This will be the first of a series on how to navigate the initial learning curve, and to choose what is a good entry point. Whether you are shopping for yourself, or are looking for a gift for the Holidays for someone else, there will be plenty of advice to be had.
Last holiday season, I embarked on this journey, and had to figure most of this out myself. Now, I will share with my readers what I learned.
If you are serious about getting into the hobby, there are some questions that you need to answer honestly:
- Is this for you or for someone else?
- If it is for someone else, how old and how mature are they?
- How much do you want to spend?
- Do you think you (or the person you buy for) might want to race?
- What interests you or the person you are buying for? Racing, bashing (driving around), skate parks, BMX tracks, open fields, jumps, street, etc.
- How mechanically inclined are you?
- New or Used (TL;DR for your first vehicle buy new)
We will address these in order.
Is this for you or for someone else? – Simple. are you buying this to indulge a whim, or do you have a child/nephew/grandchild that you are buying for?
As an adult, and assuming you have a reasonable amount of working capital, and can trust yourself to be judicious, there is no reason to not buy something bigger, that you will grow into. If you are buying for yourself, it is hard to go wrong with a 1/10th scale truck or buggy. 3S, 4S, or even 6S (If you are green, I would recommend buying a 6S capable vehicle, but running on 4S to start so you can learn with less of the “insane” mode that 6S can provide.
If it is for someone else, how old and how mature are they? If you are buying for a child (yours, a nephew, or a grandchild), my advice is different. There are a lot of 16th scale vehicles out there, that are both inexpensive, yet durable. Traxxas makes plenty of 1/16th scale vehicles, that are inexpensive and still fun. The 1/16th scale Slash (a short course truck) comes in at $179.99 and it is a simple, 2 wheel drive truck, that runs well on NiMH batteries, that are both inexpensive and safe for kids to use (and, importantly, batteries and charger are included, so no need to buy separate)
Or the 1/16th scale e-Revo, a “monster truck” form factor) is another great choice. However, there are a lot of other similar cars out there, Losi makes some fine smaller scale cars, that are more expensive, but better equipped.
If your kids/nephews(nieces) or Grandkids are older, then a 1/10th scale will beckon. They are larger, and usually stouter built, and will have a lot more upgrades available (i.e. going from brushed to brushless, going to LiPo batteries from NiMH). Again, Traxxas makes a 1/10th scale Slash with several different chassis and electronics option, from a 2wd that uses NiMH batteries, all the way up to a ~ $500 price point that has brushless, lights, 4wd, and even a sound module to make it sound like a real truck.
Again, your options are vast.
What you do not want to do, is to buy your grandchildren something that is too much. They may see some of the videos of extreme bashing sessions on youTube and want an X-Maxx or similar. These are not beginner level vehicles, and the high power (8S LiPo) combined with significant mass (> 20 pounds, or 9 kg) and speeds of over 50 miles per hour means that if you run into something (car, person, house, animal) you can cause a LOT of damage.
Resist pleas to get the bigger, more powerful vehicles for the beginners.
One last note: When I go to the local track, I am encouraged by the number of young girls out there dicing it up. This is NOT a “boys” sport.
How much do you want to spend? This is an open ended question. You can get some nice gear for under $200, ready to run. The 2WD Traxxas Slash listed above is a great deal, and you will get a pretty amazing car for that price, with all you need.
If that is too much, there are other options. If you go to Amazon and search WLTOYS, you will find some great bargains, for true hobby grade RC Cars.
An aside here: There are two classes of RC Cars out there, toy grade, and hobby grade. Toy grade will be made with cheap plastic, and sold on the shelf at retailers like Walmart. They are inexpensive ($50 ish), and will feel cheap. Hobby grade on the other hand may or may not be sold at mass market retailers (like the above mentioned WL Toys) but they will be better built, and have replaceable parts. That is when you break something, you can repair it. I would HIGHLY recommend spending a few extra bucks and get a hobby grade RC Car, unless you are certain that the recipient will not play with it a long time.
Taking the Traxxas Slash example, at 1/10th scale, there are a lot of options:
- Slash Ultimate 1/10th – $529
- Slash VXL 1/10th 4×4 – $399
- Slash 4×4 1/10th – $319 (brushed motor, includes battery and charger)
- Slash 2WD 1/10th – $199 (brushed, with battery and charger)
- Slash 2WD 1/10th – $239 (brushed, but with a newer ESC, and ID Battery)
- Slash 2WD 1/16th – $179 (Brushed, with battery and charger)
Clearly, plenty of options and a wide range of entry points.
But for a first RC, a $200 – $300 price point is going to get you into something that will be enjoyable, and will grow with them as their skills and abilities grow.
To race or not? – You might live in a place where this isn’t an option. Where I live, there is a local hobby shop that does have indoor and outdoor racing, but the next closest place is almost 120 miles away. If you are on the east coast, or in Florida, or the south, there are a lot more venues, and in fact there are circuits and the like for young racers to grow.
If there is any desire to dip the toe in to this aspect of the sport, it is best to go to a local track, and ask what they recommend for a new to the sport. You do NOT have to spend a huge amount of money to get started. The local track where I live will even rent you cars to get started.
As you progress, and you rise in the classes, expect to invest in gear and parts. Even modestly serious racers will have a car that they built, and will do a lot of tuning to match the characteristics to the track, change tires, shock dampener fluids, and the like.
