Best RC Cars: A Beginner’s In-Depth Guide (2017 Update)

So, you’re deciding to get into the fun hobby of RC cars, are you? Perhaps you think it is going to be as easy as just picking up any RC car. Or perhaps you know it is going to be harder.

Either way, you likely have a ton of questions, like what the best RC car is, or what kind of RC car is right for you?

Don’t worry, we’re here to help. And like with any explanation, it’s best to start at the beginning.

Reasons To Get Into The Hobby

There are many good reasons to get into the RC hobby. For one, having an RC car is a great social outlet. If you race with others, it can give you an entirely new social group to join in with.

You will meet people you might have never met. In fact, as a new hobbyist, it really pays to get involved with the RC scene in your town.

Older enthusiasts can offer tips, pointers and even help you build your first car if you decide to go with a kit car instead of a ready-to-run model.

Another reason to get into the hobby is that it is an excellent way to let off steam.

After a hard day’s work, you can come home and bash in your front yard till you’ve blown through the stress from the day.

Last but not least, an RC vehicle can be a source of pride. It’s something you’ve built or tweaked or in some way made your own, and now you get to take it to the track and show it off to other hobbyists as well as racing with them to see how your skills stack up.

So, what are you waiting for! It’s time to get into the hobby!

What Is an RC car, and what types are there?

By the rough and gritty definition, a radio-controlled car is a battery or gas-powered model car which can be controlled from a distance using a specialized transmitter. There are many types of RC cars out there.

You will choose the RC car that is right for you based on your driving style, preferred terrain and experience level. In this section, we will go over the various types of RC cars, and what differs between them.

The first step in choosing which kind of car you want is figuring out whether you plan on driving on-road, i.e. parking lots and on-road tracks, or if you prefer off-road driving.

Off-road driving is driving done in your backyard, in the woods, or anywhere else that may have bumps and rough terrain. The type of terrain is very important in determining your choice of car. For the purposes of this guide, we will discuss off-road cars first.

Off-road Cars

Buggies

Buggies are the classic off-road option. They’re designed to go fast over rough terrain and are often very light-weight.

However, they have a low ground clearance due to their center of gravity. This means you might have a hard time navigating bigger obstacles like large dirt clods.

Buggies are also versatile. If you fit them with road tires and tweak the ground clearance to lower it, a buggy can be a blazing fast road car.

There’s also a difference between older buggies and newer ones. Older buggies tended to center the weight toward the back wheels. Newer ones distribute the weight more evenly. This weight distribution helps the vehicle steer better than it might otherwise.

Stadium Trucks

Truggies are higher and wider than buggies. They also feature longer suspension arms and increased stability. Because they are higher off the ground, you are more able to cover difficult terrain.

They are also quite fast, which makes them perfect for racing. The bodies tend to look like pickup trucks, although some are made with more fantasy or sci-fi related designs. They are also always two-wheel-drive vehicles.

Truggies

Truggies are a lot like stadium trucks. The main difference between the two is that a truggy is four-wheel-drive. This means they get better traction on rough terrain than a stadium truck or buggy will.

If you like bouncing over dirt clods, this is your car.

Monster Truck

Monster trucks, much like their real-life counterparts, are huge trucks with giant wheels. These wheels are usually in a V pattern.

These are not the trucks you’d want to race. However, with their body being mounted so high above the chassis, they are perfect for climbing over obstacles and they look fantastic while doing it.

Short Course Trucks

Short-course trucks have bigger wheels, a bit like a truggy. However, they’re narrower and also much heavier than a lot of the other cars in their scale class.

Though they feature big wheels which make them excellent for off-road bashing, they are also brilliant race vehicles.

As a bonus, they also have more inertia. This makes them handle more like an actual car which can add another layer of fun to your driving experience.

Crawlers

Crawlers are amazing and are truly the billy goats of the RC world. They are designed to climb over obstacles. They feature high-torque, slow-running motors that give them a wealth of climbing power.

