“Cars 3” returns Lightning McQueen. (Pixar)

LIGHTNING McQUEEN might be aging, but for Pixar’s “Cars” franchise, he can still be a comeback kid.

So say many of the early reviews for “Cars 3,” opening Friday — 11 years after the first film starring the voices of Owen Wilson and Paul Newman hit the track, and six years after “Cars 2” became the only feature film in Pixar’s illustrious history not to be certified “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes.

“Cars 3,” by contrast, is scoring a fresh “63” on Rotten Tomatoes and a “64” on Metacritic.com.

Pixar has only two trilogies so far: The beloved, Oscar-winning “Toy Story” triptych and “Cars,” which is generally beloved more by small children and merchandise marketers.

The first wave of critics are mostly agreeing, though, that “Cars 3″ — as directed by Brian Fee — returns some of the heart and soul to the franchise.

On the high end of praise, Drew Taylor of Playlist writes that “Cars 3” is “a welcome return to form that makes you appreciate what made the first, woefully underappreciated film so special and pushes the series into some unexpected places.” And Eric Kohn of Indiewire says that “considering that it’s a second sequel in a less-than-revered franchise, it’s a minor miracle that ‘Cars 3’ hits the finish line with a fresh sense of purpose.”

The “Cars” filmmakers have seemed to relish in the contrast between rendering weathered surfaces vs. the sheen of state-of-the-art machinery. And reviewers tend to relish automotive metaphors when describing the franchise’s narrative workings.

“Fee steers ‘Cars 3’ like the sleek piece of movie machinery it is — a standard ride with a half-full tank, a gorgeous paint job, and not much at all under the hood,” judges Entertainment Weekly‘s Leah Greenblatt. USA Today‘s Brian Truitt revs up a similar metaphor, writing: “ ‘Cars 3’ at least tries to put a little extra in the tank this time around.”

And the Hollywood Reporter‘s Michael Rechtshaffen operates on all metaphorical cylinders in his tepid review, writing that the studio “ran the diagnostics” after the first sequel’s “noisy misfire” following the first film’s “sweet ride.” His verdict is that “while visually dynamic, Lightning McQueen’s newest challenge still feels out of alignment with a languid end result that lacks sufficient forward momentum.”

Ahead of Friday, we’ll see which other reviews put the verbiage into top gear for Pixar’s latest.