Electric vs. Nitro RC Vehicles

When looking at an electric RC next to a nitro RC, they may look very different, but there are quite a few similarities. The key differences come not from appearances but from actual operation.

Making the right choice between an electric or a nitro vehicle can provide many years of enjoyment as an RC hobbyist. Making the wrong choice could saddle you with an expensive toy that sits unused in the garage.

Step-by-Step Comparison

Nitro and electric RC vehicles compared
Traxxas Rustler 1:8 Scale Stadium Truck - Nitro and Electric versions. M. James

To get a better idea of which type of vehicle will best suit your long-term needs, this side-by-side comparison breaks down the electric and nitro choices into six distinct areas: motor/engine, chassis, drivetrain, center of gravity and weight, runtime, and upkeep. All toy-grade RCs are electric and they are covered briefly, but this tutorial primarily addresses the hobby-grade electric and nitro RC vehicles.

The photos in this comparison feature the 1:8 scale Traxxas Rustler Stadium Truck—an electric version and a nitro version. These are hobby-grade RC vehicles.

Motor vs. Engine

Electric motor and nitro engine on RC
Top: Motor on back of an electric Traxxas Rustler. Bottom: Engine sitting in middle of chassis on a nitro Traxxas Rustler. M. James

By far the biggest difference between an electric and a nitro RC are what makes them go. The electric RC is powered by a motor that requires electricity (in the form of a battery pack) as the fuel. The nitro RC uses an engine fueled by a methanol-based fuel that contains nitromethane. This nitro engine and nitro fuel are the RC equivalent of the gasoline engine and gasoline used in your full-size car or truck. Another class of hobby-grade RCs has gas-powered engines that use gasoline rather than nitro fuel. These are a special, larger size RC that is not as prevalent as the electric and nitro RC models.

Brushed vs. Brushless Electric Motors

Electric motor on back of a Traxxas Rustler
Electric motor on back of a Traxxas Rustler. M. James

There are two types of electric motors in current use in the RC hobby: brushed and brushless.

The brushed electric motor is generally the only kind of motor found in toy-grade and beginner hobby-grade RCs. Kits and other hobby-grade RCs still commonly use brushed motors, although brushless is becoming more readily available. Small contact brushes inside the motor cause the motor to spin. Brushed motors come in fixed and nonfixed versions. Electric motors with fixed brushes are nonadjustable and can't be modified or tuned. Nonfixed brushed motors have replaceable brushes and the motor can be modified and tuned to a certain degree; it can also be cleaned of dust and debris that accumulates during frequent use.

Brushless electric motors are still slightly high-priced compared to brushed motors, but they are becoming increasingly popular in the RC hobby world. They are only just now becoming legal in some professional RC racing circuits. The appeal of brushless motors is the sheer power they can give to your electric RC. Brushless motors, as the name implies, do not have contact brushes and don't require frequent cleaning. Because there are no brushes, there is less friction and less heat—the number one killer in motor performance.

Brushless motors can also handle a lot higher voltage than brushed motors. With a high voltage supply, brushless motors can help a beginner RC race at blistering speeds. RCs equipped with brushless motors currently hold the fastest speed records for RC—yes, faster than nitro.

Nitro Engines

Engine on a Nitro Traxxas Rustler
Engine on a Nitro Traxxas Rustler. M. James

Unlike electric motors, nitro engines rely on fuel instead of batteries to make them run. Nitro engines have carburetors, air filters, flywheels, clutches, pistons, glow plugs (similar to spark plugs) and crankshafts just like full-size gasoline-powered cars and trucks do. There is also a fuel system that includes a fuel tank and exhaust.

The head heatsink is the main part on a nitro or gas engine that dissipates the heat from the engine block. The full-size auto equivalent is the radiator and water pump that circulate coolant through the engine block to keep it from overheating. On nitro engines, there are ways of regulating the temperature by means of tuning the carburetor to lessen or increase the amount of fuel that it mixes in combination with air (leaning or richening).

The ability to disperse heat through regulating the fuel/air mixture, thus controlling the engine temperature, is one of the few advantages that nitro or small-scale gas engines have over electric motors.


Plastic and metal RC chassis
Top: Portion of chassis on electric RC. Bottom: Portion of chassis on a nitro RC. © M. James

The basic frame or chassis of a radio-controlled vehicle is the platform upon which internal parts, such as the motor or engine and the receiver sit. The chassis is typically made of a rigid plastic or aluminum.

Plastic Chassis
The chassis on an electric RC is normally plastic for toy-grade RCs and high-grade plastic for hobby-grade RCs. Carbon-fiber components are now readily available for hobby-grade RCs to give them an overall chassis performance upgrade. Carbon-fiber chassis components for hobby-grade RCs help give the chassis strength and at the same time decrease the weight of the vehicle. Other components attached to the chassis, such as shock towers, are also made of carbon-fiber. This further reduces the overall weight of the hobby-grade electric RC.

Metal Chassis
The nitro and small gas engine RC chassis are primarily made of a lightweight anodized aluminum. Metal, rather than plastic, is required because nitro and gas engines produce a lot of heat that would definitely melt any kind of plastic chassis. The aluminum chassis on a nitro or small gas engine RC also acts as a heat dissipator. Aluminum is a metal known for its heat-reducing properties. The engine itself is mounted on aluminum motor mounts that directly mount onto the chassis, further helping to keep the engine cool.