The chassis is high, and the suspension gives the axles a lot of room to move. Also, the wheels tend to be huge with a lot of traction.

On-Road Cars

If you’re not up for bashing and just want to drive, these are the cars for you.

Pan Car

Pan cars are deceptively simple. The chassis is a plate, and the suspension is generally nothing more than rubber rings.

Though these are the simplest of the on-road cars, they can really get some amazing speeds on the flat surfaces they run on.

Be careful to set them up to get the best grip. Though it may seem simple, it really can be quite a challenge.

Touring Car

Touring cars are more complex than pan cars and are four-wheel-drive. Because of this, they are easy to drive for beginners, though since they are four-wheel-drive they won’t reach quite the speeds of a two-wheel-drive.

Touring cars are highly versatile. You can tweak the ground clearance and add off-road tires to make it more like a buggy or add PVC cars and turn it into a drift car.

Rally Cars

Rally cars are basically just touring cars with better ground clearance and tires with more traction. They’re designed for the driver who likes both worlds.

Though they can’t handle the extremely rough terrain, they can handle some off-road driving while still being able to handle a race on-road.

Formula 1

These cars are basically what it says on the tin. They are extremely scaled-down models of actual Formula 1 race cars. They can reach some amazing speeds and are a lot of fun to drive.

The number of types of RC cars can be overwhelming. However, the type of car you pick isn’t the only decision you need to make.

Types of Batteries

The next decision you need to make before you buy an RC car is what type of batteries you want to use. Some options provide more power and have different care needs than others.

No matter which kind of battery you choose, always remember to buy a good charger. This essential piece of equipment ensures that you will always get the best out of your batteries, no matter what kind you intend to use.

Be sure to make sure your charger matches the type of battery you’re installing.

It’s also important to know what sorts of batteries you need for your model. Do not pinch pennies. You’ll regret it later. It could even cause you to lose your car.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that batteries need care. Never overcharge your battery pack or run the batteries flat.

Also, don’t subject them to heat and cold. This can make them die sooner. Never leave batteries in a discharged state, and for safety sake never short out a battery.

If you follow these simple safety tips and respect the proper operation of your equipment, both batteries and charger should last you for a long time.

But which battery should you pick? Until a few years ago, there was really only one type of RC power. These were called nickel cadmium batteries, often abbreviated to NiCd.

NiMh Batteries

The first type of battery to take over from the NiCds of old are the nickel-metal hydrides. These are often abbreviated to NiMh.

NiMH batteries are excellent in RC vehicles and have become the favored battery for most receiver packs.

They also have very high capacities, meaning that they will allow you to drive much farther than NiCd batteries normally would. They’re also less of a problem for the environment than NiCd batteries.

On the downside, batteries made in China may not actually offer the capacity they claim to offer. This may leave you wondering why your battery is failing to hold a charge. On top of this, they also lose charge when the model is turned off faster than other technologies.

If you are going to use NiMh batteries, you also need to be aware that they can’t be used right out of the box. You must first give them a forming charge to condition the internal plates.

Simply plug them in and charge them to 120 times their max capacity. Always keep an eye on a battery that’s being charged this way. Check it for warmth. If it gets warm, then it has a full charge.

LiPo Batteries

Another option for batteries is the Lithium Polymer battery, LiPo. Where NiCd and NiMh batteries are heavy and could hinder the model, LiPo batteries are very light. They also provide greater speed, performance, and endurance for racing vehicles.

The second advantage of these batteries is that they pack the most power into the lightest package possible. This means that the builders of RC cars can do much more with their designs.

Furthermore, LiPo batteries discharge more slowly when the model is turned off than other types of batteries. They are also far less affected by cold, making them more forgiving overall.

However, as with every battery, LiPo’s do have some drawbacks. They do not tolerate either over-charging or being discharged until they are flat very well.