But to get started, you don’t need a Team Associated or a Team Losi Racing vehicle to have fun. The local track’s most popular races are the Short Course beginners races, and there, a Traxxas Slash is a great platform to start (hence why I keep talking about it above). Do be conscious of the need to conform to the rules. That often means what sort of power you can use (NiMH or LiPo, and the capacity/voltage), stability management usually must be turned off, and upgrades are limited.
But, if there are no convenient tracks, then the racing discussion is moot.
Power Source – There are two principal powerplants, electric motors, and nitro (nitromethanol) powered engines. For a beginner, this is a no brainer, choose electric. Nitro vehicles are expensive, messy, and LOUD. However, you can top up the fuel take and keep on driving, whereas for electric vehicles, you have to swap batteries, or charge them between runs.
In the electric realm, there are two types of systems, brushed and brushless. Brushed systems are the less expensive option, they are simpler, and slower. But they are reliable, and easy to work on. Most of them run just fine with NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) batteries, that are a lot safer, especially for younger enthusiasts. You pretty much can’t get in trouble with them.
The more power dense LiPo (Lithium Polymer) batteries are usually paired with brushless systems. The Electronic Speed Control (ESC) takes the voltage and current, and converts it to a waveform that the motor uses to spin. Maximum speed is tied to the voltage of the electronics. LiPo batteries are arranged in cells, and the native voltage of the cells is 3.7V, and each cell is wired in series to increase the net voltage. The number of cells is denoted with the S number. That is 1S = 3.7 volts. 2S is 7.4V.
Common cell sizes are 2S, 3S, 4S, and 6S.
Whereas the NiMH batteries are pretty forgiving, as in, if you let them run to no charge, or over charge them, they might stop working, but there is little harm. This is not the case for LiPo batteries. Lithium is a very reactive metal, and exposure to air can cause it to burn, with a rather high intensity, even in an oxygen poor environment. They also charge differently, and have a different discharge profile.
This is to say that if you go with LiPo batteries, use a proper charger, don;t charge too fast, and if the battery pack gets damaged, properly discharge it and discard it. LiPo’s can and do catch on fire. If you want to be horrified, search on Youtube for LiPo fires and you will take all these warnings to heart.
The good thing is, that if you are careful, observant, and use a quality charger, and don’t leave batteries unattended while charging, they are pretty safe. Just don’t get complacent.
If you are buying for someone under 10 years old, buy something that uses NiMH batteries, and sleep better at night.
If you are new, or a casual user, don’t buy a Nitro vehicle.
How Mechanically Inclined are you (or the person you are buying for? – Hobby grade RC Cars are awesome. They are a ton of fun, and can bring a lot of enjoyment. However, they are complex electromechanical systems. If you run into something solid, there are parts that break. If you send it off a huge jump at a skate park, a lot can get broken inside it.
Most local hobby shops will service them for a fee, but that can get stupid expensive. For younger enthusiasts, RC Cars can become a way to teach them how to work on mechanical things, and how to fix them.
In fact, I find working on my cars cathartic. I don’t break many things, but I still tear them down, clean and lubricate them.
This can be a great learning experience.
However, if you are starting out, and the goal is to build a lifetime of hobby enjoyment, plan on spending some money on tools.
New or Used? – I have several hobbies where it is perfectly fine to buy something used to get started. Photography, guitars (and amps,) and telescopes all fall into this category. People get better, and upgrade to better gear, selling their used stuff.
But for RC cars, especially if you are new to the field, I would STRONGLY recommend buying new at first.
- Buying used means that there might be hidden issues. Bad motors, broken or notchy servos, poor radio range, bad bearings, and a lot of other defects that can be difficult for a novice to spot
- Used often has mixed and matched parts. Necessity is the mother of all invention, and a lot of people will bodge together broken parts, to get back on the trail. Buying one of these franken-cars will drive you nuts trying to get it right
- People seem to have this insane belief that they ought to get close to what they paid for a used vehicle. If you must buy used, the TOP of the pricing will be 50% of new. Things like batteries and chargers are not really benefits, especially for LiPo systems. You do not want to risk a fire charging a battery someone else damaged.
After you have some time under your belt, then you can go bargain hunting on used kit, but to start here is a recipe for frustration.
Plus, with a new car, you will get the owners manual, that will have a list of parts, and exploded diagrams so you can figure out how to fix it when you break it.
I was a late comer to the world of RC cars. I had always wanted to get into it, but it was either expensive, or just not a priority. And when I was a late teenager, there was a lot less choice. Back then, it was Nitro all the way, mediocre radios (with frequency crystals), and a lot less options.
Now, with the advent of high power LiPo and brushless systems, a plethora of great out of the box Ready to Run (RTR) systems, and a gamut of genres to choose from, there has never been a better time to dive in.
This post was long, but hopefully, if you have made it this far, you learned something, and have ideas of what to shop for for either yourself, or someone else.
The next post will be a comparison of the major makers, and recommendations.
However, if you have read this far, and you are going to dive in, I recommend a long hard look at Traxxas. They have things that are really inexpensive (the Latrax series at the bottom), really high quality (the X-Maxx is without peer, but also their 4TEC road cars, their rally cars, their short course trucks, their monster trucks, they have boats, and even an out of the box 100MPH+ car) and everything between. If you search the internet, you will find two categories of enthusiasts, those who like Traxxas, and those who bash them. Ignore that sniping. Traxxas makes a great product, there is a plentiful supply of spares, and you can start simple and upgrade