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Radio or remote-controlled (RC) cars are model cars that are operated and controlled from a distance using a specialized transmitter or remote. RC cars are a popular hobby when it comes to collecting and even competitive racing. These cars are powered by various sources, in such forms as nitro, gas, or electric, and are continuing to advance due to newer technology.
So, how can you decide between nitro, gas, or electric RC cars? Deciding between nitro, gas, or electric-powered RC cars depends on your level of expertise with RC vehicles as a hobby, your budget, time and space available for driving, and your personal preference. All three types of RC cars feature both pros and cons. Therefore, it’s important to understand the benefits and drawbacks of each before making an investment.
Radio controlled vehicles are a growing hobby and continue to increase in popularity among both children and adults. There is a wide range of options in terms of RC cars to drive and race, from inexpensive toy-grade versions to costly, customized hobby-grade models. In fact, professional RC hobby competitors are part of a sport that offers prizes and trophies. Whether at the amateur or professional level, it’s important to decide which power source would serve you best for your RC car.
Electric RC Cars
For most people starting their RC car hobby, electric powered RC cars are often recommended as beginner models. These models are considered “ready to run” (RTR) as there is no assembly required. Users can just turn on the charged car and begin to learn the art of driving an RC car. Electric RC cars are powered by rechargeable batteries that allow the vehicles to run at speeds of 20-30 miles an hour for about a ten-minute running time depending on the running speed and car motor.
Electrically powered RC car models feature mechanical or electronic speed control units that adjust the amount of power delivered to the electric motor. The power that is delivered is in proportion to the amount of throttle applied by the transmitter; the more pull on the trigger, the faster the RC car goes.
Electric models operate due to small, powerful electric motors and rechargeable batteries made of nickel-cadmium, nickel metal hydride, or lithium polymer cells. In electric RC cars, transistors are used to pulse voltage to produce a varied output, with smooth transitions and high efficiency.
Speed controllers for these RC vehicles utilize solid state components to regulate and adjust the power delivered to the electric motor. In addition, most of these controllers can use the electric motor as a magnetic brake for better control. This adds to the reliability of electric-powered RC cars since just one servomechanism is needed.
For electric RC cars, there is a choice between brushed and brushless motors. Until recently, most electric cars featured brushed motors. However, brushless motors are becoming more popular due to their higher power output and the fact that they require far less maintenance. It’s important to understand that the brushless motor’s ability to generate power depends on the quality of the batteries used and the wires or connectors supplying the power.
There are many positive aspects when it comes to electric RC cars, particularly for those starting out in the RC vehicle hobby. Some of the featured pros of electric RC cars are as follows:
- Usually less expensive than alternately powered models
- Different battery capacities allow for longer driving time
- Ease of maintenance
- Quieter than nitro and gas-powered models
- Ready to use (no fuel or oil is needed) as long as the battery is charged
- Quick start compared to nitro and gas-powered counterparts since electric power is sent to RC wheels faster
- Easy to upgrade
- Versatile; can be run indoors
- Odorless with no fuel smell
- Most models are classified as waterproof and can be driven in damp environments
There are some negative aspects of electric RC cars. These cons include:
- Less powerful models, in general, compared to nitro and gas counterparts
- Brushless electric motors, though more powerful and efficient, are much more expensive than brushed motors
- Typically comes pre-assembled, so doesn’t allow for the craft and enjoyment of model building
- Requires multiple battery packs, special chargers, or high-quality battery upgrades to run the car for 30 minutes to an hour
- Battery charging takes longer than refueling and may require extra, charged batteries for backup
Overall, electric RC cars are highly recommended for beginners to the RC vehicle hobby. These models don’t break easily, are ready to run, and cost less in general than their nitro or gas counterparts.
The first RC car that I got when I was a kid was an electric model and the first model that I recently got my 4 year old son was electric as well. You can get a good solid electric RC car for under $50.
Differences Between Electric-Powered and Fuel-Powered (Nitro and Gas) RC Cars
Non-electric RC vehicles are considered fuel-powered, using either nitro or gas fuel, and there are several differences between them. These fuel-powered engines allow model RC cars to reach higher speeds with no modifications. Maximum power results in medium to high speeds, although there may be a slightly slower throttle response than their electric counterparts. This is due to clutching and lack of torque.
Electric motors, for the most part, produce almost instant torque. However, nitro engines, as well as full-sized gasoline engines, take time for the motor to warm up and the clutch to engage. Nitro and gas-powered cars can be refueled and returned to driving in a few seconds. In contrast, electric RC cars require removal of the body shell and battery fasteners to replace a discharged battery.
