How to Choose a Remote Control Car
Remote control cars are in a unique category that appeals to a broad range of people. From small kids just learning to drive to hobbyists who race, upgrade and repair their cars, there's an option for everyone. The trick to choosing the best RC car is figuring out what you or the person you're buying for intends to do with the vehicle.
Experienced RC enthusiasts typically prefer cars and trucks with high top speeds, precise handling and advanced, performance-oriented features. These things, however, make driving and maintaining your vehicle considerably more complicated. While these features sound beneficial across the board, small children will simply have a difficult time controlling them.
When buying for small kids and toddlers, ease of use, safety and durability features, like a waterproof chassis, should instead be your primary concerns. While these cars may not have the most impressive spec sheets, they can meet your needs better and give your kids a safe, beginner-friendly platform on which to hone their abilities.
Once you decide the grade of vehicle you're after, you'll also want to consider whether you want an on-road vehicle or the more versatile off-road variety. Buying a car specifically for the road means you'll have unmatched handling on smooth surfaces. RC drift cars also allow you to slide around corners with style.
On the other hand you have off-road cars, which, despite the name, are perfectly capable of driving on and off the concrete. While you have more versatility and more options for jumps and stunts, you give up the handling performance of a road-specific vehicle.
The best RC cars also include rechargeable batteries. Having a battery that you can recharge after each use will end up saving you a lot of time and money in the long run. Battery life is the Achilles' heel of remote control cars, as the battery life tends to be short-lived. For this reason, it's important to consider run time, or perhaps more importantly, charge time. Many RC enthusiasts make use of multiple batteries to increase run times.
Lastly, you should consider the remote control that comes with your vehicle of choice. Some are very basic and offer only limited control of your vehicle. Others, particularly the 2.4GHz pistol-grip variety, offer improved ergonomics as well as precision controls. If you're driving near other users, you'll also want to check out the number of channels your remote offers. Running two cars on the same channel can cause interference between the two. For more helpful information, check out our other articles on the remote control cars.
Remote Control Cars: What We Tested, What We Found
Upon receiving our samples, we performed a series of tests on the performance, design and remote features of each vehicle. Our performance tests centered on top speed and handling – features that are very important for the higher-cost, hobby-grade vehicles.
Next, we focused on design – a category that's equally important across all remote control car styles. In this section, we homed in on the battery life and durability of each vehicle. Because we tested both rechargeable and nonrechargeable models, battery life varied widely. Faster, more advanced vehicles required a rechargeable NiMH battery and typically lasted between seven and 15 minutes, while slower, kid-friendly models typically utilized standard alkaline batteries and, depending on the model, could run up to 90 minutes.
Nearly all of our other testing required the use of each car's remote control. During this time, we analyzed the performance, complexity and ease of use of each controller. For obvious reasons, kid-friendly models tend to favor simplicity and ease of use. While this makes them less precise than hobby-grade options, they're much easier for kids to grasp.
Performance: Speed or Safety
For most RC enthusiasts, performance is the most important aspect of a vehicle. In many ways, the performance of your car or truck determines just how much fun you can have with it. The main performance features are top speed, handling and primary use.
Top speed is important because the faster your remote control car goes, the more fun you're going to have tearing up a dirt track, launching off ramps or drifting around corners in your neighborhood. The only exception to this is if you're buying a vehicle for a toddler or small child. In that case, if you value your shins at all, it may be better to opt for a slower, more kid-friendly option.
We tested speed in this category by fitting each vehicle with a GPS and running it on a smooth, straight course. We then ran each of the vehicles through the course a number of times. After this, we recorded the fastest speed each car was able to reach. RC vehicles tend to gain three or four miles per hour as they continue to break in, so we made some adjustments to account for that. The speeds quoted by the manufacturer are included for reference.
Handling is a tricky thing to test in any category, but when comparing remote control cars with completely different intended uses, it becomes even trickier. For this reason, we set up separate test courses for off-road and on-road vehicles. We then ran each of the vehicles through the courses repeatedly and analyzed the handling. It's worth noting that off-road vehicles are generally more versatile and handle more reliably, regardless of terrain.
