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Scott's Slot Cars
Best Digital Slot Car Brand - Comparing Carrera, Ninco, Scalextric & SCX on Features 

May 1, 2009
By Scott Lewis

In our last article we compared Carrera, Ninco, Scalextric & SCX on price. This month we are going to cover the features of each brand, the pros & cons, and come to a conclusion on which brand is best... for ME.

As we said last month people have different requirements, so your requirements may come to another conclusion. That's fine. I expect to cover enough information here that you can decide which brand is best for YOU.

For a quick recap... I have already decided to get a digital slot car setup and go with 1/32 scale. I have the following requirements:

* 50 ft of track
* 4 cars/controllers
* Lap counter
* Pit lane (with fuel management)
* High banked curve
* 4 lane change tracks (preferably straights)
* Pace or "ghost" cars

I am really hooked on the fuel management part of digital slot cars. Setting fuel capacity and running low on gas during a race & requiring pit stops. This is really cool. I am willing to live without this in the early stages, such as when I buy my initial race set. I also want a nice long straight that leads into a high banked turn. Since I will be building a table to hold my track I expect to do some of this over time. This means some features can wait as I build up the amount of track and get the table set.

Features should be the reason you pick a brand. Our last article showed that the price for Carrera and Scalextric are close, and Ninco and SCX are slightly higher but close to each other. But it is the features that matter if you have made the decision to go digital. After all, all the brands have analog track which eliminates a lot of hassles with digital.

This is not the last article in this series. Oh, I will have an answer for you, as promised, in this article. But I want to cover each brands cars. This is just too much to cram into one article, so I will cover the cars in the next and final installment of this series of articles. I am a certified car nut, so the cars are the stars. I will briefly mention cars during each brand's review then next month we will cover the cars in detail.

So let's see what each brand has to offer in its digital environment. The brands are listed alphabetically:

Carrera

My previous article revealed that Carrera is surprisingly affordable. Yea, over $600 is not exactly cheap, but it was the lowest price of all the brands when I tried to meet my requirements. Part of why Carrera is affordable is also Carrera's biggest disadvantage. SIZE. Carrera's track is the same size for 1/32 and 1/24 scale cars. That means when you build a track at home it can run 1/24 cars and it is BIG. I think this is why Carrera won the price comparison last time. Their track is so large it can create a 50 ft layout fairly easily.

Carrera track pieces are made of a hard plastic. This means there is less flexibility in the material. The other brands are like a rubber/plastic combination. They have more give and are more flexible. If you plan to have elevation changes for overpasses this is something to consider. Carrera does offer a crossover track that curves up to make an overpass. But you have to buy this separately and it will require more planning to use than just jacking up the track on the other brands.

Another issue with hard plastic track is warpage. It is possible that Carrera will be an issue. If you are going to setup a track in a garage or unfinished basement that will be exposed to big temperature changes you may want to avoid Carrera. I, on the other hand, am going to build my track in a nice clean, finished game room. I am not having any trouble with my hard plastic HO track warping... and it is over 30 years old. Take good care of your track and it can last a very long time.

Carrera introduced a digital system called Pro-X. This is to be avoided. Their current digital offering is called Digital 132 (or Digital 124). You can mix some of this stuff, but to play it safe you should stick with one or the other. I am going to stick to looking at their Digital 132 system. Digital 132 is completely compatible with Carrera's analog track, called Evolution. If you already have Carrera Evolution track then buy the Carrera Digital 132 Conversion/Upgrade Kit. It will set you back about $140-150 and you are ready to go. It is also important to know Carrera's Digital 132 is compatible with their Evolution track because you can buy Evolution track for expansion. This could be handy on eBay if buying a lot of Evolution track at a reasonable price.

Layouts. This is another problem with Carrera's BIG size. It will limit the layout you can build. However, this adds to why Carrera is excellent for permanent tracks. If you plan to change layouts a lot you better have a LOT of room. I am in the middle. I have a nice size game room, but I will not be dedicating the entire room to a track. If you plan on putting your track on a 4x8 board or a Ping Pong table (5x9) you should avoid Carrera.

On interesting thing to note about Carrera and its track size in the lane changer tracks. They are longer than any of the other brands and make it possible to go much faster through the lane changes. With the other brands you may have to slow down to make the "sharper" lane change.

