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Why Do Hybrid Cars Have Such Strange Wheels?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro May 2017

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.

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.

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Why Do Hybrid Cars Have Such Strange Wheels? - Autotrader