. So what the hell is the point of this exercise?

The winner does get $25,000, so I guess they haven’t totally wasted their time. And maybe they’ll get their car turned into an actual Hot Wheels in the finale, which is quite a prize for people who don’t seem to care about Hot Wheels.

The way this has potential but just whiffs at every opportunity is infuriating. The celebrity guests look embarrassed to be there. Terry Crews guest judges the first episode, and has some decent critiques, and then in the second episode, Anthony Anderson and his mother Doris Bowman show up and then leave before judging.

“Me and Anthony, we’re going to go home,” Doris says, and I wouldn’t blame her if she said that upon arrival on the set. There’s no reason for them to be there; they’re not even there to see the final car.

Two people looking up with blank expressions on their faces
Anthony Anderson and Rutledge Wood pretend to look at something on Hot Wheels Ultimate Challenge episode 2 (Photo by James Stack/NBC)

A considerable portion of each episode is host Rutledge Wood, of Floor is Lava and Top Gear, standing on an empty set shouting at no one. He gives it his best, but it’s truly painful.

In their garages, the teams pretend to react to things like the twist and the celebrity judges. The scenes are so obviously filmed at different times they could be from entirely different shows, and gives the proceedings an empty, going-through-the-motions feel.

Hot Wheels: Ultimately Challenge is corporate reality TV at its absolute worst. There’s no joy in any of this.

It’s too bad, because there’s clear creativity and talent in the teams of car fabricators, and some moments of genuine joy and emotion. If only anyone in charge of creating this show would have done it with similar passion.

Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge

This show should have been scrapped before it was produced, it’s that bad. Only because I want to acknowledge the work of the fabricators, it’s a D-

What works for me:

  • The fabricators’ work
  • The contestants’ stories about their connection to a car

What could be better:

  • Everything else

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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Happy discussing!


Sunday 6th of August 2023

They blew it. 'The Reaper' was hands-down the best conversion, not as a full-size street car, but as a 1/64th die-cast Hot Wheels car, which is the ultimate point. Instead, they past it over. What a mess.


Thursday 3rd of August 2023

That show is no more actual reality than was the show hosted by that mediocre TV comedian who disgraced 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. for 4 years. The biggest MATTEL commercial ever. I’d like to see something like it where real automobiles (which could safely and legally be driven) would be created and hosted by a legitimate automotive artist like Chip Foose instead of a bunch big scrap metal welders and graffiti painters making 1:1 scale toys.

Reed Andersen

Saturday 8th of July 2023

The show is an absolute disgrace to the the name and brand. I wanted back my hour of attention which I feel was a waste of a good idea for real show that boomers and their offspring could have enjoyed. Boo . Just boo! Reed A. Houston TX

Max Blancke

Tuesday 20th of June 2023

I just watched the episode that aired 6/20. My background is heavily into hot rods and restoring classic cars. In the episode I just watched, they installed an engine, but it is obvious that they did no mount it properly, or even hook it up to a transmission. The serpentine belt, which keeps an engine from immediately overheating and melting itself, was not even installed.

On one hand, that does match the Hot Wheels experience, where the engines are just hollow decorations.

Watching the folks "work", it seemed like they were mostly just posing with tools and reading lines. As if the actors read their parts, then the props are wheeled back to a propmaster shop, where they are completed according to designs written up before filming.

Still, the end product is not an automobile. It is a rolling sculpture.

Chuck S

Friday 9th of June 2023

This show is truly a waste of the host's talent. I watched half of the first episode when I decided going to be would be more exciting. I thought it was going to be building insane hot wheels tracks, like Domino Masters, but it's not.. it's just... boring. I was waiting for you to review this Andy.. and your review did not disappoint! ;)