If you want to live out your Ken Block fantasy but your budget will barely cover the cost of a set of tires, you might want to consider a radio-controlled drift car instead. Drifting real cars is expensive. You need a rear wheel drive car, a bunch of sick mods, piles of tires, flat-bill caps, and gallons of vape juice. With RC drift cars you get most of the thrill at a fraction of the price. Plus, you’re outside the car, so it’s like watching yourself on Instagram, but in real life.
We’ve assembled a buyer’s guide of the best radio controlled drift cars for beginners up to seasoned Initial D fanatics. Everything here is a hobby-grade car. That means, unlike toy store cars, parts are replaceable and batteries are rechargeable.
At the lower end of the spectrum in cost and required skill, it’s mostly tires that determines if an RC car is a “drift car.” Even beginner cars are so overpowered, that all it takes is a set of tires and your turnin’n burnin. At the upper end, cars have steering set-ups for extreme steering lock and suspension components designed for maximum adjustability.
At any level, RC drift cars make great gifts for car enthusiasts. Adults will love being able to burn up tires without fear of legal repercussions. For younger enthusiasts, RC cars are without question one of the best STEM gifts around. Check out my picks below.
Countless numbers of car enthusiasts have gotten their start in RC. The author of this very piece blames his car addiction — errr, partially credits his lifelong devotion to the automobile — on his youth spent building and racing scale cars. That knowledge and experience has been combined with firsthand online reviews to compile the list of best RC drift cars you see below.
Instead of best price, we focused on best value, or what RC car provides the best experience per dollar spent. We considered parts availability both from online sellers and your local hobby shop as well as sticking to brands we know will be around for years to come. To read more about our process and standards, click here.
Best RC Drift Cars Reviews & Recommendations
Our pick for the best RC drift car is the Traxxas LaTrax Rally. The 1/18 scale is not only the best value on the list, its small size makes it usable indoors while it’s rugged enough to handle streets and parking lots. The all-wheel drive drifter is fast out of the box but can easily be made faster.
We’d love to hear what our readers have to say about your own experiences with RC drift cars. Do you drift now? Are you an RC racer looking to get into drifting? Have you used your RC drift car to film your own mini gymkhana? If so, get in the conversation below.
What to Consider When Buying RC Drift Cars
There are a couple of key things to consider when shopping for your RC drift car. First, consider how you’re going to use it. Do you want to drive it indoors or out? Is there a local track that only allows one scale of car? Next, what is your skill level? Be honest. We all think we’re Dai until we hit the pavement and find out we’re duds. Pick a car that’s at your skill level as a driver and in technical terms.
Up until a few years ago, all hobby-grade RC cars were sold as kits you were required to build yourself. Unassembled kits are becoming rarer by the day. From an educational standpoint, the kit is far better as you literally see how the automotive sausage is made. From a practical standpoint, when your car breaks, you already have a pretty good idea of what you need to do to replace parts. If you’re buying an RC car for a car enthusiast, we suggest trying to find a kit.
Ready To Run
Browsing hobby shops, either brick and mortar or online, the vast majority of RC cars you find will be fully built and ready to run. When you see “ready to run” or RTR on the box, that generally means everything you need is in the box. At most, you will need to supply the batteries for the radio. Buying everything together is almost always a better value.
Ready to run doesn’t necessarily mean it’s beginner level. A variety of intermediate kits will come RTR as well. While you will likely get a better deal buying everything together, pay attention to the quality of components included. Try to find a package that includes a radio that can be used with other cars so you won’t have to buy everything a second time when you’re ready to upgrade.
The chassis is the main structure of your RC car — or any car, for that matter. The majority of RC cars use a bathtub-style chassis with a box section running front to back holding either a driveshaft or drive belt. The sides of the tub are used as stiffeners as well as protecting everything inside. A tub chassis is strong and relatively light, and it can also use access panels on top to be water and dust resistant.
The fastest RC drift cars will use a pan-type chassis, normally made of aluminum or a composite like carbon fiber. The rigidity of the material allows for a flat plate without the sides as in a tub chassis. If extra stiffness is needed, a second plate is mounted anywhere from a half inch to an inch above the main plate and attached along the length of the car.
There are two main types of electric motors used in RC cars. The first is what’s known as a brushed motor. This is ancient tech dating back to the time of cave paintings and disco music. A brushed motor uses a mechanical rotary switch called a commutator to change the polarity of wound copper coils on the internal rotor, called the armature. The armature sits inside permanent magnets and as the directionality of the armature changes, it spins.
The new hotness in RC car motors is brushless technology. These transfer the heavy windings to the outside of the motor and the magnets are located on the rotor. Instead of using a mechanical switch, the polarity is controlled by a microchip.
Brushless motors are more efficient at converting electricity into motion. On top of that, the brushes in brushed motors are consumables, meaning they require replacing on a regular basis. The advantage of brushed motors is cost. Brushless motors and controllers continue to fall in price, and eventually, the longer life span, higher performance, and economies of scale will make brushless obsolete.
Real drift cars are rear-wheel drive. The most realistic RC drift cars are also rear-wheel drive, but all-wheel drive is common in beginner- and intermediate-level cars. The technique of drifting an all-wheel-drive car is different from a rear-wheel-drive car, but the thrill of tossing the back end around, rotating it around so the cars perpendicular to its direction of travel at the apex and then kissing the curb rear wheel first at the exit, is most certainly not.
