How To Buy Your First RC Car? | Beginner’s Guide

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The world of radio-controlled or RC cars can be a daunting one, as many enthusiasts have been involved in the world for years and have the minutiae of the hobby ingrained in their minds. For the interested novice without a car or a clue to their name, though, it can be overwhelming. Thankfully, choosing your first RC car doesn’t have to be a Herculean ordeal.

Here’s a beginner’s guide for how to buy your first RC car:

  1. Don’t stress about brand
  2. Choose electric or nitro
  3. Pick an RC car kit or Ready-To-Run kit
  4. Decide between on-road or off-road
  5. Determine bash or race
  6. Select 2WD or 4WD
  7. Choose RC car scale size
  8. Consider upgrading the tires
  9. Read-up on batteries

In this article, I’ll be taking a deep dive into the world of RC cars, covering everything you need to know and consider when learning how to figure out what car will best suit your needs as a newcomer to the hobby. I’ll also give you my suggestions for the most reliable, beginner-friendly RC car.

How To Buy Your First RC Car?

How To Buy an RC Car?

Welcome! The world of RC cars (and trucks, buggies, and more…) is a big and complicated place, but it’s made easier by the collective knowledge of folks who’ve been living and breathing RC since their inception. 

There are a lot of considerations that go into making such an important decision as buying an RC car – just like a real car – but it’s best to take it one step at a time and consider every aspect through the lens of what you want to get out of your first RC car. For instance, do you want to race, make big jumps, or just mess around in a parking lot? 

From there, you can consider more in-depth facets like nitro versus electric, on or off road, and more!

No matter what you want to get out of your time with RC cars, be sure to have fun with it because that’s what it’s all about. With that said, let’s get into the nitty-gritty details you need to know!

1. Don’t Stress About Brand

I’m sure you’ve seen lots of brands that have little to no meaning as a novice to the RC world. Tamiya, Traxxas, Losi, and Arrma are just a few of the most popular names out there. While finding a good company with great customer service can be extremely handy down the line, I’d recommend holding off on buying RC equipment online.

To answer the question succinctly, the brand doesn’t matter that much. When you get into the hobby more, you can worry about brands and finding your ‘favorite’ manufacturer.

It’s better for a newcomer to be able to walk into a hobby store where the people working there have hands-on experience with RC cars. 

You can ask all the questions you want, find what best fits your needs, and perhaps even meet some other RC enthusiasts! No matter how great one manufacturer is, they likely can’t offer you what you need right off the bat. The personalized service that hobby stores offer is far more useful to you than any resources on the internet – yes, even this article!

2. Choose Electric or Nitro

RC cars are divided into two categories according to how they’re powered: electric cars with rechargeable batteries, or nitro cars with combustion engines fed by nitro fuel or gasoline. They both have their pros and cons.

I generally recommend an electric car as your first purchase. They require less maintenance, and on the whole are quieter, less messy, and just overall more indicative of the hobby as a whole.

Electric RC Cars

Electric cars are powered by lithium-polymer or nickel-hydride batteries, both of which have their pros and cons – most notably a problem called false peaking that’s only present in the latter batteries. 

That said, electric cars are more reliable and don’t take as much tweaking to get performing at a high level. Electric motors, including brushless motors, are capable of very high speeds, but what makes them ideal for newcomers is that many beginners’ kits are aimed at beginners and contain everything you’ll need to get started.

Additionally, no internal combustion engine makes them quieter, less messy, and less smelly than nitro cars – an alternative that may disturb neighbors. All of these combine to make an ideal choice for novices.

Nitro RC Cars

Nitro RC cars aren’t inferior to electric cars, despite what the previous section may lead you to believe. RC engines have come a long way in recent years and are just as capable of the same performance as electric cars, but they do require more maintenance and tweaking than electric cars. 

Not to mention there’s a definite sensory experience with nitro cars that you just don’t get with electric cars – the smell of burning fuel, plumes of exhaust, and so on. 

If you’re interested in nitro cars, read down to the end of this article for some additional things you should know before purchasing one. 

3. Pick A RC Car Kit or Ready-To-Run Kit

Among the first choices you’ll need to make is whether you want to get an RC car kit, where you build the RC car from its component parts, or an RTR car that’s pre-assembled and ready to be used. They both have their pros and cons and are great for different reasons, but I recommend a RTR car for your first purchase.

RC Car Kit

RC car kits are assembly kits that allow users to build the car from component parts included with the kit. These are aimed at more experienced hobbyists who like to substitute their own specialized parts for what’s included – racers like kits because they can customize to their heart’s content. 

