Back in 2001 I was one of the fortunate few to catch the ultra-micro R/C bug before it hit U.S. shores, discovering Tomy's first release of the revolutionary Bit Char-G 1/64th scales on eBay, being market tested by Hong Kong resellers. Over the following year, the ultra-micro phenomenon created a storm and "clone" manufacturers popped up left & right to try to keep up with the public's insatiable demand for these full-function desktop-conquering racers. Here we are in 2005 and though 1/64th scale frenzy has died down quite a bit, there are still new and exciting things happening. In this review I take a spin around the house with Radio Shack's recently released Zip Zaps MT, the first true offroad full-function ultra-micro R/C.
Even if Radio Shack's regular 1/12th to 1/8th scale R/C's were anywhere near the quality of the hobby-level vehicles I'm more familiar with, wouldn't there still be a sense of cheapness associated with buying a fully ready-made vehicle with a really gaudy body and nothing you can do to it recharge or change the batteries when they run down? This is a question that Radio Shack product development managers certainly wrote on conference room whiteboards in countless forms in the past few years, because the new product lines they've been coming out with recently have addressed the issue quite directly. The Zip Zaps MT is no exception.
This little bugger actually comes with assembly instructions! In fairness, all you need to do is put tires on wheels, put wheels on axles, put nuts on wheels, put the motor & one gear in the chassis, and attach the body, but it's just enough to make you feel like you're involved in the creation of the truck. (Just make sure you put the motor in the right way.) Plus, it gives you a chance to fiddle around with things & see how the whole unit is constructed. It's fun, and helps to get you anxious to charge it up & run it.
While we're on the topic of fiddling around, let's look at what makes the truck tick. First off, I can't wait a second longer to tell you, it's a 4WD truck. Yes, it's roughly 2.7" long and 2.5" wide, has conventional steering, is powered by a single motor, and delivers power to all four wheels. I might as well just end the review right here! This thing is awesome! But wait, there's more. It has real, sprung, independent front suspension too. Seriously...
Power gets from the high-mounted, hefty motor to the rear wheels through a reduction gear, to a solid rear axle. From there, a bevel gear transfers power forward on a solid shaft to a forward inboard drive, which then sends torque out to the front wheels via two absolutely miniscule composite dogbones. If you do not have very steady hands and an extreme excess of patience, I would not recommend repeating the trick I pulled off of actually pulling these parts out, unless you don't plan on putting them back (which may not be such a bad idea for some; more on this later).
The front suspension, unfortunately, is pretty useless, as the springs are too stiff to compress at all from the weight of the truck. They look cool, though, and perhaps if you can manage to either cut a couple coils off of each or find softer or shorter replacements in ball point pens, they'd actually be useful. The tires, though, are made of a moderately soft rubber and have a sufficiently aggressive tread to get good grip on non-dusty surfaces.
The body is quite good for this class of vehicle. It's a licensed replica of the real Bigfoot Ford and is fairly scale-looking. The cab should be a bit less tall, but it's still less of a caricature than the bodies found on many of other R/C's of this size, including Radio Shack's own regular onroad Zip Zaps. There are real, working head & tail lights, too, though they only come on when the vehicle is moving. I would have personally preferred a switch to turn them on & off.
All in all, fully assembled, it's a pretty sharp looking little truck.
Here are some comparison shots next to a regular Zip Zaps car and the Ultimate Bit Char-G:
Oh, and by the way, you can fit bodies from other Zip Zaps on the MT. Some will require a bit of coaxing or perhaps some trimming (don't trim your chassis to fit a body, because you won't be able to go back to the original shell if you want to), but they do work, and give you easy options for creating a very unique ride.
Alright! Time for the big test! From my experience with the Bit Char-G's, I knew that for a good time, you want to give these ultra-micros two battery charges in a row. This takes roughly a whopping 2 minutes and gives you better voltage and significantly increased runtime.
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The Zip Zaps MT suffers from a bad on-power push due to its all solid 4WD design. Imagine if you were challenged to a race by another ZZ MT owner. You'd put on the stickiest tires. You'd find the optimal motor/gearing combination. Then, you would pray that your driving skills were better than his, because he'd have the same tires, motor & gearing, leaving you with no technical advantage. Not a good sign, having to pray before an R/C race. Don't put yourself in a position where you need to. Instead, just give yourself an unfair technical advantage.