Carrera's digital conversion "chip" is really a small module that you have to wire into analog cars. If you can handle a soldering gun and a screwdriver you should be set to go converting analog cars to digital. From my basic research Carrera's digital cars seem to be priced better than the competition. That's a big plus if you don't want to use a soldering gun to wire up analog cars.

The two biggest digital features of Carrera is fuel management and ghost cars. Carrera will allow you to have as many ghost cars on the track as you want... up to a maximum of 8 cars on the track total (ghost and real). This can be a lot of fun. The cars will not run at a maximum speed to actually race, but it can be challenging to have multiple ghost cars when racing alone. I would image the perfect upgrade would be to mimic a fast lap run by a human for a ghost car. This would allow you to try and beat yourself. Granted, many of the Digital tracks offer timed challenges such as beating a lap time, but this is less fun if there is no car to get around on the track. Carrera's ghost cars will also change lanes and pit like real cars.

As for fuel management, Carrera allows each car to have its own speed, braking & fuel level, or all cars can be programmed to have the same speed, braking & fuel. The Carrera cars will blink their lights when you have to refuel and in a few laps will slow down and stutter until you refuel. This is what you want in a digital system.

Since you can set the speed, more accurately the maximum speed, of a car this makes it easy to program cars for little kids. Most little kids just know two speeds, ALL or nothing. Carrera makes it easy to limit cars for beginners so they can "floor it" all the way around the track without getting discouraged.

Here's an odd thing against Carrera. You can only have two lanes of track at the point of the start finish line. You can use the pit lane track pieces to expand to 3 and 4 lanes, but you can't have a full four lane layout. This is also true of some other brands, with Ninco being the best in this area. However, I really don't think this will bother me one bit.

Carrera has a neat feature. You can program a car while racing is happening. This can be a great thing if someone wants to change cars (by choice or because of a car failure). More importantly someone can join in on the fun without interrupting existing racers. I can see this happening a lot. Two people are racing and someone comes over and wants to join it. Rather than stop everything to program the car, the new driver just programs his car into the controller and joins the action in progress.

Probably the worst feature to me is the controller. Carrera uses a thumb plunger controller instead of the traditional trigger style controller. I could see getting cramps pretty quickly with the Carrera controllers. Granted, you can buy different controllers, and the controllers that come with sets are not the best available. If you know you will be buying upgraded controllers than this might not matter to you.

I am very impressed with Carrera's selection of cars. Hands down they have the most classic cars. I am a Muscle Car fan. I LOVE street cars. I want Muscle Cars and other street driving cars on my slotted track. Carrera also has old style Hot Rods. I am blown away. Even if I don't get Carrera track I WILL get Carrera cars.

Overall I have to say the biggest issue with Carrera is that it is BIG. I really like Carrera and will probably buy a lot of their cars, but I don't think I have enough room for a nice layout with Carrera track.

Ninco

Ninco seems to covet the person that wants large scale slot cars, but has limited space. They offer a really nice Master Track Asphalt set that includes 42 feet of track that fits on a 4x8 sheet of plywood. That's impressive. It also means that every turn is a tight hairpin turn. If you need a track that is mobile this is a great system. It comes in a hard plastic case designed to carry the track from place to place. I have read that Ninco has very good track connections which is extremely important with any digital track, and would work best for a track you plan to setup and take down often.

There are two major problems with Ninco. First is price. This excellent kit will run you at least $450. I have seen it priced from $459 to $535. The kicker is that this set does NOT come with any cars, so you will have to shell out over $100 for three cars... just to get started. Once you add in pit lanes & lap counters the cost escalates.

Fortunately Ninco's "chip" is the easiest chip to install of all the brands. No "damage" is done to the car to install the chip. Scalextric and Carrera require you to drill a hole in the chassis of the car for the LED light to shine through. SCX's chip is not compatible with other brands without major surgery. This is a big plus for Ninco as you can buy pretty much any analog car you want and can chip it to run on Ninco N-Digital track.

The second problem with Ninco is a lack of high backed curves. This is mostly a personal issue. When looking for track accessories for Ninco I found SCX banked curve listed with Ninco to SCX adapter track. This may be a problem or it may not. As long as it all works there should not be any issues. But it worries me if something as simple as a high bank curve is missing from their catalog what cool new accessory will they not carry later.