If you’re into building things and love finding out how things work on a nuts-and-bolts level, kits may be exactly what you’re looking for. For a casual hobbyist, though, not so much. Unless you’re specifically getting into RC cars to build and customize them, kits aren’t for beginners. They take a lot of work compared to cars that work out of the box.

Ready-To-Run (RTR)

Ready-to-run cars are exactly what the name implies: ready to run right out of the box. This means all components are installed according to factory standards and the car is declared, trimmed, etc. 

These are by my opinion best two choices currently available:

One thing to be aware of is whether it comes with everything you need because some cars don’t include a charger, battery pack, or AA batteries for the remote control. On the other hand, some do include absolutely everything you need like the above two I have mentioned. Just be sure to read the fine print before spending money!

RTR cars are great for impatient people or those who aren’t mechanically inclined. If you’re just looking to mess around in your driveway or a parking lot, this is likely the perfect choice for you. Once you get your feet wet in the RC world, you can look into how the mechanical parts of the hobby work and if it’s for you or not. This really comes down to what your preference is, and nothing more.

4. Decide Between On-Road and Off-Road

On-road means you won’t be able to use your car off-road without some pretty heavy modification, but off-road cars generally work well on-road too.

This is all down to where you’re going to be driving – if you’re not inclined to ever take your car offroad, by all means, order an on-road car. On-road cars are where you find the scale replica race cars, aka ‘touring cars.’ There are also drag, rally, drift, semis, and many more types of on-road cars.

But if you’re even curious about off-roading, don’t feel bad about ordering an off-road car – they work just about everywhere. Off-road vehicles range from monster trucks, dune buggies, truggies, construction equipment, and more. The main defining characteristic of off-road cars is that they’re built for the durability to go anywhere.

5. Determine Bash or Race

Racing is taking part in regulated races that generally have set circuits and rules, whereas bash is just having fun and doing crazy jumps and things with your car. The former will be chock full of folks who tweak their cars within an inch of its life to optimize performance, whereas bash is a much more relaxed atmosphere.

More in my post: What Is RC Bashing? | Tips buying best RC Basher

6. Select 2WD or 4WD RC Car

This is another category that comes down to preference. 2WD cars tend to have fewer drive train problems because there are fewer parts total, but 4WD has incomparable handling and you’ll overall have more control. Rear-drive cars are a little rarer, but some people love and swear by them.

TIP: As a starter car, I’d recommend going with 4WD to get a good feel for how it handles before branching out.

7. Choose RC Car Scale Size

If you’ve done a bit of research into RC cars, you’ve no doubt come across all kinds of crazy rc car scale numbers, ranging from 1/6 to 1/8, 1/16, and even 1/64. All this means is that the RC car is the according to fraction size of the car it’s modeled after. 

These numbers aren’t exact and are more of a rough estimate to give you an idea of size. 1/10 and 1/8 scale cars are considered a standard size, and bigger numbers after the fraction mean it’s smaller. 

If the size for storage is a concern, consider going with a smaller car like 1/16, or perhaps a matchbox-sized 1/64 scale car. If space isn’t a concern, though, I’d say that 1/10 scale is a good place to start and get your feet wet with the hobby.

8. Consider Upgrading the Tires

Tires are the only part of an RC car that actually makes contact with the ground, and that means you need to pay special attention to what tires you’re using. The main variable that determines what kind of tires you’ll use is the terrain – flat surfaces such as asphalt and tarmac call for smoother tires than grassy woodland terrain, for example.

Track Surface

The most important thing to know about track surfaces is that the more contact your tires have with the ground you’re driving on, the more acceleration and control you’ll have. For example, flat tires with patterns will get cars up to speed and maintain that speed better than if you tried to use spiked tires. 

As a general guide, remember these tire types:

  • Flat or ‘slick’ tires – are best for flat surfaces such as pavement, asphalt, and tarmac.
  • Spiked tires – are primarily for rough ground found in forests and off-road trails. Tires with mini spikes offer great grip on various terrains and generally perform well on rough terrain as well as flatter ground.

Keep Tires Proportional to Car Size

Other than surface type and compound type, which we’ll get to, keeping your tires proportional to your car is also important. A 1/10 scale touring car running 1/8 scale monster truck tires would look pretty silly, don’t you agree? 

Not only that, but those tires would receive disproportionate sideload pressure when driving, and would probably come flying off at the first bad bump or jump.

Finding the perfect balance of performance according to terrain along with keeping the tires appropriately sized is crucial.

