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A New Set of Wheels?

Thinking about an upgrade to aftermarket wheels? Are they just flash, or worth the cash?

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March 2008 author photo


If you want an appearance change for your car and better handling, too, a set of shiny new wheels is a way to start. But without careful choosing and practical considerations, those who buy aftermarket wheels for purely cosmetic reasons might be dismayed that ride quality has deteriorated and handling isn't really better.

Keep in mind that a change in wheels often can change - quite dramatically - the way a car rides and handles, sometimes for the better but also sometimes for the worse. If your car has not been upgraded in other ways (i.e. suspension, engine power, or vehicle weight), going to larger wheels and tires with smaller, stiffer sidewalls might just zero in on other inadequacies in your suspension. Look at it this way: There was a reason for the original wheel to be the size that it was. Sometimes it's just for cost, but usually it's because the manufacturer decided the setup would best maintain comfort and stability and keep handling safe near the limits.

Something else to remember is the cost factor of tires. Many aftermarket wheels are a long-term investment, and people tend to forget about the tires. Many of these wheels require special tires that are very expensive, need to be special ordered, and replaced frequently.

On the other hand, if you have a sporty car with heavy steel wheels and keep the same tires, you might be able to feel a real difference for the better in braking and handling from a same-size set of rigid, lightweight forged alloys.

There's a dizzying array of choices in aftermarket wheels, with products varying greatly in price, overall quality, and in several other ways:

Material. Steel wheels are still standard equipment on many automobiles. They'll take a lot of abuse, but they're also heavy and unattractive. Aluminum alloy wheels are the most popular in automobiles today. Styled alloy wheels are attractive, light, and quite strong, but they are very susceptible to damage from curbs, flat tires, and tire changes. Magnesium alloy wheels and composites are even lighter and stronger. They're used mostly in sports cars and supercars, where the combination of light weight and high strength are important to handling and performance.

Finish. Painted wheels tend to show scuffmarks from parallel parking, and their finish fades with time. Powder-coated wheels are a more expensive, longer-lasting, and sharper-looking option. Lustrous plated wheels are becoming increasingly popular, but make sure that they are really electroplated and not just painted.

Construction. Alloy wheels can generally be split into two kinds by construction: cast and forged. Forged wheels are generally regarded as superior, and they're also significantly more expensive.

Design. You should choose a wheel design that protects brake hardware while at the same time providing enough passages in the wheel for air to cool the brakes. There are a few designs that look great but just don't provide enough crossflow to adequately cool the brakes in performance driving. Also consider the side profile of the wheels and how easily curbs could scuff them.

What to consider as you start looking:

Decide how much you want to spend. Prices range from less than $30 per wheel to $1500 or more per wheel, depending on the manufacturer, purpose, style, and material. And that's not even counting the tire. How much do you want to spend for your entire tire and wheel combination?

Check with car clubs. If you have a sports car or a model with a loyal enthusiast following, check club sites for recommendations of which aftermarket wheels work best with your car.

Decide on a size. Consider what size wheels and tires you'd like to move up to. Remember that larger tires are very expensive. And as a general rule, the bigger the wheel, the worse the ride. Handling] might improve, though not necessarily.

Buy the rim according to the tire, not the tire according to the rim. "When people run into trouble, it's usually because they shopped for the tire after the wheel," says Bob DeYoung, Sales Manager at Cragar Wheels, "That's backwards." First decide which tire size you would like to install in your vehicle, and get recommendations from the tire manufacturer as to what type of rim works with the tire. Just because a tire fits on a particular rim does not mean it is compatible. Tire sidewall strength, the rim lip and tire bead type (the seal between tire and rim), load ratings, and the offset of the OE wheels are all factors that might affect compatibility.

Bigger is not always better. Bigger wheels or wider tires will not necessarily yield better performance]. By making either of these changes, you just shift more load to smaller tire sidewalls, meaning that the sidewalls need to be harder. The ride won't be as forgiving, and the handling might not be either.

Look before you buy. Make sure you know what you're getting into. Many rim styles look very different in person than they do in a catalog or on a Web site. See the wheel style in a showroom or mounted on another vehicle before you buy.

Fit-check the wheel first. Once you decide on tires and wheels, most wheel manufacturers won't refund a wheel purchase after a tire has been mounted on it. When your vehicle is up on the stand, have your installer put the wheel in place and do a visual check for fit before mounting the tire. If there is a possibility of interference, go to a smaller wheel size rather than risking reselling them as used or having to only get partial value on trade.

Never use spacers to offset the wheel and allow a larger size to fit, and don't use offset wheels if your vehicle didn't originally come with them. Offsetting is when the wheel bulges out from the mounting surface more on the outside than the inside, enabling exceptionally wide tires. Street-racer types - and some installers, too - might convince you that it's okay, but according to wheel makers it's not a safe practice. It will put an undue strain on the wheel bearings, and the wheel will be nearly impossible to balance perfectly.

Balance your wheels and tires frequently. Even minor potholes can throw rims off balance or damage them slightly. If you don't periodically balance your tires and wheels, it can greatly reduce the life of your tires and potentially damage your wheels further.

©2008 by The Car Connection™ All Rights Reserved - The Car Connection is a Trademark of DA Acquisition
This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
A New Set of Wheels? - Autotrader