Some nitro cars can be cooled by air, and some can be cooled by the oil mixed with the fuel. This allows these models to be run continuously with less need to take breaks for cooling down—if they are properly tuned. Since nitro and gas-powered RC cars can be driven for longer amounts of time and they burn fuel, mechanical wear in nitro and gas RC vehicles is greater than in electric ones.
Fuel-powered RC cars also weigh significantly more than electric cars, and this increased weight can lead to higher speed collisions that result in greater damage. Therefore, greater safety precautions should be taken when you are using this type of RC car.
Fuel-powered cars also require more maintenance than their electric counterparts. Such maintenance tasks include:
- Cleaning air filter
- Cleaning chassis
- Replace worn clutch parts
- Proper lubrication after driving and for storage
- Motor maintenance (glow plug replacement)
In general, nitro motors also require rebuilding or replacing after 2-8 gallons of fuel runs through them. This is due to loss of compression, which is exacerbated by deficient or improper tuning and overheating. Fuel-powered RC cars can also suffer serious damage to their engines by over-revving them.
Overall, fuel-powered RC cars are more expensive to maintain than electric-powered cars and require more regular attention and upkeep. However, they also typically feature more power and speed than electric RC cars.
Fuel-powered cars are the next step up from the beginner battery powered cars. Most people prefer the hands on experience of a fuel-powered vehicle. Also a fuel-powered RC car just feels more “real”.
Nitro RC Cars
Most fuel-powered radio control car models feature small internal combustion engines which are fueled by a mixture of nitromethane, methanol, and an oil blend of castor and synthetic oils—referred to as nitro cars. Most hobby-grade RC cars are powered by nitro fuel which is readily available and fairly inexpensive. These cars are fast, powerful, and noisy—especially in comparison to their electric counterparts.
Nitro cars burn actual fuel and come with engines that are similar to that of lawn mowers or other equipment that require small engines. Nitro-powered cars are considered easy to assemble and reasonable to maintain. Most RC car enthusiasts appreciate nitro RC engines due to the realism of the exhaust smoke and smell, and car sounds. In a sense, nitro RC cars operate more like full-sized fuel vehicles than electric RC cars due to the difference between their small engine and an electric motor.
Since nitro RC cars produce exhaust that contains unburned oil, the chassis of these cars usually ends up with a coating. As a result, these vehicles require more cleaning than electric-powered RC cars. The coating can usually be cleaned through the use of compressed air nozzles and solvents such as denatured alcohol.
Nitro RC cars also require greater maintenance than electric-powered vehicles. Tuning is an essential skill when it comes to fuel-powered vehicles, requiring owners to learn how to maintain optimum performance and fuel economy. This minimizes engine wear and overheating and must be done even in RTR (ready to race) vehicles. Running a nitro-fuel motor with improper tuning or without tuning altogether can hurt performance in the best of circumstances and even cause severe damage in worse conditions.
Servo for Nitro-Powered RC Cars
A servomechanism (servo) is an electromagnetic device that converts electricity into precise, controlled motion—generating linear or circular motion depending on the type. Nitro-powered RC models feature a single servo for throttle and braking control.
Rotating the servo in one direction will cause the throttle on the carburetor to open, which provides more air and fuel mixture to the internal combustion engine. Rotating the servo in the other direction causes torque to be applied to a linkage and cam, resulting in friction with the braking material.
The brake is generally located on the driveshaft (or spur gear in some cases) and transmits stopping power to the driven wheels. Some models feature an additional servo to control a transmission box in order to enable the vehicle to drive in reverse.
Nitro-powered cars are very popular among radio control hobbyists of all levels. They offer many pros as RC vehicles, including:
- Feature excellent power and speed
- Realism in terms of comparison to full-sized vehicles (exhaust, smell, sound, etc.)
- Customizable options
- Hands-on maintenance and up-keep
Few devoted nitro-powered RC car enthusiasts would claim that such vehicles have many downsides. However, there are some cons associated with nitro RC cars, such as:
- Require more cleaning and maintenance than electric-powered counterparts
- Are noisier and heavier than electric RC cars
- Not waterproof
- Can cost more over time compared to electric and gas-powered cars due to higher expense for nitro fuel and replacement of worn nitro engines
- Potential oil leakage can damage the internal system of the car
Nitro-powered RC cars are considered excellent options for people who are passionate about the radio-controlled vehicle hobby. They foster mechanical skill and knowledge when it comes to operation and maintenance in a way that electric motor RC cars do not.
