It’s a question that both electric car and RC car fans have been asking for decades: "If we’ve already got all these great electric radio-control race cars, why are auto manufacturers constantly trying to reinvent the wheel in terms of electric car design? Why doesn’t someone just take a 1/10th scale electric racer, and make it 10 times bigger?" Seems like a simple enough solution, doesn’t it? But making small things bigger often takes someone who isn’t afraid to think big: enter Elon Musk.

In this article, we’re going to compare two cars that at first blush seem very different — but look a bit closer, and you’ll find that they have a lot more in common than not. Both are high-dollar, top-echelon electric cars with surprisingly similar chassis architecture. Both use all-wheel drive, stupid-powerful electric motors, lithium batteries, sophisticated electronic controls and advanced aerodynamics, and both are far and away the fastest, coolest and most desirable vehicles in their niches. They even share the same iPhone compatibility, and eerily similar "digital dashboards."

So, is the 2015 Tesla Model S P85D a scaled-up Traxxas XO-1 Supercar, or is the Traxxas a 1/7th scale Tesla? How different and how similar are these cars, exactly? The answers might surprise you.

Continue reading for the full story.

Tesla vs Traxxas

You probably already know plenty about Tesla’s amazing Model S P85D; we’ve written plenty on this all-wheel-drive electric terror of a sedan as it is. At almost 5,000 pounds, it’s no lightweight — but a total of 691 horsepower front and rear make this $105,000 rocket second only to the 707-horsepower 2015 Dodge Charger Hellcat as the quickest and most powerful four-door in history.

That’s all stuff you probably already know. Now, here’s something completely different — sort of.

For those unfamiliar with the RC world, Traxxas has been the name brand in hobby level, ready-to-run RC monsters since 1986. If you had to compare Traxxas to any automaker, it would have to be fellow Texan Carroll Shelby. Traxxas started out in a pretty small niche, taking what was once custom, race-only technology and putting it into off-the-shelf vehicles that could be purchased in any showroom. Or hobby shop, in this case. As you’d expect from a Texas-based company, Traxxas entered the market with monster trucks and off-road buggies, and later expanded into boats. Lately, Traxxas has been exploring the final two frontiers of conveyance: the sky with a new series of helicopters, and the pavement with two truly insane road cars.

Pretty ambitious for a first attempt at an on-road vehicle. But, that's Texas.

The first in 2012 was a 1/8th scale NHRA Funny Car, which features an electric motor, tube frame chassis, a burnout mode for staging, and a 70 mph top speed. Pretty ambitious for a first attempt at an on-road vehicle. But, that’s Texas.

Even that, though, was nowhere near as ambitious as the XO-1 Supercar — "the Bugatti Veyron" of ready-to-run RC cars. It was actually developed initially right alongside the Funny Car in 2012, but Traxxas spent two years perfecting the car and its aerodynamics before release. They had to, because early cars had a nasty habit of lifting the front end and flying into the stratosphere...

...at 101 miles per hour.

That’s right. With a curb weight of 13 pounds and a 3.5-horsepower brushless DC motor, this $1,500 (fully loaded) hypercar could hit 60 mph in a claimed 2.3 seconds and triple-digit velocities on the top end. A top end limited mostly by the controller, since it doesn’t take long for something going this fast to zoom out of its otherwise impressive 1,376 foot radio range. Observant readers will note that’s 56 feet farther than a quarter mile, which theoretically leaves enough time to slow to a stop after zooming through the traps. Assuming you can see the 5-inch-tall car from a quarter-mile away at all.

And that’s just with the stock gearing. Traxxas limits the car to 50 mph out of the box, both through gearing and an electronic limiter. However, the limiter can be remotely disabled using an iPhone or iPad app from Traxxas, and they include a larger pinion gear for top-speed runs.

Even that’s not the end of it, though — RC car fans are notorious hot-rodders, and modified XO-1s are known to hit 140 mph plus with the right tuning tricks. Good luck finding out what those are, though. RC car tuners are so pathologically secretive, you’d have a better chance of smuggling the Colonel’s Secret Recipe out of Lockheed’s Skunkworks, while reciting the exact demonic incantation that made Kim Kardashian famous for being famous.

How does all this performance compare to the also-stunning performance of Tesla’s sedan masterpiece? We’ll get there. But first, a deeper look at the cars themselves.

Chassis

Tesla P85D vs Traxxas XO-1 Drivetrain
- image 635635

From the first glance at this chassis comparison, you can see why calling the Model S a "scaled up RC car" isn’t exactly an exaggeration. With their removable bodies removed and "skateboard" style, all-aluminum chassis exposed, the structural similarities between these two cars are so glaring that it’s actually easier to talk about the differences, minor though they may be.

