(I've written this because the other guide on eBay is not accurate)
So, you're thinking of buying your first RC car or truck, but you're bewildered by the choice? It's not that complex really, the cars can be broken down into a few basic types.
First of all let me say that I am only referring to "hobby"-grade RC cars - not "toy"-grade cars that you would find on the shelves of your local supermarket. Essentially a hobby-grade car is fully repairable/upgradeable and has radio gear that can be changed in frequency (so several cars can run together). Toy-grade cars can't. Anything that costs less than £100 new is probably a toy-grade car.
Time to start looking at the options then.
Electric or fuel powered?
These are the two basic types of powerplant. Electric cars are powered by electric motors and batteries, fuel cars are powered by either nitro or petrol engines (petrol is mainly used by large 1/5th scale cars). Both have their advantage and disadvantages - consider them carefully before making your purchase.
Benefits of electric - Quiet, easy to start (just switch on), good acceleration, cleaner so can be run indoors (no exhaust fumes or fuel deposits)
Drawbacks of electric - Quiet (some people like the noise of fuel power), slower top speed in most cases, possibly limited runtime unless you invest in several battery packs (which take time to charge).
Benefits of fuel - Noise, high top speeds, can be run for long periods with only a top-up of fuel
Drawbacks of fuel - Noise (especially for your neighbours), fumes mean they cannot be run indoors, more difficult to start (nitro engines can be awkward, petrol engines are fairly straightforward), still rely on batteries for the radio gear power so you will need to charge them at some point during long runs.
On-road or off-road?
An off-road car will handle most terrains. Buggies prefer prepared tracks or smoother off-road surfaces, trucks with their bigger tyres will handle pretty much anything you throw at them. On-road cars need a smooth, grippy surface to work at their best - with a typical ground clearance of 5-10mm on a 1/10th car.
Hobby-grade RC cars are available in a wide range of sizes, from tiny 1/18th cars all the way up to giant 1/5th scales.
Anything smaller than 1/10th scale is really only suitable for smoother surfaces. Even 1/18th off-roaders will get bogged down on anything rougher than a recently mown lawn.
1/10th scale is one of the most common sizes, available with nitro and electric power. It is small enough to carry comfortably in one hand without being too small to handle rougher surfaces well.
1/8th scale is a popular size for nitro cars and trucks. The cars are larger and heavier and can be a handful for children to carry. The larger size gives good handling on rough surfaces.
1/5th scale is the domain of the petrol-powered cars and off-roaders. These beasts are almost 1 metre long and very heavy. The good news is that the 23cc chainsaw-type engines are easy to start and reliable.
The scale you buy doesn't really matter too much unless you are planning to race at a club, in which case you should visit the club first to see which class of car is being run (no point spending hundreds on a race car you won't be able to use).
For what it's worth, I would advise most people who do not plan to race at a club to buy a 1/10th or larger off-roader. I would also recommend an electric car for beginners, moving onto nitro at a later date once they have got to grips with driving and maintenance. I wouldn't recommend a nitro car to anyone under the age of 14 unless they will be supervised by a responsible adult at all times. Nitro fuel is a pretty dangerous substance, and if anyone gets hit by a nitro car at speed, it hurts.
If buying second hand, bear in mind that RC cars need to be well cared for to run at their best - a neglected car won't drive well and could leave you with lots of extra cost and hassle. I would always recommend buying a new car as your first RC purchase, unless you trust the seller fully.
Most important of all is to have fun with your purchase - RC is a great hobby, and it's kept some of us gripped for a lifetime!
David Allen (rc-direct)
Director, RC Direct Ltd
RC racing since 1987!