Ninco's track surface is the least smooth of all the vendors. This allows the cars to get better traction. This can be great for beginners as they will get better speed through the corners. Unfortunately, the Master Set includes only the tightest turns (R1, or Radius 1), which is difficult for beginners. Catch-22. From what I have read, almost everyone that expands their Ninco track beyond the initial set ends up buying lots of larger radius turns and leaving most of the R1 turns from the Master Set on the sidelines.

So, on the one hand you can put 42 ft. of track on a 4x8 board. On the other hand, you will grow tired of that pretty quickly and replace those hair pin turns with something else. In doing so you will no longer fit a nice layout on a 4x8 board.

If you are going to buy a race set and stick with it then put the Ninco Master Track Asphalt set near the top of your list. For $550-$650 you should be all set with 42 feet of track and three really nice cars. And it will all run on a 4x8 board.

In the end, Ninco is expensive. Right off the bat the cost has driven me away. In my last article just adding the specialty track items to meet my requirements took us close to $1,000. That is a lot of money for 50 ft of racing. I will pass on Ninco.

Scalextric

Scalextric has a broad set of features, but they are late to the party with a pit lane. Sure, you can buy the track to build a pit lane. That's easy. But it takes more than just the track to have PIT STOPS. Scalextric recently released their "pit stop game." This is just that... a game. As I understand it the pit "box" will light up as "open" at random times for a few seconds. Your goal is to get into the pit lane while the pit is open. The first driver to make three pit stops wins. Yuck!

However, the aftermarket is all over Scalextric. You can upgrade the firmware for the Power Base and connect it to a PC to provide all the features that any of the other brands have.

Click here to see a few videos of Scalextric working with the Power Base Pro, Pit Lane and a PC.

From our last article we know Scalextric is very close to Carrera in price. As long as you don't mind tinkering with the Power Base and hooking it to a computer then Scalextric is just as feature rich as Carrera. As a matter of fact, I have read that you can use the Power Base Pro and a PC to change back and forth between digital and analog mode. This might be cool if you have some analog cars you don't plan to chip, or friends with analog cars come over to race.

I am a computer nerd (programmer by trade) and would love to tinker in this way. In fact I hope there is an API available so I can write my own software for Scalextric. If I can understand how to program for Scalextric I may be able to write something that can "record" a lap of a car and then apply that lap to a ghost car. This is very intriguing. My next feature to program would be a pace car. It would be cool if the track could detect when someone de-slots. A pace car would be sent out on the track and all the other cars would have their speed limited and line up behind the pace car. There is nothing stopping this. As I can see it it would all be software driven. You would need two separate pin lanes if you wanted to add both features to your racing, one for pit stops and one to hold the pace car. Sounds like a lot of fun.

For those of you that don't want to dive this deep into the system Scalextric is NOT going to be as enjoyable. The out of the box experience will be less than with Carrera or SCX. Those have much more features from the start. In fact I really think it boils down to this, if Scalextric has what you want out of the box then buy it. If you need more and are willing to work to get it then buy Scalextric. However, if you are just looking for as much fun as possible in an out of box experience then look to Carrera (if you have the room) or go with SCX (and live with limited car selection and price). It really is that simple.

Scalextric has two very big pluses... for me. 1) The local track that I take my sons to deals only in Scalextric track. 2) The large hobby store here in San Antonio carries Scalextric and SCX far more than anything else. So it is easy for me to buy Scalextric locally. This may not be much of a feature, as I can beat local prices online. But there is something to the instant gratification of buying something and coming home to use it.

Scalextric has a very nice selection of cars. I wish they would go with more American Muscle Cars that are NOT painted like race cars. I have a Scalextric 69 Camaro and 70 Mustang, but they look like Trans Am race cars. I prefer Carrera's line of American Classics and Hot Rods that look like cars that roamed the street in the Muscle Car era.

Without a doubt the biggest feature for Scalextric is the ease with which cars can be converted to digital. Their chips are small and require minimal modifications to the host car. Recent Scalextric Analog cars (like the two cars I have) already have a hole in the bottom of the car for the LED to shine through when these cars are converted. Even better, the newest models from Scalextric have a simple trap door on the bottom of the car. Open the door and plug in the chip. It doesn't get any simpler than that. I believe Slot.it also makes cars that are "chip ready" for Scalextric's chips.

