Search Cars for Sale

Why Do Hybrid Cars Have Such Strange Wheels?

Hello and welcome to Ask Doug, your favorite feature here on Oversteer, except for all of the others. This is where you write in with a pressing automotive question, and Doug answers it for you in a way that only Doug can: with approximately 80 percent reality and 20 percent pure fantasy.

If you’d like to participate in Ask Doug, you can! Just email me at OversteerDoug@gmail.com, and I will be more than happy to feature your letter here on the site, assuming that it’s good. If it’s not good, I may print it out and throw it away in my trash can, forcefully, just to get my point across.

This week’s letter comes from a reader I’ve named Milner. Milner writes:

Hi Doug,

This is something I’ve noticed recently. Why do hybrid versions of regular cars have such odd wheels? I’m not talking about hybrid-only cars like the Prius or Insight, but cars where "Hybrid" is an option, like the Fusion Hybrid, or Sonota hybrid. They always seem to be very flat, and have only a few spokes with the alloy spaced very far out, or so many spokes that I lose count. Either way the brakes are usually hidden. Yet I see hybrid-only cars (like the Prius) that have regular 5-6 spoke wheels where the brakes are clearly visible. Is this any specific reason for this?

Thanks!

Milner

Basically, what Milner is asking here is why do hybrid cars — specifically hybrid versions of normal cars — have such unusual wheel designs? It’s an excellent question, and I feel confident that I am an expert in this matter, in the sense that I, too, have seen hybrid cars on the road.

Let’s start with a discussion of wheel designs in all hybrid cars and then circle back to hybrid versions of normal cars. The main reason that hybrid vehicles tend to use wheels that look a little different than normal wheels is simple: aerodynamics. While a normal car can get away with having a couple of spokes or whatever, the best wheel for a hybrid is one that’s almost completely flat — like a race car you’d see on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Although I am not personally a wind engineer, which is technically defined as someone who blows on things and watches where the air goes, I suspect the reason for this is that normal wheels, with their big, open holes, mess with the aerodynamics and rob the car of precious fuel economy. Whereas weird wheels, like the ones many hybrid models use, are specifically designed for aerodynamics, prioritizing gas mileage above all else.

However, not all unique hybrid models use these strange wheels — whereas virtually all hybrid versions of normal models do, as Milner pointed out. So what’s the reason?

The reason is simple. When an automaker is creating a hybrid car from scratch, with no gasoline version on the market — like the Honda CR-Z or the Kia Niro — they don’t have to worry about extracting every single drop of fuel economy, since there’s no gas model that consumers will be comparing it to. So they might take some liberties with the styling of the car just to make it more appealing to consumers — even if that means surrendering a few tenths of gas mileage.

With a hybrid version of a normal car, however, automakers can’t take that risk: Consumers will be comparing the Ford Fusion to the Ford Fusion Hybrid, for example, and deciding whether it’s really worth paying more for the hybrid model — and that means the hybrid version needs to get as much fuel economy as humanly possible. As a result, automakers pull out every single trick in the book for these situations, including these aerodynamic wheels.

And, Milner, it’s not just hybrid versions of normal cars. In fact, some of the craziest-looking wheels come on "ultra-efficient" gas-powered models, which don’t even benefit from a hybrid engine to return better fuel economy. I’m specifically thinking of the Ford Focus SFE, which I think stood for "Special Fuel Economy." That model used wheels that were almost completely flat, on the theory that it really did need every advantage it could have over the standard Focus in order to return whatever fuel economy numbers they were shooting for.

And there’s the answer. Now Milner can sleep easily — knowing precisely why car companies make their wheel decisions — along with all of the nine other humans who wanted to know the answer to this one. Find a hybrid for sale

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

MORE FROM OVERSTEER:
The ACMAT ALTV Is the Strangest Nissan Frontier You’ll Ever See
Miracle of the 1980s: The Talking Car
Autotrader Find: One-Owner, Low-Mileage Jeep Grand Wagoneer … for $54,900

 
Doug Demuro
Doug DeMuro writes articles and makes videos, mainly about cars. Doug was born in Denver, Colorado, and received an economics degree from Emory University in Atlanta. After graduation, Doug spent three years working for Porsche Cars North America. Eventually, he quit his job to become a writer, largely because it meant that he no longer had to wear pants. Doug’s work has been featured in a... Read More about Doug Demuro

Sign up for Autotrader newsletters

The best cars and best deals delivered to your inbox

Email Address 

By subscribing, you agree to our privacy policy

Where You Can Buy

Loading dealers...

13 COMMENTS

  1. Certainly a rational explanation, but most hybrids will never see Bonneville-type speeds and therefore will have negligible aero gains from the flat wheel designs.  In fact, they would be better served with flat underbelly trays.

    There is a simpler explanation, signaling value.  
    Many eco-chic buyers want, no NEED, other people around them to know that they are saving the planet so they can look upon you with contempt in your 8 liter 10 cylinder Viper that needs to be refueled just to get out of a Wal-mart parking lot.  I’d wager this need for hybrid buyers to demonstrate to others how sensible they are is the primary driver for the old plastic hubcap covers making a resurgence.  Little do the drivers know their plastic hubcaps are made from *snicker* petroleum byproducts!

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles

2020 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid: First Look

The 2020 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid jumps to the head of the hybrid class.

Best Truck Deals: September 2021

These are the best deals on trucks for the month of September 2021.

Search By Style

More Articles Like This