Stage 1: 2WD Stealth
If you're not going over some really rough terrain, removing power from the front tires will keep your steering system from having to fight your drive motor in a losing battle. This is straightforward, but requires precision handiwork. Unscrew and remove the lower chassis cover, taking great care to observe how the front suspension is assembled. Things will fall apart up there, and you'll need to know how to put them back. Remove the long center driveshaft, and while you're at it, take out the front transfer axle and the two little dogbones to save a little weight. When you're done, your truck will look stock unless you get up really close. However, you'll have trimmed at least an inch off of your turning radius.
Stage 2: You've got to be out of your mind
If you really want your truck to be as agile as a shopping cart, first go ahead and do the 2WD mod above. That's childs play compared to what comes next. Turn all of your tires around backwards. Then turn your motor upside-down. Finally, mount your body backwards. You will have created a front-wheel-drive, rear-steer monster truck. Try it out and you'll be amazed. This literally takes about 3 inches off of your turning radius. The only problem is, while reversing the motor allows you to use the throttle control normally, you still have to steer left to go right, and vice versa. If you have a very steady hand and familiarity with basic electronic circuits, take the cover off from your circuit board and reverse your steering wire connections. Next thing you know, your rival will be begging to pay you to do the mod to his truck as well.
The first time I put the truck down and started to run it, I was left paralyzed for a few seconds, utterly dumbfounded. It was slow. Really, really, slow. If I'm not mistaken, it's slower than a Bit Char-G or Microsizers car with the slowest ("1.0") motor available. However, this was only one of the two major things that contributed to my sudden stupor. The surface I set the truck down on was medium high-pile carpeting, something which even my dual-motor, geared-down, high-torque 6x4 Bit got bogged down in. The Zip Zaps MT, on the other hand, had no trouble whatsoever, and when I finally made it over to the linoleum kitchen floor, it hardly sped up at all, showing that it was indeed doing just fine on the carpet. Big tires, low gearing and a very slow (8k rpm), torquey motor; yep, that'll do it. Granted, you can get an upgrade set from Radio Shack that will at least double your speed. I would highly recommend purchasing the upgrade just to have the option.
Low speed & high torque have their distinct advantages, though. I was able to climb over small obstacles with surprising ease. I would actually like to get more traction out of the tires when attacking slippery objects, but some scuffing with sandpaper, customizing with a Dremel, or perhaps just a selection from the Radio Shack upgrade tire set would help in this regard. Nonetheless, the truck can climb a good 40% grade when it hooks up. It also pulls up a nice little wheelie sometimes, and will go 90 degrees onto its tailgate if you reverse & switch to forward quickly.
Steering does leave a bit to be desired, though. At speed, the truck exhibits quite a bit of push (understeer), enough to be frustrating at times, given the small size of the thing. The problem is that with some play present in the steering column, the big tires pull away from the intended steering radius when under power. Refer to the inset at right for my characteristically "outside of the box" methods for solving this issue.
Oh, I mentioned above that I gave the truck two charges. Coupled with the mild stock motor and conservative gearing, this gave me, no lie, over 21 minutes of runtime. I was driving over carpet, bedding, and small obstacles the entire time, with hardly a contiguous 1-second pause along the way. Twenty-one minutes of running after less than 2 minutes of charging. The ZZ MT uses two very small cells (smaller than the traditional Bit Char-G 1/3rd AAA) wired in parallel, and their combined storage capacity is obviously quite impressive. I swear, after 15 minutes of running this truck, I was becoming very annoyed that the batteries weren't wearing out! Honestly, though, excesses of this type are always good. This means you can go to a much hotter motor, and still expect excellent runtimes.
For the $24.99 price tag on the Zip Zaps MT's, it's hard to ask for more. They're tiny, good-looking, capable, and ripe for custom modification. The stock motor is slow, but an upgrade set with 3 different, faster choices costs just $6.99, for which price you can also get a set of 3 different tires choices (with wheels). If you like MT's and are fascinated by ultra-micros, or perhaps if you have a Bit Char-G or Microsizers car of your own and are disappointed by its terrain limitations, the Zip Zaps MT is a must buy. I bought mine with the intention of reviewing it & selling it, but there's been a change of plans. This one stays with me.