Also, LiPo batteries are not suitable for anyone under the age of eighteen without parental supervision. If you use them in your RC gear, it is important to use a regulator. If you don’t, you could burn up your servos by overheating. If not handled properly, they can be a significant fire risk. For this reason, it is important that you know how to use them safely.

LiPo Safety

If you are going to use LiPo batteries, it is best to always charge them somewhere safe and to tuck them into a fire-resistant box or bag while charging. Always use the right type of charger, and make sure to not overcharge or run them flat.

Keep an eye out for any damages and dispose of them properly when they become damaged. Finally, if you suspect that you have run your LiPo battery too flat, do NOT try to recharge it.

Running a LiPo flat will damage it and the attempted charge could possibly cause a fire.

Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePo4)

The final type of RC battery is the Lithium Iron Phosphate, or LiFePo4, a battery which combines the safety of a NiCad battery with the power and light weight of a LiPo.

Due to their makeup, they are far more able to tolerate overcharging and undercharging, meaning there is less likelihood of them spontaneously combusting. Instead, they just let off a little harmless gas.

To make things even better, these can be used in RC gear without regulators as they won’t torch your servos.

Sadly, with all batteries there are downsides. However, these seem the type that will remedy themselves with time. Firstly, you need a LiFePo4 charger. Your normal charger that comes with your radio won’t generally work on these.

Also, there are only a limited number of capacities available and the cells are in odd sizes which may prove a problem.

Motors

Now that you have your car type picked out and are aware of the types of batteries, it is necessary to talk about motors. If you have spent any time on an RC board, you have probably heard about the two types of motor, brushed and brushless.

However, chances are good that you might not know what these terms mean.

Brushed motors are inexpensive. However, they tend to not be as speedy as brushless motors.

It is important to note here that the speed of a motor is measured in turns, with the lower numbers meaning higher speed. You can expect your new RC car’s stock motor to be somewhere between 19 turns and 30 turns.

When purchasing a brushed motor, it is wise to check whether the motor is rebuildable. Most are not. These are called cans, and it will be necessary to replace them as they wear down.

With a rebuildable motor, you need only replace the brushes and springs when they wear out. Though a motor of this type will be more expensive initially, it will save you money in the long run.

Brushless motors are faster. However, you pay for that speed with cost. They cost much more than a brushed motor does.
The power of a brushless motor is measured in KV. The higher the KV, the more RPMs.

Be aware of what type of car you are planning to drive. Heavier cars do better with lower KV motors as they don’t tend to spin as fast.

Brushless motors also come in two types, censored and sensorless. Sensorless motors have only three power wires while censored have much more that plug into the ESC which will be discussed momentarily.

Censored brushless motors are much more expensive than censored. However, they also run much more smoothly, as the sensors tell the ESC what the motor is doing.

ESC

The ESC is the electronic speed control for your RC vehicle, and really it’s just what it says on the tin. To keep this definition basic, an ESC is a digital throttle for your vehicle.

Be aware before choosing an ESC that it has to match your motor type. For example, a brushed motor will not work with a brushless ESC. Brushed ESC is rated in turns. Brushless are rated in Amps. Again, the lower the number the higher the speed.

Suspension

The suspension is an important factor in picking your RC car. As a general rule, with most RC cars, at least the hobby-grade ones, the suspension tends to be oil-filled shocks.

Basically, the spring on the outside of the shock absorbs the bump of the car as it goes up and down. These work just like shocks on a real car.

Inside the outside spring is a piston, usually filled with oil. This piston dampens the rebound to keep your RC vehicle from bouncing everywhere.

Shocks generally come in plastic and metal. Metal are more expensive but also more durable, meaning you’ll have to replace them far less.

Tires

Finally, we get to something a little more visible than the things we have discussed so far, the tires.

Other than the motor and batteries, this is arguably the most important part of your vehicle, and the kind you choose depends on what kind of terrain you’re going to be driving on.