Design: Battery Life is precious
The reality of remote control cars is that you spend much more time charging your vehicle than actually driving it. That said, some cars have longer drive times than others. Fortunately, testing battery life is relatively easy and offers useful insights.
On several occasions, we ran each vehicle constantly until it could no longer run properly. Each of these runs was timed, and then we calculated the averages of those times. This helped us estimate average drive times for these vehicles.
While top speeds, run times and features all vary within the world of remote control vehicles, there is one thing common to all RC cars, trucks and buggies: they all crash, usually with alarming regularity. For this reason, durability is often a primary concern. At Top Ten Reviews, we evaluate all kinds of electronics in depth and can discern quality in materials and construction. In addition to carefully analyzing the components and craftsmanship of each vehicle, we also tested each one vigorously in real-world scenarios. During this testing, we saw head-on collisions, failed jumps, speed-induced summersaults and more. After each test, we reexamined each vehicle for signs of premature wear, weaknesses and broken parts.
The vehicles that stood up best to our abuse earned higher durability scores. This is, of course, relative to the intended use of your vehicle. While on-road vehicles will often encounter curbs, walls and other obstacles, environmental factors like sand and grit often pose a much higher threat to the off-road variety. Indoor cars are less likely to encounter either. For this reason, we also consider these fundamental differences when scoring.
Remote Features: Kid Friendly Controls or Expert Precision
The remote control is your interface with the RC vehicle. For this reason, it's important to select a vehicle that comes with a remote suited to your skill level. In our review, there are just a few major remote types.
The most advanced remotes are the 2.4GHz pistol-grip style. These offer proportional control over steering and throttle, as well as increased ranged and customizability. While these features are all appealing to the advanced or adult user, young children will no doubt have a hard time with such sensitive controls.
The second type of remote is really not a remote at all. Many vehicles, yet just one in our review, make use of a Bluetooth connection for control. This allows you to use a phone or tablet with your vehicle and opens an entirely new world of possibilities. With this option, you can stream music, operate turn signals and even open the doors of your vehicle. However, you pay for these additional features with a decrease in range and increased difficulty in actual driving.
The third type of remote is what we call the two-button controllers. Pressing the button on the left causes your vehicle to veer to the right, while pressing the button on the right results in the vehicle turning to the left. When both buttons are pressed simultaneously, the vehicle travels straight ahead. While this doesn't offer much freedom or precise control, it is a great way of simplifying things for kids.
What Else is Important in Selecting a Remote Control Car?
You should also consider whether you'd like to be able to modify or upgrade your vehicle. With all their crashes, jumps and stunts, RC cars typically take quite a beating in their lifetime. To get any real mileage out of an RC vehicle, it’s a good idea to find one that you can repair if something goes wrong.
In addition to repairs, buying a modification-ready vehicle means you'll be able to customize it to suit your driving style. With some models, you have the freedom to upgrade everything from the wheels and suspension, to the battery and motor. While these upgrades may be too complicated for most children, they can make for hours of fun for the adult enthusiast.
Our Verdict & Recommendations:
Choosing the best remote control car for your needs is much more than simply selecting the most fully featured vehicle available. For adult enthusiasts, our Top Ten Reviews Gold, Silver and Bronze winners represent some of the best cars available. These cars, the Traxxas Rustler, Redcat Racing Volcano EPX and Slash 2WD, offer an excellent entrance into the world of hobby-grade RC vehicles.
While these three cars are certainly the most advanced and fastest RC cars in our lineup, they're not necessarily the best options for everyone. Kids will likely be better off starting with something slower, like the impressively capable Rock Crawler Extreme. The Rock Crawler offers simplified controls, a stable platform and large wheels. Despite low speeds, it is actually quite a joy to drive and gives kids a chance to figure out remote control cars before going all-in with a hobby-grade vehicle.
For all its simplicity, however, the Rock Crawler Extreme is still a few skill levels beyond vehicles like the Morphibians Rover. The Rover is one of many nearly identical Morphibians vehicles. These cars are for the youngest remote control users and are remarkably easy, safe and fun to drive. As its moniker implies, the Morphibians Rover features a fully waterproof chassis and floating design, making it possible to drive your vehicle in calm water. While older users will likely tire of its simplicity, its combination of durability, ease of use and versatility make it an excellent choice for young children and toddlers.