The most common form of all-wheel drive is shaft drive. Just like real cars, a solid drive shaft runs the length of the car connecting both front and rear differentials. Some cars will use a third, center differential to dole out power front and rear depending on which end has more grip, but these are less common in drifting than “grip” driving. The second form of all-wheel drive uses a belt instead of a shaft. These may be slightly lighter than driveshafts, but belts stretch and require tensioning or replacement when worn.
Rear-wheel-drive cars will normally use a gearbox to transfer power from the rear or mid-rear mounted motor to the rear differential. Rear-wheel drive obviously offers more realistic driving dynamics for drift cars and is more efficient in terms of power loss as well as being lighter.
Radio, controller, and transmitter are the most common names for the device you use to remotely control your RC car. If you’ve been in the hobby for a while, you might remember the days of hanging colored flags on your radio’s antenna and having to change frequencies when driving with friends who were on the same frequency. Modern 2.4-GHZ radios bind to the receiver in your car. Once synchronized, they switch channels many times a second, meaning your radio won’t interfere with others around you.
Most cars now require two channels, one for throttle and one for steering, although multichannel car radios are pretty common now. The pistol-grip style of controller with a trigger for throttle and brake and a side-mounted wheel for steering is by far the most common. Twin-stick systems can still be found if you make an effort.
Beginner RC cars will quite often include a radio, but you might want to upgrade as you get more experience. A high-quality radio is an investment as you can use it on multiple cars in your collection. Find one you like, and it may last years of driving.
Anyone paying attention to the EV market knows that battery technology is everything when it comes to range and performance. There are two types of common batteries in the RC car world: NiMH (nickel-metal hydride) and LiPo (lithium polymer). The chemical differences between the two are beyond the scope of this article, but we can look at the basics of functionality.
Both types of battery packs will have two important ratings; volts and milliamp hours. The pack's voltage will determine how much power your car can make, while milliamp hours is how long the car will run. Think of it as how much gas you have in the tank.
NiMH is the older of the two technologies. Normally, these battery packs are made of individual 1.2-volt cells connected in series. You can find these in anything from 6.0 up to 9.6 volts. Since they are in series, the mAh (milliamp hour) rating of the pack is the same as an individual cell. NiMH is very stable, is less expensive, can be completely discharged without damaging the battery, and can be stored at any state of charge.
LiPo is the newer and arguably better tech. These packs are usually made of 3.7-volt batteries in series. LiPo has greater energy density, meaning a comparable pack will be smaller and lighter than NiMH. They also deliver more consistent voltage, so your car will be faster for longer. The downside is LiPo packs can be damaged by overcharging or over-discharging. Running LiPos requires speed controllers and chargers with built-in voltage detection. The cost of LiPos and electronics is at minimum 50 percent more than NiMh, but for some it’s worth the price.
Just about any hobby-grade RC car will include a Lexan or polycarbonate body. This is thin vacuum-formed plastic, the same as many eyeglass lenses, that is surprisingly rugged. While many cars now include a pre-painted and pre-trimmed body, most kits will include an unpainted and untrimmed body.
Lexan is clear, so RC car bodies are painted on the inside, using paint made specifically to stick to and flex with the Lexan bodies. Trimming the body can be a challenge for beginners. Scoring and snapping is a preferred technique for clean lines. If the body is made specifically for the car you’re installing it on, guide lines will usually be molded into the body.
There are a few exceptions in body material. Tamiya has released a few collector models in recent years that include injection-molded ABS plastic bodies. Injection molding allows for far more detail than Lexan with tighter radii on edges and details like screw heads to be molded into the body.
Electronic speed controls are like your real car's throttle body. It translates the signal received from the car’s controller and determines the voltage delivered to the motor. Originally, RC cars used an array of size resistors to “throttle” the motor. Today’s speed controllers use FETs (field effect transistors) to control the motor.
Most of today’s speed controls can be used with either NiMH or LiPo battery packs, although you may need a separate connector for voltage sensing on LiPo batteries. Speed controllers will not transfer between brushed and brushless motors. Several RC car manufacturers now sell both versions of their vehicles from the factory, the brushless version obviously being the more expensive and higher performance of the two. If you think you will want to go brushless later on, it might be worth the extra expense of the upgrade up front.
You’ve got questions. The Drive has answers.
Q: Can you drift a 4WD RC car?
A: Absolutely! Kind of. OK, in the real world, drifting is overpowering the rear wheels and maintaining a drift by pointing the front tires in the direction of travel. That makes it sound easy. Technically, you need an RWD RC drift car to do the same, but you will find RC drivers drifting AWD or 4WD cars everywhere.
Q: What scale are RC drift cars?
A: The most common scale for RC drift cars is 1/10. However, you can find them in everything from 1/28, which are about six inches long, up to massive 1/6 scale cars, which are 25 inches long.
Q: How fast do RC drift cars go?
A: Beginner cars can hit 20 or so mph, which seems fast. The fastest RC drift cars are capable of speeds up to 70 mph, although it’s pretty uncommon for anyone to drift at that kind of speed.
Q: How can I make my RC car drift faster?
A: The easiest way to make your RC drift car faster is to use a higher voltage battery pack. Beyond that, if you are still using a brushed motor, upgrading to brushless will definitely make it faster. Much less effective is to remove weight. RC cars are already light, so shaving off weight is going to return minimal results, unlike with real cars.