RC Cars: The Electric vs. Nitro vs. Petrol Showdown. Who wins?

If you’ve ever researched buying an RC hobby-grade vehicle, be it a race car, truck, buggy or crawler, then you’ll have come across a variety of ways of fuelling them. And if you’re the new kid on the block, you may well be wondering, “Why? What difference does it make?” Well, to cut a long story short, quite a lot.

Just picking one at random and trying it is an expensive way to figure out what will work best for you, so let us give you a little help. All three have some great features, as well as some downsides, so it all depends on exactly what you want from your hobby car (which you may not even know before you know the differences between them). So listen up: here’s the low-down on the three main fuel types for hobby-grade RC toys, and how to choose one.

RC vehicles generally come designed for one of three types of power source: electricity, ‘nitro’ fuel (a methanol-based substance that gets its name from containing nitromethane), or petrol. Using electric power works by plugging a rechargeable battery into the vehicle, which lets it run for a certain amount of time. This is distinct from the nitro/petrol-powered setups, which are both miniature fuel-burning engines that run on different types of liquid fuel (much like the petrol/diesel distinction in real cars, although in this case it is the nitro fuel that is the lighter of the two).

Starting with how much work you want to put into tweaking your car, it’s undeniable that electric vehicles are the easiest to get up and running. They usually arrive pre-made and ready to go, complete with batteries, and turning them on is as simple as inserting a charged battery and flicking a switch. And you’re off! Nitro and petrol engines can take quite a bit more work to get started, involving a lot of tinkering to get the best performance out of them, and often requiring a variety of start-up tools. If it’s the mechanical experience you’re after, they’ll beat electric hands down, but if you want to avoid all of that, then be sure to avoid nitro and petrol model RC cars too. Electric cars can be easiest to handle driving-wise as well, maintaining a stable centre of gravity unaffected by fuel sloshing around inside a half-full tank. It’s for these reasons that electric RC cars are usually the only kinds recommended for beginners, as it takes a real interest and time commitment to get nitro or petrol models running and driving optimally.

Going beyond your beginner days, though, there are a number of reasons why you might want to invest in a nitro or petrol fuelled car. The main ones stem from the fact that they are more like real cars: running off the same/similar power source means their working parts must also be much more like the real deal. Using engines rather than motors and requiring a metal chassis and drive-train rather than having plastic versions, these cars produce a much more realistic sound, ‘feel’ and even smell. A good thing? Well, that’s your call. It makes them no good for indoor use, and probably even local use is off limits, unless you have especially tolerant neighbours. It also makes them much dirtier to run, and with petrol-fuelled cars generally being bigger than the other varieties (1/5 scale or so), that’s a lot of dirt. But for many that’s their charm; it’s a real, top grade racing car/buggy – shrunk – and in terms of ownership experience is much more like the real thing.

When it comes to pure race speed, though, it’s not as simple as arguing electric/nitro/petrol. The fastest recorded times for RC vehicles have been recorded by a particular type of electric motor known as a brushless motor, which is able to handle extremely high voltages and so reach staggering speeds for its size. The reduced friction in a brushless motor also helps avoid overheating, one of the most common problems suffered by RC vehicles (although adjusting an engine’s carburettor can help with this in nitro/petrol models). Brushless motors are considerably more expensive than other electric models, however, and as such it could seem too much to shell out for a vehicle that’s still illegal at many race meets; fewer racing opportunities means less prize money.

Cost is an interesting one, too. In terms of buying the vehicle itself, an electric model will generally be cheapest (with the exception of brushless motors), followed by nitro and then petrol. Running costs can vary wildly even within categories, however, depending on how you use your car. Although electric vehicle batteries are generally rechargeable, meaning they should incur no extra cost, the 10-15mins driving time they provide (followed by an hour or more charging time) is not enough for many people, and they find themselves shelling out for spare batteries they can keep ready-charged to replace the original ones with as if refuelling. It takes a lot of use for a few spare batteries at $30+ dollars each to become better value than a few litres of Nitro fuel ($20+), which provides 50-60 full tanks with 20-25 minutes running time each. You do the math.

Finally, reading through explanatory pages like this may give the impression that petrol- and nitro-powered cars are much of a muchness, given how many similarities they have compared to electric models. To some extent that’s true, but in general petrol can be viewed as one step up from nitro; that bit more like a real car in size, fuel source, engine operation (doesn’t self-lubricate) and speed for it’s size (slower). So a bit more difficult, a bit more rewarding – depending on what it is you want, of course!

But looking ahead from here, the fuel system isn’t the only decision you need to make when buying an RC vehicle. For example, do you want to use it on-road or off-road? How big should it be? How you want it to look? How about a monster truck or a buggy? If you’re going electric, what batteries can you use? And which brand and supplier are you going to trust? There’s help with all of this on our website, and more, so if you’re still not decided… keep reading!

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