A beginner’s guide to buying your first RC car

beginners guide to buying your first RC car

There’s a lot to think about before buying your first RC car. This guide will explore vehicle types, batteries, speed, capability and more.

Remote-controls cars have come a long way from the department store cheapies that trundle around before abruptly coughing to a short-lived stop. Modern versions of RCs – as they’re commonly called – can break the legal road speed limit and out-accelerate a Ferrari. Oh, and they can cost plenty, too. All of which makes buying one of the moderns RCs somewhat of a minefield. So, here’s the 101 guide to buying a remote-control car.

Speeding up

Modern RC cars are fast. According to the Guinness World Records a custom made RC car topped 325km/h in 2014, setting a world record. That’s properly fast. And while big performance used to be achieved with cars powered by liquid fuel, improvements in battery and motor tech means that record was done with an electric RC.

While your average RC car will only do a fraction of that speed, it’s easy to find models that will do 50 or 60km/h. Even 100km/h is very achievable on a relatively slender budget. For a 1/10 scale model that equates to a scale speed of 600km/h or more. Our early experience with them suggests top speed is not the most important metric. We bought an RC for a few hundred dollars and it runs to a claimed 46km/h, which seems plenty quick enough for loads of fun on dirt, grass or bitumen.

beginners guide to choosing your first RC car


The size of the RC is measured as a fraction relative to a full-sized vehicle. So, for example, a 1/16 car is one-sixteenth the length, width and height of the real car or truck it’s based on. One of the most common scales is 1/10 although cars can double in size to 1/5, at which point things start getting verrrrry big – and a lot more expensive. Buying a more common scale typically gives you access to more spare parts (you’ll need them).

Electric v nitro

There are two main types of propulsion for RC machines – batteries and nitro. Nitro cars use miniature internal combustion engines (like those used in lawn mowers or motorbikes) that usually need a special brew of nitromethane, methanol and oil. The exact mix can change depending on the engine, plus the engines require maintenance and servicing. Be prepared to get your hands dirty.

Nitro cars are also much noisier and some tracks in suburban areas won’t allow them to be used as a result. So the market is very much heading to electric RCs, which these days can be faster than the nitro cars. RC batteries can cost $100 or more but at least everyone has an easy means of charging them.

Once searching for an electric RC you may come across the words “brushed” or “brushless”. It refers to the small carbon blocks (or brushes) within the motors. Short story is brushless ones are faster, so if the budget permits grab one of those.

Batteries (for electric RCs)

Which brings us to batteries, which is where a lot of the tech is in an RC car. The cheapest batteries generally use a nickel-metal hydride (NiMh) construction. They can cost $30 or less. And like all batteries they degrade over time although they tend to be quite long lasting.

But the RC market is fast moving to lithium polymer batteries, or LiPo. They are generally more expensive, lighter and can hold more energy, something measured in milli-amp hours, or mAh. The bigger the number, the better. But the battery capacity does not determine how powerful it is. For that you need to look at the voltage; a higher voltage makes the engine spin faster, so you can (or may be able to) drive it quicker, assuming the controller and motor can take the higher voltage.

beginners guide to choosing your first RC car

LiPo batteries are made up of 3.7V cells and the most common types are 2S (for two cells) and 3S (for three cells), although they can go to 7S and above. A 2S battery makes 7.4V and a 3s 11.1V. There’s one final rating on this battery packs and that is the C rating, which determines how quickly you can safely discharge the battery; the higher the number, the faster the discharge.

If all this is making your brain hurt, we’d suggest buying a car that comes with a battery in its kit. Then, if you want a spare battery, buy one with the same voltage (or S rating, be it 2S or 3S) and the same or a higher C rating of whatever the battery that came in the kit is; there’s no issue with choosing a higher C rating, but there are potential issues if you choose a battery with a lower rating.

beginners guide to choosing your first RC car

But wait, there’s more… Batteries also come with different charge and discharge plugs. Most chargers accommodate the popular plugs. But the discharge plug (the one you plug in to make the car run) will be specific to your car and, in some cases, specific to particular brands. One of the popular brands, Traxxas, for example, has its own plug type.

