Two Problems ECX Has to Fix... Now (Opinion)

ECX has had a tumultuous history. First introduced in 2010 (and called Electrix back then), they were the answer for dealers looking for a low-cost alternative to the toy industry cars like Nikko and Tyco. They were also aimed squarely at Duratrax, the low-cost R/C car line from their chief competitors, Hobbico; a suspicion that was later confirmed by ECX.

We carried their first batch of vehicles alongside their Traxxas counterparts during the Christmas season of 2010. When we started seeing customers having problems with the ECX radio systems, we dropped the line. I later confirmed there was a problem with the low-end radio systems ECX had used, and that they chased the problem for months and months before making the decision to drop the 27AM radios entirely.

In October of 2012, ECX made a comeback. They shed their problematic radios for 2.4GHz units, upgraded their electronics to be waterproof, and included a 2-Amp peak charger in the box. This drive up the price a bit, but they still maintained their sub $200 price points. We brought back the line and it sold well with few problems.

Since the epic return of ECX to our shelves, they have cemented themselves a position in our R/C car line up. Duratrax hasn’t responded to the increased competition in a meaningful way, meaning ECX has completed the mission they had at the outset. Now it seems they’ve set their sights on Traxxas. But if in fact they want to eat into Traxxas’ market share, they have missed the mark. Here are the two biggest problems (and solutions) for the ECX line.

Problem: Durability

ECX is a durable brand of cars. Too durable, in fact. Since we’ve been selling ECX (after the 2012 reboot), our parts sales have declined sharply. ECX vehicles don’t break regularly enough to sustain the brand. Selling cars is nice, but the simple fact is that hobby shops don’t make much at all on the vehicles we sell. What keeps R/C shops in business is the parts sales that come as a result of vehicle sales. Few broken parts makes it hard to sustain. Traxxas proved that the battle for market share and TOMA (Top Of Mind Awareness) is won in hobby shops. There's nary an R/C hobby shop out there that doesn't carry Traxxas. Make dealers happy and your market share will come.

Contrary to the rest of the vehicle, though, the Dynamite 15t motors that come on the Ruckus and the Torment have been blowing out right and left for about the last eight months; a problem compounded by Horizon’s inability to keep the motors in stock. Unfortunately, this problem comes at no surprise, as Traxxas has had this problem for years. It was an interesting topic of discussion among the dealers that attended the Horizon Academy summit in mid-July. While neither Traxxas nor ECX have come out with a statement acknowledging the problems, dealers do talk to each other, and it’s no secret these motors are incredibly cheaply made. And while both Horizon and Traxxas have been willing to replace motors for dealers (to an extent), the constant drive back and forth to the hobby shop, time and time again, leaves customers frustrated.

Solution: New Motors / Hop-Up Parts

The first thing ECX needs to do is find a new source for motors. In fact, why not be the first brand in a long time to supply consumers with an open end-bell motor? It would greatly increase the durability of the power system, and dealers could sell new brushes to customers instead of swapping out defective motors all the time! It’s a win-win, even if the price has to rise slightly. But if Atomik R/C can field a $25 15-turn open end-bell motor, I suspect it wouldn’t significantly raise the price of the cars. This would also offer them the chance to differentiate themselves with Traxxas, since, as I discussed above, the motor problem isn’t limited to any one manufacturer.

Given that the durability of the ECX line is its hallmark, taking that away would be detrimental to their bottom line. But dealers are having a tough time sustaining parts sales because ECX trucks don’t break easily. In addition, there is a huge demand for upgrades from our customers who purchased a Ruckus or Torment last Christmas, and want to upgrade the trucks. So without compromising the integrity of their stock parts, ECX can help dealers by introducing a line of hop-up parts, helping to compensate for the lack of stock part sales.

It may seem odd that CNC aluminum parts are a requested upgrade. But durability is only one reason people trick out their vehicles with aluminum. The other reason is far less practical, yet no less important: because it looks cool. Sure, this has a chance to actually lessen the durability of the car, but if people want aluminum hop-up parts, why not let them buy them? Dynamite did CNC aluminum hop-ups for Traxxas vehicles - why not make some for a sister brand like ECX?

ECX already makes aluminum shocks for their 2WD vehicles, but they still come with plastic shock caps. This just looks stupid on the actually very nice shocks. Replacing the plastic caps with aluminum shock caps would make these upgrades more attractive.

ECX has already corrected a problem with their driveshafts once, when they switched over to 2.4Ghz radios. Still, this is the only part our customers break with any regularity. Many of them have asked about steel CVDs for their trucks, and we have had to explain that no one makes CVD for the ECX 2WD trucks. I’m not going to hold my breath for MIP to make some; ECX has been out far longer than Vaterra, yet MIP already has CVDs for the Twin Hammers. So it’s up to ECX to come out with some steel CVDs for their trucks. It would be a great upgrade for people already clamoring for them.