Front axles and gears of two RC vehicles
Top: Front axles on electric RC. Middle: Front axles on nitro RC. Bottom Left: Slipper and pinion gears on electric RC. Bottom Right: Slipper and clutch bell gears on nitro RC. M. James

The gears, wheels, and axles of a radio-controlled vehicle are known collectively as the drivetrain. Similar to the transmission and rear-end in a real car, the drivetrain is what gives the RC car motion when power (from the motor or engine) is applied.

Plastic Drivetrain
Toy-grade electric RC drivetrains mostly consist of plastic and the only metal part of the drivetrain is the pinion gear, which is also sometimes made of plastic as well. The differential (a set of gears within the drivetrain) on an electric hobby-grade RC has both metal and plastic, but it can be upgraded to metal to give the electric hobby-grade RC drivetrain an overall boost in strength and longevity.

Metal Drivetrain
The drivetrain on nitro RCs contain primarily all metal differentials and other all-metal gears that make up the drivetrain. These metal gears are necessary because the high torque of the powerful nitro engines can put too much stress on plastic parts. Some lesser hobby-grade nitro RCs may have some plastic parts in their drivetrains, which can be less durable than the metal parts.

Center of Gravity and Weight

Electric and nitro RCs
Top: Sideview of electric Traxxas Rustler. Bottom: Sideview of nitro Traxxas Rustler. M. James

The number of components and their placement affect the center of gravity and the weight of the RC, which, in turn, affect the potential speed, handling, and maneuverability of the RC.

Center of Gravity
In an RC, the center of gravity chiefly affects how the RC handles at high speeds, especially on jumps and turns. The lower and more stable the center of gravity, the less likely it is that the RC will flip or go off course.

With toy-grade RCs, center of gravity is of little concern because they really don't go fast enough to worry about it. With both electric and nitro hobby-grade RCs, center of gravity is very important. Sometimes getting the center of gravity correct makes the difference between winning or losing in an RC race.

It may be marginally more difficult to have a steady center of gravity on a nitro RC compared to an electric because the electric RC doesn't have to worry about the constant movement of fuel in the tank. All the components in an electric RC are stationary and don't shift at all, giving it a stable center of gravity and just possibly a slight handling advantage over the nitro or small gas engine RCs.

Just looking under the hood, it's obvious that the nitro RC is going to weigh more ​than the electric. It simply has more parts sitting on that metal chassis. Although the high-grade aluminum and titanium are lightweight metals, they are still metal rather than the weight-reducing carbon-fiber plastics of an electric RC.


Battery pack and fuel tank of RC vehicles
Top: Battery pack in electric RC. Bottom: Fuel tank in nitro RC. M. James

As established earlier, the electric RC relies on batteries or battery packs, whereas the nitro RC uses nitro fuel. With electric RCs, the runtime is dependent both on how long the battery lasts and how long it takes to recharge the battery pack. With nitro RCs, the runtime is dependent on how much fuel the tank holds and how long it takes to refuel.

An Hour of Electric RC Runtime
Even with a high-end battery (probably a good lipo), you still can't beat the runtime of a nitro because when the battery runs out of steam, you have to charge it. With a fancy, quick charger, you still will have to wait at least 45 minutes to an hour for it to charge up that depleted battery. You could have two or more batteries charged already, but with only 10 to 15 minutes of runtime per battery, that means you would have to have at least four or five batteries already charged and ready to go before you start racing in order to get an hour or so of continuous use out of your electric RC.

An Hour of Nitro RC Runtime
On a nitro RC, a tank full of fuel will typically get you 20 to 25 minutes of runtime—depending on driving style and size of the tank. After the tank runs down, all you have to do is refill the tank (which takes all of about 30 to 45 seconds) and you are off and running again. For an hour of use, you'll need to fill up only two or three times.

The Cost of Batteries vs. Nitro Fuel
Lipo battery packs are about $32 and a gallon of nitro fuel is about $25 dollars. You can get about 50 to 60 tanks out of one gallon of nitro fuel if you have a 2 to 2.5 oz. tank. If you try to match that with lipo battery packs, it's enough to make anybody's wallet cry for help.


Parts of electric and nitro RCs
Clockwise from Top Left: Battery Pack, Electronic Speed Controller, Motor in Electric RC. Axle and linkage, shock tower, air filter in Nitro RC. M. James

The care and maintenance of hobby-grade electric and nitro RCs are similar, up to a point. Both types of RCs require regular after-run maintenance in the form of cleaning, checking tires and rims, checking or replacing shocks and bearings, and checking/tightening loose screws to keep them in tip-top shape. The big difference is in the parts that get replaced or repaired and the additional care needed for the nitro RC engine before and after use.

  • Electric RCs require charging a battery pack. A new nitro engine must go through a proper nitro engine break-in in order to avoid costly repairs down the road.
  • Starting an electric RC involves little more than flipping a switch. There are multiple ways to start a nitro engine, some of which require additional accessories or parts.
  • For electric RCs, you will replace worn brushes on a brushed electric motor or replace the motor completely. On the nitro RC, you replace the glow plug periodically and check the fuel system.
  • On an electric RC, you adjust the throttle trim on your ESC (Electronic Speed Control) and the trim settings on the transmitter. You only have to make a small adjustment on brake and throttle linkage on a nitro RC to have the brakes react quicker when you let off the throttle. To further adjust the nitro RCs braking power, you could also tinker with the trim settings on the nitro RCs transmitter as well.
  • After use, after-run maintenance on a nitro engine includes draining the fuel tank, cleaning and oiling the air filter, and adding after-burn oil. This isn't necessary on an electric RC.