The similarities are so glaring that it's actually easier to talk about the differences.

The Traxxas, being a dedicated performance car, is a bit racier in detail. It’s front and rear tires are proportionately about 50 percent wider than the Tesla’s. At full scale, they’d be about 13 inches wide — which is actually only about one inch bigger than the massive 305/30ZR-19s on the 2014 Chevy Camaro Z/28. By comparison, the Tesla’s Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires are undersized; but then again, so is practically every other piece of rubber that isn’t on a Camaro.

The two cars differ in suspension type and geometry as well. The Traxxas uses unequal-length double A-arm suspension front and rear, similar to the front suspension on many performance cars.

These proportions are an oddly fascinating example of design crossover for a company that has historically specialized in off-road vehicles.

One thing it’s really interesting to note here is the exact length of those lower control arms. See how they run all the way to the center of the car? That’s to reduce the amount of camber change under compression, and it’s almost exactly the same setup you’ll find on most off-road RC vehicles.

In this case, the suspension setup helps to keep the XO-1 planted at high speed — it’s not unheard of in RC road cars, but these proportions are an oddly fascinating example of design crossover for a company that has historically specialized in off-road vehicles.

That suspension geometry leaves the XO-1’s shocks canted in at a much more extreme angle than the Tesla’s much more vertical struts. That’s not exactly ideal if you want a low-slung corner carver. But the Tesla uses a more common (read: "crappy and boring") MacPherson Strut system, and strut suspensions usually don’t play well with extreme angles.

To its credit, though, that somewhat vertical strut suspension does help to give the Tesla more luggage space than the XO-1. A lot more. And not just because it’s seven times the size, either. The Model S is the only production sedan in the world with both a cavernous rear trunk, and a second front "trunk" large enough to carry at least one baby. See?

Tesla P85D vs Traxxas XO-1 Exterior
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That’s what you call "seating versatility," right there. Proof there’s more than one way to get a quiet ride.

Speaking of quiet: The Traxxas really, really isn’t.

Power and Drivetrain

Full disclosure: As much as I love electric cars in general, I have to say they’ve never exactly thrilled me on sensory input. On paper, sure, they’re awesome — but for somebody that grew up wrenching on over-cammed big-block hot rods, the Jetson’s-like whine of an electric motor seems a little underwhelming, to put it mildly. Listening to most electric cars, it’s like you can feel all of your childhood hopes and dreams whizzing down the drain of hopelessly beige practicality.

But this Traxxas — Holy Mother of all that’s fast!

Big-block V-8, you may have just met your replacement.


Just listen to the way that thing absolutely howls over 60 mph. As someone who’s heard a lot of legitimately evil cars in his life, this little electric car at 40,000 rpm sounds like someone just opened the gates of Hell in the middle of a Skid Row concert.

Honestly, I truly believe that if Elon Musk hired Traxxas for sound engineering, nobody would drive anything but. Bye-bye, big-block.

And hello, Big Block.

That’s what Traxxas calls the 3.5-horsepower brushless monster in the XO-1, and you can hardly blame them for it. Just to put this kind of power in perspective: Your average electrically assisted bicycle can pull a 200-pound human being uphill at 20 mph with a 500-watt motor.

Forget the Veyron. The Traxxas' power-to-weight ratio is much closer to that of a McLaren P1.

The 13-pound Traxxas has more than five times that amount of power. At 3.8 pounds per horsepower, the Traxxas crushes the Veyron’s 4.5 pounds per horsepower. The Traxxas’ power-to-weight ratio is much closer to that of a McLaren P1, which runs 3.77 pounds per horsepower.

All things considered then, it would seem like the Tesla is just outclassed in the performance department. Even with its stunning 697 horsepower, Elon’s 4,830-pound sedan "only" manages 6.9 pounds per horsepower. That still makes it stupid fast by full-sized car standards — about the same as the previous-generation Dodge Viper. It’s just not quite in hypercar territory.

However, life isn’t always about sheer power — as often as not, enough brains will beat out sheer brawn. And the Tesla has those in spades.

While both of these cars are electric and all-wheel-drive, they use two completely different drivetrains. The Tesla is technically twin-engined, with a 470-horse electric motor driving the rear wheels, and a second 221-horsepower motor driving the fronts. It doesn’t have true side-to-side torque vectoring, but it does have two brake-type, electronic limited-slip differentials and front-to-rear torque vectoring. It’s got traction, stability and launch control that help to put its Earth-moving torque to the ground and keep the car pointed in a straight line. The Tesla’s drivetrain and electronic controls probably aren’t quite the most sophisticated on Earth right now...but if not, they’re close.