Problem: Poor Handling & Performance

Let's face it: the performance and handling of these vehicles is severely lacking. This, in fact, brings us back to the durability discussion. It is my belief that durability and performance are inversely proportional. For all the durability the ECX vehicles have, they handle just as bad. The plastic linkages, the sloppy servo saver, and overall lack of tightness in the suspension and steering make for a vehicle that isn’t any fun to drive for someone at all experienced in the hobby.

At first glance, this isn't really a problem for ECX. They have positioned themselves as the beginner’s brand; beginners that don't know how a vehicle built to balance durability and performance is meant to handle. But as ECX users begin to advance in the hobby, they will want to upgrade their vehicles. And when they start putting brushless motors and LiPo batteries in their trucks, they're going to notice the truck not turning as well. They'll notice how the trucks can't really backup in a straight line. In the end, many customers have opted to sell off their ECX vehicles and switch to Traxxas or other similar brands as they progress through the hobby, leaving ECX with little market share in high-end bashers.

Solution: New Steering Assembly / Optional Metal Linkages

Usually I like having the servo saver built into the bellcranks. It saves space, and servo savers are always wearing out. Having the servo saver built in is more efficient in almost every way. However, on the ECX 2WD line, the majority of the slop in the steering is in the servo saver, and there’s no way to effectively eliminate the slop because of it. The best you can do is zip-tie around the “spring”, which only works if you can get the zip-tie to stay in place (it’s harder than it sounds).

Re-configuring the steering assembly isn’t an easy task, but it would allow seasoned drivers to remove the slop by replacing the servo saver with a solid arm. Out of the box, they could be as durable as ever, and when someone wants better performance from their steering, they could achieve it without hassle. In fact, the newly-released 1/18 scale Ruckus and Torment actually use this method for steering, and the improvement to performance is immediately noticeable. If only ECX would use this method on their 1/10th 2WD vehicles.

Short of reworking the entire steering assembly, an optional stiffer spring for the built-in servo saver would help tremendously. It wouldn’t completely eliminate all of the play in the steering, but it’s better than nothing at all.

While not as important as fixing the servo saver, stainless steel or aluminum camber and toe links, with captured ball ends, would help shore up some play in the steering. The plastic camber and toe links bend too much. Producing a metal turnbuckle alternative goes a long way to solving the performance problem. And captured ball ends don’t wear out like uncaptured ones do, reducing the slop from wear and tear.

Personally, I like ECX as a brand, much as I like Horizon as a company. I’ve championed the ECX line in our store. But my ambitions for what I thought ECX could be haven’t been met. They could be so much more than they currently are. The door for another basher-centric R/C car company has been flung wide open. There are a lot of brands trying to be that second company: ARRMA, Red Cat Racing, and Duratrax are only a few of the companies trying to gain that available market share along with ECX. I feel that ECX is in position to put the others to shame and close the door behind them.

But to be the best, you have to beat the best. And in terms of value to the end user, ECX has not bested Traxxas, who long ago discovered the proper balance between durability and performance, and rode that discovery to unparalleled success in the industry. ECX has to be willing to innovate in ways Traxxas can’t, and has to be willing to look not at just the beginner, but where that beginner will be in a year’s time. ECX serves the beginner well; they drop the ball when it comes to continuing to offer value a year after purchase.

With a few changes to their vehicles and business model, they could be the best competition Traxxas has ever faced. I even think they could eventually become more dominant than Traxxas over the long haul. With their excellent customer service, reasonable pricing structure, and durability, ECX has plenty going for it. But let’s not let them rest on their laurels. ECX needs to jump to the next level - and they can. They just have to want to.

Update • February 7, 2015

Since publishing this article a year and a half ago, ECX has made some positive changes. They introduced a line of aluminum hop-up parts for their 2WD vehicles. This is a step in the right direction, though they still don't have a similar line of hop-ups for their 4WD trucks, which have been out for about a year at this point. There's still plenty of room for improvement.

RPM has also decided there was enough interest in the ECX line to make a series of hop-ups for them as well. From front and rear a-arms to caster blocks to bearing carriers, RPM has done all the usual parts. But it's their "Servo Saver Eliminator Bellcrank" that really makes a difference. This will get rid of the slop in the steering and eliminate the wandering tendencies of the trucks. This is essentially what I asked for from ECX, but didn't have any idea that someone else would fix their mistake. Kudos to RPM for seeing an opportunity and running with it.

While we still won't be putting ECX on the shelf in the foreseeable future, these upgrades make ECX a much more solid contender than before.