Some hobby shops allow you to choose the plug. Or if you’re handy on the tools you can swap them yourself (be careful not to cross the black and red wires!). One of the most common discharge plugs is a Dean’s plug and it is used by many popular RC brands.

One final thing on batteries: make sure you check the dimensions of the battery you’re buying to ensure it will fit in the hole on your RC car.

Off-road, drift cars, buggies, short course, stadium trucks, crawlers or monster trucks

Strap yourself in for the selection of body types and what they’re designed to do. Just like the real car market, the RC car market offers a daunting selection. The first decision is whether you want on-road or off-road. For most people, off-road will suit better because it allows you to drive it in more places.

With an on-road car you’ll tend to go faster – especially around corners, because the tyres typically have more grip – but you need to find big patches of smooth bitumen (empty carparks are popular). On-road cars also include drift machines, which are designed to slide around and do spectacular drifts.

In the off-road RC land there are a few main body shapes, including buggies (the tyres are not covered by wheel arches), monster trucks (or stadium trucks) and short course trucks, which look like utes. A lot of the components are identical, whether it’s the skeletal frame of the car, an electric motor or a component within the suspension.

But different cars will have different characteristics. The monster trucks and stadium trucks, for example, have tyres sitting very wide of the car. The bigger footprint means they’re less susceptible to rolling over. Buggies are great all-rounders with a low centre of gravity, so good for those wanting to set a lap record. And short course trucks (with ute-like bodies) look cool.

beginners guide to choosing your first RC car

As with real cars, there are also crossovers, such as a “truggy”, which blends a buggie and a monster truck. If you’re more into technical off-roading then crawlers are an option. As the name suggests they’re not too fast, instead focusing on off-road ability. They usually have good suspension travel and superior 4WD hardware for tackling rocks, mud, logs and other obstacles. Crawlers are also great for beginners who don’t want something explosively fast; crawlers tend to top out around 8km/h.

2WD v 4WD

A mate who’s well into RC cars assures me the two-wheel drive cars are less likely to damage the drivetrain, at the very least because there are fewer components to break. But even with a relatively basic RC there’s a good chance you’ll do plenty of skids and wheel-spinning. So a four-wheel drive should prove a tad easier to control, at least when it comes to building speed. Then again, the wild at heart may prefer the looseness of a rear-drive RC car.

Which brand?

Go shopping for an RC car and you’ll be bombarded by brands. There are dozens, some of which may only be sold in a few shops or online websites. There are familiar names such as Tamiya and some top-end ones such as Losi. Popular brands with a good reputation include Traxxas, Arrma and Axial, although they’re by no means the cheapest. And there are many more. Others such as HSP sell more on price.

There are loads of online stores, some with relatively easy access to over-the-phone-assistance. It’s worth testing how easy they are to get in touch with in case you have any issues; give them a call or drop them an email to test it before buying. Otherwise the various suburban hobby shops are often a great way to go – mainly for that personalised service and the ability to get recommendations. Some of those hobby shops have sub-par websites, but don’t let that turn you off. Drop into the store and have a chat to see if you reckon they know their stuff.

Spare parts

You’ll need them! Modern RCs aren’t quite set and forget. Some even require you to assemble them or paint them before you buy them. Sure, the RTR versions (ready to run, which is industry speak for pre-built, so you can unbox them and get driving) make it pretty quick from unpacking the box to getting underway.

beginners guide to choosing your first RC car

But these hobby-grade RC cars are fairly quick – so it’s easy to damage them. Yes, they are relatively simply designs that cleverly try to disperse crash energy, but there’s only so much some pieces of plastic can do. With cars weighing a few kilograms hurtling along at 30, 40 or 50km/h – and faster – the potential for damage is big.

So assume you’ll be, and budget for buying replacement bits. Many will also want to upgrade their cars. You can get new bodies and wheels or beefed-up suspension. Or you might replace some of the plastic components with metal for added durability. Check out the availability of parts on the car you’re looking to buy before buying it.

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If it's on four wheels, Toby Hagon has probably driven it. From the latest supercars to rock-hopping off-roaders (or anything in between!) he loves a road trip and works on the thinking that no road is too long or windy. The former National Motoring Editor at Fairfax these days runs his own show, contributing to Wheels, Which Car, News Corp, Qantas magazine and ABC Radio, and MotoFomo.