Remote-control (RC) cars have been around for decades and deliver lots of fun, inside and outdoors. All remote-control cars have two primary components: a vehicle powered, in most cases, by a rechargeable battery or disposable batteries, and a radio-control unit that lets the user control propulsion, direction and any additional functions from a distance. As simple as that sounds, RC cars come in a plethora of shapes, sizes and styles, and often cater to specific niches and have widely varying capabilities. We found a number of highly rated remote-control cars for different age groups, and most of them are well under $100. None of them require special assembly, either. Once they have batteries installed or are charged, they're ready to go right out of the box.
This report focuses on toy RC cars that readers are likely to find at mainstream retailers. We do not cover the more expensive and complicated hobbyist models geared toward older children, teens and adult enthusiasts. Such vehicles are commonly found at specialty shops and have costs, once fuel and accessories are factored in, that easily reach hundreds of dollars.
User reviews are the best source of information on specific remote-control cars, as there aren't any official reviewing outlets for typical toy-grade models. Amazon.com, ToysRUs.com, Target.com, Walmart.com and other large retailers are a good bet for finding user reviews on a variety of models.
In searching for that perfect remote-control car, there are a few attributes that should be taken into consideration. First, if it's a gift, select a model that is appropriate for the age of the recipient; this is most important with very young children, where some models could be too heavy, too fast or have small parts. Next, consider the environment in which you'd like to operate the remote-control car; some are best suited for indoor operation on hard floors, others can handle hard surfaces and carpets, and some can drive on fairly serious terrain. Furthermore, some RC cars add the ability to perform stunts such as flips, wheelies and more. Appearance is another consideration; for example, some remote-control cars sport wild, sci-fi looks, while others are styled to be facsimiles of real sports cars, SUVs or racing cars.
The technology powering the RC car is important to consider as well. You'll find that many run on regular disposable batteries, and what size (or sizes) are needed varies from car to car. Often, these batteries aren't included (be sure to pick up batteries if you're giving a gift). Some remote-control cars use rechargeable battery packs; those are usually included with the toy and are specific in power output and size to each vehicle. Pay attention to the rechargeable battery technology used, as lithium-ion batteries will last longer and charge quicker than cheaper nickel-metal hydride batteries. Many owners cite quickly depleting batteries as the key downside to even the best-reviewed remote-control cars.
If you're planning on buying more than one remote-control car of the same type, look for one that supports multiple radio frequencies. Some models have this capability, and it allows two or more of the same vehicles to be operated simultaneously by multiple users with different remote-control units. RC cars that can only operate on a single frequency don't allow more than one remote-control car to be operated at once. Basically, if there are two remote controls sending commands on the same frequency, there will be interference.
Owner-written reviews of the Chicco Radio Control Johnny Coupe (*Est. $30) say it's an excellent choice for kids as young as 2 years old The Johnny Coupe looks cute, has extra-simple controls, is durable and is sized so that toddlers can handle it. The Coupe has functioning lights (which kids love) and the remote control stores in the car itself; "No need to look around for it when it's play time," writes a parent reviewer on Amazon.com. Another parent says the Johnny Coupe RC car helps teach kids problem-solving techniques, as they figure out how to steer it out of trouble if they drive it into a corner or under furniture. Finally, another parent loves that it's not noisy, saying there's "no loud tire squeals, no awful fake engine sounds... just the natural-sounding zoom of a small mechanical toy zipping about."
The Bandai Cyclaws (*Est. $50) gets great owner feedback. It's an outdoor RC car with a 9.6-volt rechargeable battery designed for kids ages 6 to 12; its key feature is a special wheel design. The wheels can be unlocked for rough and uneven surfaces -- the treads pop out and form giant claws that let it climb terrain a regular remote-control car would never be able to tackle. Parents and grandparents posting reviews (many report giving the Cyclaws as a gift) say that it's a huge hit. As one reviewer says, "It is fairly simple to drive and it can't be stopped. It goes forwards, backwards, upside down and on the sides of its wheels. When you activate the claw wheels it can really go on all terrains." Another parent points to its overall value, saying, "It's price seems similar to many other RC cars that don't deliver anything close to the capabilities."
The main complaints center on battery life (users get around 20 minutes per charge with the stock battery), but one owner notes that upgrading to a third-party rechargeable battery can deliver longer runtimes. The other common gripe is that you can't run two Cyclaws remote-control cars together, since they run on a single radio frequency. Note also that while the rechargeable battery for the car itself is included, the 9-volt disposable battery for the remote is not.
Kids into more than just cars may get a kick out of the Maisto Street Troopers Mobilized Attack Vehicle PT-808 (*Est. $60), which also sees a lot of positive feedback. Users say this remote-control car is durable (one owner says his son "is constantly running it into walls and the vehicle doesn't even blink"). But what makes the Street Troopers RC car really fun is that kids can transform this edgy looking sports car into an upright standing robot that fires "missiles" on command. "Watching my 9 year old son scare the bejesus out of his 16 year old sister when it raised up and shot the little darts at her was priceless!" writes one parent.
Another Amazon.com customer adds, "The missiles have suction cups, so they are not only injury-proof, but they bring entertainment by sticking to sliding glass doors (with a target taped to the outside), etc. You'll love it." Furthermore, the Street Troopers Mobilized Attack Vehicle remains fully moveable in robot mode, and transforms back to car form with the remote. It's best indoors, as users say the radio range is rather limited. You'll have to stock up on AA batteries, though; seven of them are required and they're not included.
The Carrera Shadow Wolf (*Est. $70) remote-control car is likely to appeal to both kids and adults alike. With a more traditional RC shape (looking like an off-road racing buggy) and a rechargeable Li-ion battery, it's a great model with which to introduce kids to remote-control cars and to bring up some nostalgia with the older set. There are only a handful of user reviews posted at Amazon.com, but the ones posted offer valuable insight on this toy. One owner calls it "fantastic" and points out that you can play with two simultaneously thanks to the car's built-in two-frequency channel selector. Charging and runtime are not cited as problems either. As a parent notes, the Carrera remote-control cars "charge up in around an hour and they go for 45 minutes of full on driving per charge. I remember having one of these when I was a kid around the same size and it would charge for 24 hours and work for 7 minutes."
Another owner likes that the battery is so easy to access and remove, and that the car's front wheels can be adjusted to ensure it runs in a perfectly straight line. Durability is not a problem either, with one parent saying that a 5-year-old "repeatedly crashed it while he was learning how to use it and caused almost no damage to the car." That last comment also shows that while the Shadow Wolf RC car is recommended for kids 6 and older, younger ones enjoy playing with it as well. Users say that the Carrera Shadow Wolf is best suited for pavement, flat-packed surfaces and low-cut grass; it tends to bog down in anything more challenging than that, though we saw one review that mentioned it was fine on a dusting of light snow, too.
Shoppers who want an RC car with faster speeds and more advanced features should consider "hobby-grade" remote-control cars, many of which cost hundreds of dollars, run on real gasoline or nitro fuel, and come in kits that need assembly. Local hobby shops are excellent resources, not just for the availability of the vehicles, but for their knowledgeable staff who can help buyers make good purchasing decisions as they get into the higher end of the hobby, and can help steer them toward local clubs where they can interact with fellow aficionados.
Toy-grade remote-control cars generally aren't reviewed by any dedicated editorial sources. The best source of information on toy-grade remote-control cars comes from user reviews posted at retail websites. Amazon.com has the most models with user reviews and a significant selection. Sites such as ToysRUs.com, Walmart.com, Target.com and Sears.com also have user reviews and wide selections.