Why Wheel Material Matters: The Best Type For Your Driving Style
There are so many different wheel designs out there that it can be easy to get lost when it comes time to choose a set for your ride. Moving beyond simple looks, not all wheel types are a great match for all driving styles, and a lot of the time it comes down to the materials wheels are built from. A set of rims that is perfect for daily driving or cruising might not cut it for someone intent on trail driving or weekend racing, while the most hardcore wheel materials out there may not be a safe choice for the street.
Let's take a look at each of the major types of wheel materials currently available, and examine how they can impact cost and construction so you can make the right choice for your own personal driving style.
The most common material on the market, steel plays a number of different roles in terms of wheel design. There's no denying that steel is most often chosen for cost-sensitive applications, which is why it's the wheel of choice for commercial fleets, low-spec pickups, trucks, and SUVs, and other vehicles where style takes a back seat to price.
When most people think of steel wheels they tend to focus on the downsides, which include limited design choices and considerably heavier weight than almost any other material available. That being said, steel wheels have their place not only on the aftermarket, but also from OEMs thanks to recent renewed interest from customers in the pickup and off-road space, where "steelies" have become shorthand for retro cool.
In addition to being more affordable, and their surprising esthetic resurgence, steel wheels are also known for being durable over the long term. A good set of steel wheels is resistant to cracking when traveling over terrain that would punish other metals. If anything, a steel wheel tends to bend when damaged, making them easier to DIY repair.
Put all of the above together, there's a specific driving profile that emerges as a solid match for steel wheels. Budget-conscious off-roaders who are seeking a strong wheel that won't cost an arm and a leg understandably gravitate towards steel rims, particularly now that steelies have become a fashionable accessory for more rugged vehicle builds. On the trail, the additional mass of a steel wheel is less of a liability than it would be on the street, where unsprung weight can hamper performance in a muscle car or sports car.
It's also worth noting that a bent steel wheel can be repaired out on the trail, while a shattered rim made of any other material has to be replaced. If a steel wheel is so damaged that it does need to be swapped out, it's far easier to find a steelie to replace it than a matching alloy rim, for example.
Alloy rims are made out of a mixture of aluminum and another metal (typically nickel or magnesium), a choice that makes them much lighter than a steel wheel. Although the difference in weight when comparing a single aluminum rim to a steelie might not always be large, when multiplied by four that full set is often lighter to the point where it can make a real difference in acceleration, handling, and braking. They are also offered in the widest possible range of styles, as aluminum alloy is much easier to work with than steel.
Despite being lighter, aluminum rims are still quite strong. Just how tough an aluminum wheel is depends on how it is constructed. Wheels that are cast (the same way a steel wheel is made) are at the bottom of the durability ladder, followed by flow-formed cast rim, and finally forged alloy rims. The latter uses the least amount of material required to make the strongest possible wheel, giving it an advantage on the scale as well as in terms of resistance to damage. That being said, aluminum wheels are more expensive than steel, and forged wheels are the most expensive alloy you can get.
Entry-level cast aluminum wheels are perfect for daily driving, especially for those who want a reasonably lightweight, but still great-looking upgrade over steel rims. They're also suitable for light off-roading. Flow-formed wheels serve as an interim step that shaves off a bit more weight from each rim, but doesn't cost quite as much as a forged set. Finally, forged rims are ideal for drivers who regularly hit the track and who need the lightest and strongest wheels money can buy. They're also a strong choice for drivers who put their vehicle through exceptional abuse on the trail or on high speed desert runs.
Carbon fiber wheels first made a splash in the auto racing and motorcycle worlds before moving over to street cars and trucks over the course of the past several years. The aftermarket isn't the only place to find wheels made out of carbon fiber, either, as factory models like the Ford Mustang GT350R and the Chevrolet Corvette Z06 have made this them available on the order sheet.
Carbon fiber is a material made from filaments of carbon that are woven together, and the material is up to five times stronger and considerably stiffer than steel. In addition, carbon fiber does an excellent job resisting heat. When compared to a traditional aluminum alloy rim, a carbon fiber rim can be up to 50% lighter without any reduction in strength. It's also easier to shape carbon fiber into a more aerodynamic form when compared to a metal, which can make a difference at very high speeds (while also imparting efficiency advantages in regular driving).
All of the above comes with a phenomenal price tag, which is usually many multiples of what a set of forged aluminum rim would cost. In addition, carbon fiber is more likely to shatter as the result of an extreme impact when compared to a metal rim, as it's less capable of absorbing that type of energy (and can't bend like aluminum or steel).
With this in mind, it's clear that carbon fiber rims are best suited for drivers who are willing to spare no expense to shed a few tenths of a second per lap on the race track. On the street, the advantages provided by the lightness of this material is more than balanced out by its extreme cost, not to mention the concerns about what could happen should a pothole go undetected. In an off-road situation, carbon fiber wheels are a non-starter outside of a competition setting.