The Traxxas, by comparison, is structurally about as sophisticated as a 1993 Lamborghini Diablo. In truth, a good bit less.

The Traxxas is about as sophisticated as a 1993 Lamborghini Diablo.

The XO-1’s drivetrain layout is almost identical to that used by Lamborghini and its corporate cousins Audi and Bugatti. Probably no coincidence there. It’s mid-engine, driving the rear wheels almost directly and the front wheels via a long, forward-running driveshaft. But that’s where the similarities end.

Where the full-sized cars use a transmission (not required here) and a viscous center differential to modulate power transfer to the front wheels, the XO-1 just...kind of...doesn’t. The same gear that drives the rear differential connects directly to the front, so the XO-1 has permanent and fully locked 4WD — it always splits power exactly 50-50 between the front and rear wheels.

And if you’re thinking that that, too, is also a result of Traxxas history of building 4WD off-road trucks, you probably wouldn’t be wrong. It is exactly the same basic 4WD system they’ve been using since 1986, and it works about as well on-road as you’d expect.

That is to say, a lot better than rear-wheel drive, but nowhere near as well as an all-wheel drive system that can send most of its power to the back, and vary the amount sent to the front. Nevermind comparisons to the twin-motor and traction-controlled Tesla, or a new Lamborghini — this car’s truck-derived 4WD system doesn’t even compare well to a 1981 AMC Spirit’s.

Hey, you win some, you lose some.

Consequently, the XO-1’s handling (if you want to call it that) is exactly as psychotic as you’d expect for a 2014 McLaren P1 with the drivetrain of an old Willys Jeep. Laying into the throttle produces the kind of epic torque steer that would qualify the Traxxas as a weapon if it were any bigger. By comparison, an old 1987-1992 Ferrari F40 would seem as tame as a Toyota Camry.

The XO-1's handling is exactly as psychotic as you'd expect for a 2014 McLaren P1 with the drivetrain of an old Willy's Jeep.

Traxxas is serious when they say the XO-1 is for "experienced drivers only." And even that’s hilariously understating the matter: The box should say "For users of The Force only." With a car this fast, vicious and unpredictable, you’re never more than a nanosecond away from a $1,500 mistake.

The Tesla P85D, on the other hand, is a virtual garden of serenity. Even compared to other AWD cars, the Model S is so stable, so controlled, so adept at putting down power that it makes a Toyota Camry look like...well, a Traxxas XO-1.

Still, maybe all that stuff’s just for little girly types. Like girls. So what if the sophisticated Tesla is easier to drive, and the Traxxas is, comparatively, a primordial murder machine? Enzo Ferrari would say that’s part of its charm. Surely, the Traxxas’ insane two-to-one power-to-weight ratio advantage will offset all of that. Right?

We’ll find out soon.

Theoretical Range

"Get to the go-fast already!" Yeah, I will. But, a couple things bear mentioning first.

While most things don’t entirely scale, at least one thing seems to. That is, weirdly, battery range. Yes, the Tesla P85D will go about 200 to 300 miles on a full charge, depending on how you drive. Its 85 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack is the biggest Tesla offers, and it’s about 944 times the size of the 0.09 kWh lithium-polymer pack in the XO-1. So, you might think that the Tesla has 900 times the range. Right? Not so fast.

I'd be willing to bet that the Traxxas' range wouldn't be that far off of the Tesla's.

If you really thrash a Tesla, and hold it at 100 mph, you can exhaust the batteries very quickly. Yes, the pack is 85 kWh, but the motors generate 515 kilowatts. In theory, it would be possible to completely exhaust a Tesla’s battery pack in 15 minutes — less than 10 without brake regen. Not to give too much away, but the Tesla could in theory hit more than 200 mph given its power and aerodynamics.

Quick estimate, then: at 200 mph, you could go about 33 miles in 10 minutes. That’s the Tesla’s theoretical range at full power and full effort.

According to tests, the 101 mph XO-1 is good for about 15 to 20 minutes of flat-out driving. Which I believe you’ll find gives it a range of...about 33 miles. How’s that for weird? Makes you wonder how many miles you could get out of the Traxxas driving judiciously, say 35 mph or so. I’d be willing to bet it’s not that far off of the Tesla’s 200 mile range. And that’s without any kind of brake regen.

Guess the more things scale, the more they stay the same.