The local dealer here told me he will price his cars so that if you are buying a Scalextric analog car and a chip at the same time he will make sure that the price is no more than buying the digital version of that car. This is to insure that people don't think they are paying more to buy analog cars and chip them to digital.

Scalextric's biggest flaw... besides the fact they don't have pace/ghost cars and no fuel management is that you MUST reboot the controller when adding cars. That's right. If you start a race and then need to add a car you must reboot the controller. Everyone must stop racing while you program the new car. Not only that, but like SCX only one car can be on the track while a cars is programmed. This means you have to plan to race. This is about as far from analog as you can get, where in analog you just drop a car on a lane and pull the trigger.

I have read that Scalextric has the smallest footprint of the four brands listed here. That means you can squeeze just a little more layout in the same space. However, I don't know if this will make or break you. Clearly this is an advantage over Carrera, but it might be too small an advantage over Ninco or SCX to matter.

In the end the price is going to drive me toward Scalextric. This is very close to Carrera in cost, much less than Ninco and SCX. And I don't mind plugging my PC into it to get more features. Plus the added benefit of local availability is just more icing on the cake. I am going to go with Scalextric as soon as I can plan the room for it.

SCX

Don't stop reading because I mentioned in the last paragraph I was going to buy Scalextric. There are a lot of compelling reasons to look at SCX.

SCX is like the iPod of slot cars. Like the iPod it has a lot of style. Also like the iPod you either love the way they do it, or... too bad. SCX broke from tradition and built their digital track completely different from everyone else... and completely different from their own analog track. If you buy SCX digital you are staying with SCX digital all the way. Track, cars, accessories. The works. It's all SCX or nothing.

This has some benefits. One of the things SCX did was to incorporate the digital signal in every piece of track. This makes it very easy to add accessories. And SCX's accessories are very slick looking, also like the iPod. Their fuel tower, that comes with their Pit Stop kits, looks like something you would see at a real race track. Same with their lap counter tower, and chronometer. These accessories all look better than anything else the competition has.

SCX also has a unique lane changing system. Their system puts an addition guide (or pin) on the car. When you push the button on the controller the guide drops to catch a second slot in the track and your car changes lanes. This could be an issue. I would be concerned with long term reliability of such a guide based system. If the guide fails your car is a paperweight. I would buy spares and keep them around for just such and emergency.

Because of this major difference in the cars it takes a lot of work to convert an analog car to SCX Digital. Look at this forum post to see all the work this guy went through to convert a Scalextric car to SCX Digital.The biggest problem is that the pin/plunger must go between the front wheels. This means that the axle in the car must be removed and you have to find a way to mount the front wheels independently to the chassis. Trust me, don't buy SCX with the intension of converting other brand's analog cars to SCX Digital.

But this system of putting the mechanics of the lane change in the car does have its advantages. With SCX you can have an infinite number of lane change track pieces with no power loss. With the other brands the mechanics and electronics are in the track. Too many lane changing tracks means you will 1) lose power to the cars, or 2) have to upgrade the power to the track.

SCX's biggest problem is with converting cars to their guide pin system. This is made worse by the selection of SCX Digital cars available. SCX Digital has far, far fewer cars to choose from than Carrera or Scalextric. And since you won't be converting analog cars to SCX Digital you can forget buying Slot.it, Fly or any other brand of cars. If all you care about is buying a half dozen cars and playing with them you should have no trouble with SCX. They have NASCAR COT cars, GT style cars and formula style cars. This is more than enough to provide a wide variety of racing. However, SCX does not have any American Muscle Cars, or Hot Rods, or even modern sports cars.

SCX Digital cars also tend to be more expensive than the competition. Probably due to the complexity of the lane change mechanics on every car. If you believe as I do, the cars are the stars, then SCX is not the way to go. They really need to step up the selection of cars and get the prices down a bit.

What SCX does do is features. SCX has the most features right out of the box. In the previous article we priced a Pit Box system that had 3 cars and everything you needed to be racing with a pit lane, refueling, variable speed on cars (slow the cars for younger drivers so they don't get discouraged), etc. All this is possible for less than $400. If you want a good introduction to why I really like this system just watch this video and see how easy the fuel management and multiple lanes works.