Tire Compounds

What compound an RC tire is made of will determine its performance on various terrain, and none are strictly better than others. Rather, it’s all about tailoring your car’s tires to what your needs are. Many manufacturers use color scale systems to let buyers know how hard or soft their tires are.

Here are the types of compounds:

  • Soft compounds – are best for flat ground such as asphalt, pavement, and tarmac. Ideally, the softest tires would be used only on flat surfaces that have minimal bumps, cracks, chips, or other surface flaws. Inspecting the terrain you’re planning to drive on will help you figure out how soft is appropriate for your needs.
  • Medium compounds – are a great in-between choice for when conditions aren’t perfectly flat but aren’t extremely rough either. Another situation where medium compound tires are useful is when it’s rainy – the compound will offer good traction, acceleration, and control while still remaining resistant to moisture.
  • Hard compounds – offer less grip but much greater durability. This is mainly useful for rougher conditions such as rocky or woody conditions that could damage softer tires.

All about RC tires in my closely related posts I wrote recently:

9. Read Up on Batteries

Batteries are literally the lifeblood of electric cars and determine the performance of a car and how long you can drive it before the battery needs to be charged. Batteries are generally divided into two of the most commonly used types: lithium-polymer (LiPo) and nickel-hydride (NiMH).

LiPo Batteries

LiPo batteries are typically sold as aftermarket accessories, but some RTR cars come with them preinstalled. They are lighter than their NiMH counterparts and tend to maintain their voltage for longer as the battery drains. Instead of dropping voltage toward the end of a charge, LiPos will simply drop off when they’re close to dead.

These are considered ‘nicer’ than NiMH batteries, but they’d have a correspondingly high price point, even if the gap is tightening. Another note about LiPos is that they require special storage considerations – an example is that they have a special ‘storage mode’ they need to be stored in.

NiMH Batteries

These are the standard in most RTR cars and are heavier than a LiPo battery of similar voltage and capacity. An important detail to know about NiMH batteries is that they steadily drop voltage as they discharge – this means your car will very slowly, but steadily lose power over the course of a full charge. These are also cheaper than LiPOs.

The other most crucial piece of info about NiMH batteries is that they can suffer from false peaking when the batteries are used after a long period of inactivity (months or longer). We’re about to cover that problem in detail.

You Might like: Why My Battery Won’t Charge?

False Peaking

False peaking is a phenomenon that only occurs in NiMH batteries. When a battery is left untouched for a period of months or longer, it may claim to be charged much more quickly than it should. 

For instance, a typical battery should take 45 minutes to charge – if it says it charged faster, it may be a case of false peaking if the battery hasn’t been used in a while. If the battery runs out much quicker than it should, that’s confirmation of false peaking.

To fix false peaking, you simply leave the battery on the charger for longer than it normally takes to charge. If it still runs dead too quickly, keep charging it and running it dead; 4 to 5 cycles of this should fix the problem.

Voltage and Capacity

Voltage means how much power is supplied to your car, and directly determines how much power and speed your car will have. Capacity determines how long you can use your car on a full charge and is measured in mAh, or milliamp hours. To figure out the best battery for your car and what kind works well in it, refer to the power system specifications that you should’ve received with your car.

Most cars are designed to take a certain amount of voltage for optimal performance, and they generally don’t benefit from more voltage. At best it won’t do anything, and at worst it may harm your car’s circuitry. Some cars have ‘overvoltage protection’ if you try to use too many power cells.

NiMH batteries commonly come packaged with 6 cells that output around 1.2 volts each, but this varies depending on the car. You may see these advertised as ‘6 cell batteries’ or ‘7.2v batteries.’ Some batteries have more cells for cars with higher power needs – check your power specs before using batteries that didn’t come with the car.

LiPo batteries provide more power per cell (3.7v) and typically come in ‘2 cell batteries’ or ‘7.4v batteries.’ As with NiMH, there are different configurations with more cells for cars that require more power.

Unlike with voltage, you can never have too much capacity or mAh in your battery. For example, 3300mAh will power a car for a much shorter time than 5000mAh. For all intents and purposes, more mAh is always better as long as the voltage is suitable for your car. Without getting too technical, mAh measures how long a battery can hold a predetermined electrical load.

Chargers

First off, get a NiMH charger for NiMh batteries, and a LiPo charger for LiPo batteries. Some chargers have settings for both types if you use them both. What you need to know about is amperage.

Chargers generally have amperage settings that determine how fast it charges any given battery. More amperage is, contrary to your instinct, not always better. Charging batteries at lower amperages might be slower, but it keeps the battery performing well for much longer. Habitually charging batteries at high amperes is a good way to drastically shorten their lifespan.