Gas RC Cars
Radio-controlled cars that run on gasoline are powered by internal combustion engines and are somewhat preferred over electric RC cars by more committed or serious RC car hobbyists, although they are less common than their nitro or electric counterparts. In general, this preference is due to the greater speed, intricacy, and complexity of gas engines. Gas-powered RC vehicles need a mix of gasoline and oil to run, and they tend to be larger and more costly than nitro or electric cars.
Gas RC cars are often considered “Large Scale,” usually 1/5 or 1/6, and need expansive space to run. Though gas RC car kits are bigger and more expensive, their engines allow speeds of 35-45 miles per hour. In addition, the initial cost can be balanced out over time by the cost of gasoline fuel, which is much lower than nitro fuel. Gas fuel kits, in general, add up to a few cents per hour for running the car.
Engine maintenance is also less expensive overall and less work when it comes to gas-powered RC vehicles, though the heavy weight of these cars does mean that they can suffer damage if not cared for properly. If gas RC cars are damaged, repairs can become expensive. Gas leaks and spills can be common as well for these cars, so attention must be paid to those possibilities to ensure safety.
One feature of gas RC cars that can seem tedious is that they need to be “broken in” before they are ready for use. Unlike RTR electric cars, gas-powered RC vehicles need to be run around at a slow pace for a few full tanks of fuel. This can feel time-consuming and even boring to those hobbyists who wish to begin at full speed right away.
Gas RC cars have wide appeal and feature many positive elements. Examples of some of their pros are:
- Long lifespan
- Less fuel cost over time compared to nitro-powered vehicles
- Requires less fuel
- Have excellent power
- Good quality models
- High interest among hobbyists due to large scale
There are some negative attributes to gas-powered RC cars as well. Examples of some of their cons are:
- Require significant space to run due to size
- Heavier weight
- High initial cost
- Higher noise level than electric models
- Potential fuel leaks and/or spills
Though gasoline-powered RC cars are less common than nitro or electric models, they are gaining popularity within the radio-controlled vehicle hobby field.
How to Decide Between Nitro, Gas, or Electric RC Cars
Whether you opt for a nitro, gas, or electric-powered RC car, there are many options and factors to consider, such as experience and knowledge, budget and costs, time and space, and personal preference. Perhaps the main consideration when deciding which type of RC car is your best investment is your level of dedication to and expertise with RC vehicles as a hobby, as well as any mechanical skill and knowledge.
Electric-powered cars are generally recommended for beginners to the radio-controlled vehicle hobby. These electric cars don’t require much RC expertise, and they involve little to no mechanical work or knowledge. Electric motors tend to be cleaner than their fuel-powered counterparts and require less time and attention. Most electric RC cars are ready to run once the battery is charged.
Fuel-powered RC cars involve a much more dedicated level of maintenance and mechanical expertise. For both nitro and gas RC cars, owners must understand the basics of maintaining the fuel system, including the fuel tank and exhaust. In particular, nitro engines feature carburetors, air filters, flywheels, clutches, pistons, glow plugs (similar to spark plugs), and crankshafts—all complex components which require attention and regular maintenance.
Heat dissipation is more effective for nitro and gas engines compared to electric motors. The head radiator is the main component that dissipates heat from the engine block. Maintaining the proper temperature of such RC vehicles can require adjusting the carburetor to reduce or increase the amount of fuel mixed with air. Adjusting this fuel and air balance to control engine temperature is an advantage of nitro and small gas engines.
Budget and Costs
Budget, power/fuel, and maintenance costs are other influential factors when it comes to deciding between nitro, gas, or electric RC cars. All RC vehicles come with a cost upfront, whether for a ready to run or kit vehicle, and some models are more expensive than others.
Toy-grade electric motor cars are considered the least expensive, yet other electric-powered cars can be quite costly depending on the model grade and type of battery used. However, over time, electric RC cars are thought to cost less since there is no need to buy fuel and less chance of incurring maintenance costs, as with nitro and gas RC cars.
Time and Space
Time and space are also factors when it comes to deciding between nitro, gas, or electric RC cars. As a hobby, RC cars require time and patience for assembling parts, reading various manuals, and understanding safe and proper operation. This applies to ready to run RC cars as well. In addition, having the space for driving RC cars is essential—especially for gas-powered, large scale models. Nitro cars can only be run outdoors yet are not waterproof and therefore must be kept dry.
Of course, as with all hobbies, personal preference also plays a role in deciding which type of RC vehicle would be best for you to use. Some hobbyists prefer fuel-powered RC cars due to the similarities they have with regular full-sized fuel-powered vehicles, such as the complex organization of parts, smell of exhaust, and engine sounds.