When you want to step up to four cars at a time things get expensive. Where Carrera & Scalextric come out of the box with power bases that allow for 4 cars to race at once, SCX requires you to buy the expansion power bases to allow 6 simultaneous cars. If three is all you need then you can save a lot of money, but if you need to support four drivers then cost might be a big factor with SCX.

As we mentioned elsewhere, with SCX you can only have one car on the track when programming the controller to the cars. This can be a bit of an inconvenience. You need to setup all your cars in the beginning. I have not done it myself yet, but if it supports it I would program two cars per controller in the beginning of a race session to allow each driver to have a backup car.

SCX allows you to vary the size of your fuel tank (all cars), adjust braking (per car), adjust the amount of fuel in your tank (per car), and lights (all cars). Mix this with the chronometer, lap counter tower and fuel towers and this is digital racing at its best... right out of the box. Granted, with SCX you really only have two speeds to the cars. Normal and less than normal, for beginners. With Carrera you actually set the maximum speed, and with Scalextric you are limited buy the aftermarket software that works with the Power Base pro.

Here's an aspect of fuel management that brings a debate. SCX's fuel management will actually run a car out of fuel... and the car is out of the race. This might be a bad thing as the person will want back in and the only thing to do is start over with all the cars. Carrera will eventually reduce the speed of the car to about 40% until they pit. This might be better than starting a race over, though it is less realistic. Some people would say that if you let yourself run out of gas you deserve to come to a stop and be out of the race. But how often does realism get in the way of people having fun. I will leave this debate to others.

I LOVE SCX. I really want it. It has all the accessories I want and they look really cool. But I just can't get past this issue of cars and the expense of it all, mostly it's the cars. SCX has been the biggest disappointment in doing the research for these article. I want it, but I can't buy it. It's issues are too much for me to buck the system, lone wolf it, drive my own path. Sorry!


Conclusion

I promised I would have an answer to which brand was the best... for me. I am going to go with Scalextric!

I had made up my mind to go with Carrera despite its large size. However, two things stopped me. There is a chance I will not have as much room as I wanted for Carrera. I can sell my pool table to make room for the track, but I do not want to play on the floor. Carrera would require a sizable table to build a nice layout. This would mean dedicating my game room to Carrera. That is a tough choice to make, and I am not sure I can do it.

The second reason I eliminated Carrera was the aftermarket support for Scalextric. I like the idea of hooking up a computer to the power base to provide new features that the manufacturer did not include initially. In fact, as a programmer I am hoping that there is a API (Application Programming Interface) for the Scalextric Power Base Pro firmware. Then I could program my own enhancements.

Price was a huge consideration. Scalextric and Carrera are significantly more affordable than SXC and Ninco. Ninco's tight turning radii in their Master Track Asphalt set was just too much of a turn off. I eliminated Ninco very early for these reason.

Scalextric is sold at my local race track. So when I take my sons to the "big track" at the mall I can pick up some extras. This convenience factor works quite well.

SCX was the hardest to get around. They have the coolest looking hardware in the industry. SCX really is the Apple of the slot car brands. And their track is the iPod of digital slot car sets. Big, colorful, light up fuel towers, lap counters and chronometers. You just can't beat the elegance on the SCX track. I could live with the expense of SCX if it wasn't for the cars. And not the cars themselves, but a mechanic plunger on the cars to enable lane changing. You could easily ruin a car trying to convert it to SCX. The plunger sits where the front axle sits on regular cars. So you not only have to mount this plunger device, you have to figure out how to mount front wheel without an axle.

I might be able to forgive SCX if they had any kind of selection of Muscle Cars and other cool street cars. But almost all of SCX's offerings are race cars. If you don't care about the car selection and the possible problems with a hardware plunger on each car, and you can live with the higher price then go with SCX. Its feature set out of the box is second to none. It also has the best looking accessories. SCX is also sold at my local HobbyTown USA store. Although way on the other side of town, it is still a local venue to buy stuff without having to wait for something ordered over the Internet to come in the mail. Alas, I have to pass on SCX because of the lack of cars... and the price.

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