Roughly, a 2 amp charger will charge a 3000mAh battery in about an hour and a half. Whereas 4 amps will cut that down to 45 minutes. I highly recommend charging batteries at the lowest possible amperage setting when you’re just charging overnight or don’t plan to drive any time soon. This will keep your batteries operating at peak performance for far longer.

Keep in mind, you should never charge a LiPo battery with a NiMH charger. It’ll catch on fire and possibly explode, so just don’t. Secondly, I recommend not leaving batteries on the charger when you’re not around in case something were to happen. 

In the vast majority of cases, nothing goes wrong as long as you use the right kind of charger for your batteries, but very occasionally batteries may smoke or even catch fire for inexplicable reasons. Being nearby in such a case is absolutely essential.

What Is the Most Reliable Beginner-Friendly Type of RC Car?

1:16 Brushless Large RC Cars 55+ kmh Speed - Kids and Adults Remote Control Car 4x4 Off Road Monster Truck Electric - All Terrain Waterproof Toys Trucks for Boys, Girls - 2 Batteries for 40+ Min Play

The most reliable beginner-friendly type of RC car is an electric RTR kit, like the Sonic from Laegendary. Beginners should avoid too much specialization in their first car before experimenting to decide what activities they most enjoy with the car. This will help prevent unnecessary spending. 

Put simply, electric cars have less problems than nitro cars, and RTR means you don’t have to build anything. Just take the car out and use it out of the box – simplicity at its finest.

What To Know Before Buying Nitro RC Cars?

Nitro cars are well-known for that sweet, sweet sound they make, as well as the unique smell of exhaust.  If you’re set on a nitro car, there are a few important things to know to make the most of your first nitro car. (Still, I highly recommend you at least try out an electric car for your first purchase, just to get the hang of how they work and to figure out if RC cars are really for you.)

1. Nitro RC Cars Need an Ideal Air-Fuel Ratio

Just like cars, nitro RC cars use a mixture of air and fuel to run. If there’s not enough or too much of either, the car won’t work as intended and there could be detrimental side effects. Too ‘rich’ or fuel-heavy a mixture will choke your engine out, and not enough fuel will cause loss of power and sputtering. 

Aluminum Capped Air Filter Element Sponge 04104 Upgrade Parts Compatible with RC 1/10 HSP Traxxas Himoto Redcat Nitro Truck Buggy (Blue)

Nitro cars need a clean air filter for each run, lest they suffer from poor throttling, sputtering, and loss of power. RC cars get dirty, and you definitely don’t want that dirt going in your engine, where it’ll wear on crucial components. Long-term, dirt can ruin engines. Just change the filter each time and clean areas that appear dirty near them, and you should be fine.

2. Nitro RC Cars Need Glow Plugs

An important item you’ll need is glow plugs. For nitro cars, glow plugs serve as spark plugs that aid in the combustion process. Just like air filters, dirt can build up near glow plugs. As I just covered, dirt is really bad for RC engines. Cleaning dirt that builds up near glow plugs when you change them will help to increase engine longevity.

Hobbypark 70117 Hot Glow Plugs No.3 N3 Super Duty Spark Engine Parts Replace OS 8 for Traxxas Redcat RC Nitro Car Truck Buggy (Pack of 3)

Nitro RC Cars Need Nitro Fuel

Nitro cars need nitro RC fuel, which it’s important to note is not the same fuel that RC planes use. A good rule of thumb is to look for the same kind of fuel that came with your car, likely around 16-25% nitro mixture. Varying levels of nitro mixture exist, but it’s best to wait for later to experiment with fuel, when you know more about how your car works and runs.

Redcat Racing 1 Quart 20-Percent Nitrofuel

Useful Spare RC Car Parts To Keep On Hand

As with anything mechanical, RC cars demand you either have spare parts or have access to them. At a moment’s notice, the most random and specific parts could break or require repairs. While RTR models usually come pretty well assembled, it’s always worth your time to familiarize yourself with the fine mechanical detail that goes into your car. 

Modern RC cars are designed to disperse the kinetic energy that comes from little plastic houses with motors moving around at absurd speeds, but you can’t prevent every accident. Eventually, things will break and you’ll need to have the parts and know-how to fix it.

While every type of RC car is different and takes different parts, there are some good universal bits and bobs to keep around.

Handy spare parts include:

  • Lots of wheel nuts
  • Lots of glow plugs (for nitro cars)
  • A spare battery or two (for electric cars)
  • An extra set of tires and wheels
  • Axles
  • Motor and wheel bearings
  • Miscellaneous bits like nuts, screws, and washers

In addition, check my RC car repair guide.

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