Other RC hobbyists may prefer the simplicity of electric motor cars, particularly if they call to mind memories or wishes of radio control toys or models from childhood. In fact, electric-powered RC cars are not only an excellent choice for beginners, but they are also a means of connecting a parent’s hobby with an interested child—without the burden of heavy maintenance or long-term cost.
No matter the choice between nitro, gas, or electric RC cars, the hobby should feel rewarding as well as challenging. It’s best to consider not only what you intend to get out of the RC vehicle hobby, but what you are capable of putting into it as well in terms of an investment of your money, time, and energy. Many RC car hobbyists begin with one type of powered car, such as electric, and then find themselves trying out fuel-powered models at a later time. There are no set restrictions.
Difference Between Toy-Grade and Hobby-Grade RC Cars
Radio-controlled cars are available at two levels: toy-grade and hobby-grade. Choosing between these levels can also influence the decision between nitro, gas, and electric RC cars. Most people would probably be familiar with toy-grade RC cars, as they are less expensive and more frequently produced. Collectors and serious RC vehicle hobbyists are more likely to be familiar with hobby-grade models and choose to invest at this more expensive level.
Toy-grade RC cars are manufactured with design in mind and reduced production costs through the use of plastic materials. In general, toy-grade cars are made with less expensive components and a single electronic circuit board that is integrated into the design of the vehicle. Toy-grade cars are considered easy to maintain, though their performance is generally thought to be less than hobby-grade cars due to weaker motors, rudimentary design, and non-proportional steering and throttle.
RC toy-grade vehicles are affordable, but hobby-grade RC cars can be costly to buy and maintain. In general, hobby cars are more complicated with customized parts such as tires, rims, motors, body kits, carbon fiber or metal chassis material, and so on. The initial cost of such parts can be quite substantial, as can the cost of replacing them.
However, customization and the quality of handling and running when it comes to hobby-grade RC cars often attracts those who are serious about and committed to the RC vehicle hobby. It’s important to note that there is a big difference between handling the speed and power of RC hobby cars, even for those who are expert at toy cars. Therefore, elevated driving skills are necessary for these models in order to avoid crashes or other issues.
Ready to Run vs. Kit Vehicles
Toy-grade RC cars are primarily ready to run in that they are often pre-assembled electric models ready for immediate use. However, hobby-grade ready to run models have become available recently, which require little to no assembly and bodies that are already painted and trimmed. These RTR hobby-grade versions tend to be much more expensive than toy-grade models. Most beginners start with toy-grade RC vehicles and switch to hobby-grade cars if they develop more interest and dedication to the pastime.
Most hobby-grade cars are kit RC vehicles, sold as a collection of individual parts that must be assembled before driving. Typically, they require more skill among hobbyists to run than RTR (ready to run) vehicles, but most enthusiasts feel that they are a good way to learn even more about operating RC cars. Most kits can be modified with a wide variety of available parts, and almost ready to run (ARTR) models come partially assembled and require a small amount of work before running.
Overall, hobby-grade RC cars are faster and more powerful than toy-grade models. Most serious hobbyists choose nitro-powered RC vehicles, even though some electric versions may perform better.
Want to Learn More?
Before making a decision on which type of car you want it is a good idea to read some articles as well as watch some videos to help decide what is best for you. RC Driver put out a video that is designed to help you decide between electric and nitro RC cars. You can check it out below.
When it comes to appearance, most radio control cars look similar. The greatest difference among such vehicles is between those with electric-powered motors and those with fuel-powered engines. Your level of commitment to the hobby, mechanical, and RC vehicle expertise, your budget, time and space available for driving, and personal preference, are all factors that can determine whether you decide to pursue electric, nitro, or gas RC cars.
No matter which RC car you choose, there are pros and cons for each vehicle type. Therefore, it’s important to understand the benefits and drawbacks of each option before investing in a particular RC vehicle model.
Overall, regardless of how the RC car is powered, it’s important to keep it in good condition with basic maintenance and take care of any repairs properly. Such tasks are similar to maintaining an actual car, especially when it comes to fuel-powered RC vehicles, such as:
- Tuning the motor
- Adjusting suspension
- Oiling gears
- Aligning chassis
- Ensuring health and charge of batteries
- Regularly inspecting the functions and operations of the radio control transmitter
- Regularly inspecting the functions and operations of the RC car
- Replacing parts and/or components as needed
- Repairing dents or cracks
- Touching up paint
Regular maintenance, care, and upkeep will protect your investment in whichever electric motor or fuel-powered engine RC car you decide to pursue and allow you to enjoy the hobby for as long as possible.