Aero and Looks — or How to Lose a Girl in Two Hours Flat

One is the Traxxas’ aerodynamics and body — which you’ll probably notice looks a bit like a cross between a Corvette Stingray and Bugatti Veyron. The years of work Traxxas put into honing the aerodynamics, underbody ducting and rear diffuser really show. And personally, I think it’s one of the best looking cars I’ve seen in years. I’m not alone, either.

Quick story: Just to get a second opinion on the car, I sent the above video clip of it to a sometime girlfriend of mine. Along with the note, as a joke, "Look what TopSpeed is giving me to drive this weekend!" Predictably (in retrospect), she didn’t bother to watch the video. After looking at nothing but the thumbnail picture of the car, she proceeded to bombard me with pleas to pick her up and take her to Daytona this weekend. It took four or five exchanges before I realized that she hadn’t watched the video, and thought that the XO-1 was an actual car.

"Pack light," I told her. "Small trunk."

It was two hours before I managed to get back to the computer. In that time, I received some 24 Facebook notifications on a post I’d been tagged in. "Look what I’m going to Daytona in tomorrow! Woot woot!" Oh, crap.

On the plus side, the first half of the following comments were pretty positive. "Wow! I’m jealous!", "You’re so lucky!" and "What kind of car is that...I want one!" Things took a slight turn for the worse at about comment number 11, which read simply: (paraphrased monumentally)

"Richard Rowe is not a nice person, and I’m a bit disappointed in him right now." (Monumentally)

I think the take-away here is: People seem to like the Traxxas, and playing with RC cars isn’t the only way to stay single at 34 years old.

Worth it.

Performance

Before anything else, it must be said: Above all else, it’s kind of amazing that we’re doing this comparison at all. Just the fact that we’ve gotten to the point of comparing an RC car to a (incredibly fast) electric family car is simply nuts, but not really. It’s a real testament to the power of how far a good idea can take us, at any scale. But enough ruminating. Here are the number’s you’ve been waiting for. The Traxxas figures come from a real-world road test of the XO-1, and all tests are on stock tires.

0 to 60 mph Quarter-Mile Top Speed (as Delivered)
Tesla P85D 3.1 seconds 11.6 seconds @ 115.2 mph 155 mph (electronically limited)
Traxxas 3.3 seconds 11.7 seconds @ 101 mph 101 mph (gearing limited)

Theoretical top speed, drag- and power-limited only. Currently tested figures for the Traxxas.

Tesla P85D 210 mph
Traxxas 143 mph

You’ll probably note that the acceleration figures for the Traxxas are significantly slower than the 2.3 seconds quoted by Traxxas. While there’s no real reason to doubt Traxxas’ claims given the car’s power-to-weight ratio, Car and Driver clocked it at a full second slower to 60 mph. That’s almost entirely down to traction, and the fact that they tested the car on a normal road. Had it been on a smooth dragstrip with a sticky burnout box, the lightweight Traxxas almost certainly would have owned 60 mph. Then again, had someone dropped me out of an airplane this morning, I could have flown straight down toward the ground at 124 miles an hour. But they didn’t, and I didn’t, and the real world is what it is.

Had it been on a smooth dragstrip, the lightweight Traxxas almost certainly would have owned 60.

A lot of the Tesla’s victory off the line here comes down to its versatile AWD and smart use of power. The Traxxas puts power to all four wheels, but its 1940s Jeep drivetrain lets it down in real-world power delivery.

Trap speed through the quarter-mile is usually a pretty good indicator of power, but it’s almost useless here. Fact is, the Traxxas is all out of rpm well before the traps — it’s probably hitting its top speed and holding 101 mph from half track to the end. But with the right gearing, there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t decimate the Tesla in the quarter. The XO-1’s got about the same power-to-weight ratio as a McLaren P1, and that’s a 9.9-second car. It would be interesting to see how close Traxxas could come to 10 seconds flat with the right gearing. As of right now, though, it’s probably safe to say they’re giving up at least a second in the quarter in factory trim.

Still, though — this race is shockingly close for two cars so different from each other in style and scale.

Summary

Isn’t it amazing? Here today, we’ve got cars separate from each other by a scale of 7-to-1, price tags of 90-to-1, and power-to-weight ratios of 2-to-1, and separated in some degree of sophistication by probably 80 years. And yet, thanks to smart planning, great engineering and all the best the modern world has to throw at them, these two radically different (yet oddly similar) cars can compete with each other.
Well, sort of.

That’s the power of thinking big — or small, as the case may be.

What do you think?
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