Also, if you are going to go with tires that are not the manufacturer suggested ones, they should be glued to the rims of your car with Cyanoacrylate glue (CA)

Pinned Tires

These tires wear out quickly. However, they give decent traction in all directions, and on most surfaces except one. They lose traction on sand.

Ribbed Tires

Ribbed tires are only used on the front wheels of 2WD vehicles. They are great for off-road conditions and give great side-to-side traction.

Grooved Tires

This type of tire gives wonderful traction and doesn’t wear out easily on most surfaces. However, like pinned tires, they tend to slip and lose traction on sand.

Slicks

If you are planning on traveling on-road, these are perfect tires. They give even traction in any direction while gripping well to concrete. However, do not take these off-road. They will lose all traction.

Paddle Tires

These are the tires to drive on the sand with. They wear out quickly on hard surfaces. However, they will keep their traction on sand remarkably well. If you have a 2WD car, these tires can also reduce the amount of steering you have to do.

V-Groove Tires

Basically, these are the rain-compatible version of slicks. During wet weather, they will give increased traction, preventing you from spinning out in the mud.

X-Pinned Tires

These are another tire which is good on sand. It is miserable on hard surfaces and tends to slip and skid on concrete while wearing out quickly.

Tips and Tricks

As you can see, buying an RC car is something that you need to put a lot of thought into. If you are still with us after all of this, and hopefully you are, it is time to give some general tips and tricks.

Don’t Buy The Fastest Car

It may be tempting to rush out and buy the fastest, most impressive car you can find. Please, resist the urge. Learning to drive an RC car is a bit like learning to drive an actual car.

You need to start slowly and build up your skill. You are going to run into things without intending to. It’s better to do that at a manageable speed instead of slamming into the obstacle at top speed and accidentally breaking the car you just bought.

Break Stuff

However, with that said, you will break things. Everything but the electronics can be replaced. Learn to fix your car if you didn’t build it yourself already.

Make Sure You Have the Right Tools

Learn what tools your particular car takes. Then buy those tools. You will be taking your car apart a lot, and you’ll find out they pay for themselves.

Replace Your Bearings

If your car comes with solid bushings, replace them with bearings. It improves the performance of your car, and you won’t be sorry you made this change.

Bumping and Bashing

Installing big front and back bumpers on your car will save you a ton in parts replacement. Most cars come with tiny bumpers if they have bumpers at all.

Have Questions

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Either ask at your local track, or on an RC forum. Remember to explain the problem in as much detail as you can and to thank the people who help you.

Glossary

We have covered a lot of ground in this guide, enough to possibly be overwhelming so here is a glossary to help you with terms you might be having problems with.

2.4GHZ: The newest RC band. This band operates at a higher frequency than classic bands and features automated frequency management.
2WD: Two-wheel-drive. Only the front wheels receive power from the motor. Despite how it may sound these cars are less easy to drive for beginners.

4WD: Four-wheel-drive. All four wheels are powered, making these good cars for off-roading and easier for beginners.

Bashing: Messing around unofficially in your back yard.

Brushes: Conduct current between stationary parts and electronic parts in a motor.

Cyanoacrylate: (CA) A glue, used for gluing tires to the rims among other things. It comes in various viscosities.

Channel: Each function of an RC vehicle requires a separate channel on the transmitter.

Charger: The device used to charge the battery.

Electronic Speed Control: (ESC) The digital throttle for your RC vehicle.

LiPo: One of the types of battery technologies for RC cars. They are very light, very powerful and can be prone to fire.

NiCd: Nickel-cadmium batteries, Rechargeable batteries usually used in RC transmitters or receivers.

NiMh: Nickel metal hydride batteries. These tend to offer longer run times. They’re also better for the environment than NiCd’s.

RTR: Ready to run. RC cars you don’t have to build yourself. Usually, all you have to supply is the batteries.


So there you have it. As you can see, there’s no one best RC car. You need to figure out what style of driving you want to do, look at your budget, and make a decision from that.

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