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Wheels have been evolving ever since ancient civilizations started whipping up killer dubs for their wagons. Throughout thousands of years, humans have produced some sweet variants with significantly different properties. When you pick up a wheel catalog these days, you don’t have to sort through wooden and stone offerings, but you do have to balance the options of steel and aluminum. Beyond those two, decisions are further complicated by the availability of more complex materials like carbon fiber, magnesium, and titanium.
Buying car parts shouldn’t be a source of anger or anxiety, however. It should be a joyous occasion, and The Drive wants to facilitate the decision process. Once you understand the pros and cons of each type, you’ll know which belongs to your car.
In this explanatory guide, we’ll talk about some of the material choices you’ll come across during wheel selection. Along the way, we’ll dive into some other key characteristics you might be curious about as well. All that should be left on your mind is fitment and styling.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Steel Wheels?
Steel wheels get a bad rap because they're typically the heaviest of the bunch and they don't tend to be quite as pretty as the others. However, steel wheels do have their strong points.
Steel is a go-to option for many because of cost. It’s almost always your most affordable option.
Steel is also typically much stronger and resistant to bending or cracking than other wheel materials. Not only is it great for a budget build, it's the premier choice for heavy lifters that see plenty of hard use on unforgiving surfaces.
As strong steel is, there's no arguing that it's a heavier material than aluminum or other, more exotic wheel materials. That means your vehicle needs to work harder in most cases to accelerate and stay moving when equipped with steel wheels.
The Basset Inertia Advantage is a steel wheel but is among the lightest wheel options on the market. However, it’s not a DOT-approved model. Most wheels that are safe for street use are going to be heavier than most wheels of a similar size.
Some folks will also argue that steel wheels aren't as good looking as other choices. We agree that they don't traditionally offer the most complex designs, but it ultimately comes down to personal preference. After all, steel wheels can look amazing on the right builds.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Aluminum Wheels?
Aluminum is most likely the material you'd choose if you were to pick out a set of aftermarket wheels. When it comes to performance and appearance, aluminum is usually steps above steel. It's what most iconic wheels are made of today.
Aluminum might not be as strong as steel, but it can handle day-to-day use and even more demanding situations. You probably don't have to worry about a pothole blasting your aluminum wheels to bits if you're driving under regular conditions, although it is possible on vehicles with low-profile tires. You can always take a look at stronger options if wheel strength is a major concern for your application. We'll come back to that in a moment.
The weight savings of aluminum is nothing to scoff at, either. Less weight reduces the workload on your driveline for better acceleration and efficiency. You can argue that these gains are minimal, but if performance is your goal, it makes sense to run lightweight wheels.
Your vehicle’s appearance comes down to personal preference, but we like aluminum wheels as the stylish choice. Most interesting wheel designs rely on this material.
Aluminum has many advantages. The only reasons not to consider it (aside from styling preferences) on a street-driven application would be price and strength. Aluminum is light but not necessarily flimsy or weak. It's just not going to handle the extreme stresses that some steel wheels can. It ultimately comes down to the wheels you're considering because there are aluminum wheels that could outshine steel wheels in this area.
The cost of aluminum also isn't so bad that it makes aluminum wheels unattainable to the average person. But if you're on a shoestring budget, the meager price of steelies is hard to ignore.
What About Cast and Forged Wheels?
The way aluminum wheels are made can affect their strength. It depends on whether the wheels are cast, forged, or rotary forged.
With casting, the molten aluminum is poured into a mold and cools to take the shape of your wheel. That’s followed by machining to clean things up and apply certain styling, but no other steps follow to strengthen the wheel's structure. Because the manufacturing process is so simple, the savings are passed on to you.
Forging leads to better results in terms of strength because it refines the grain structure of the material. Just like wood, metals have a grain. Forging helps to line the grain up, allowing it to offer better structural integrity. It's the same principle that applies to forged components used in your rotating assembly.
A forged wheel begins life as a solid block of billet aluminum that is then shaped into a wheel. It’s not melted down. The process can be complicated, and that is reflected in the higher price of forged wheels. The strength gains make it an obvious choice for applications that see plenty of hard use.
The third type, rotary-forged wheels, exist somewhere between forged and cast options. Rotary forging still involves the casting process. When the wheel leaves the mold, it’s placed on a rotary machine that applies force and heat to continue to shape the wheel. This helps it to harden the materials without adding much complexity to the manufacturing process. The result is a wheel that bridges the gap between forged and cast wheels in terms of strength, and the price is right down the middle as well.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Magnesium Wheels?
You might have heard your father say he ran a sweet set of mags back in the day, and you probably wondered what the heck he was talking about. Well, magnesium was once king of the hill when it came to lightweight materials for wheels.
If you're like me, however, the Le Mans disaster of 1955 is the first thing to come to mind when you think about magnesium and automobiles. There are some inherent dangers of making wheels out of this flammable material. They have even been banned for use in some motorsports due to their history.
However, magnesium wheels still exist to this day because there are ways to reduce the risks. For one, the wheels are magnesium alloy, meaning they aren't completely made from one material. Calcium is often added to the alloy, which counteracts the magnesium's flammable nature.
Even if it's not quite as common as it once was, you can still obtain magnesium alloy wheels. Its primary benefits include its lightweight and superior dampening properties, making for a smoother ride. However, it is something of an exotic wheel material, and you can expect to pay a premium because of it.
Magnesium also has a shelf life, so you don't want to use them after so many years of age. Magnesium corrodes fairly rapidly, and the structure of the wheel is compromised because of it. So, if you can score a set of mags from the glory days, it's better to repurpose them as wall-hangers than to put them anywhere near your car.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Carbon-Fiber Wheels?
Carbon fiber is one of the best options for performance wheels. Most of today's high-performance vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Z06 Corvette, Ford Shelby Mustang GT350 and GT500, Ferarri 488 GTO, Koenigseggs, and Porsche 911 Turbo S either come standard with carbon-fiber wheels or offer them as an option.
There's no question that carbon fiber stands out for a performance build because it's stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum. You’ll have wheels that help the vehicle in all areas of performance without having to worry about their resilience to adverse conditions on the track.
That isn't to say carbon-fiber wheels are ideal for day-to-day use. They are generally intended for track use. The owner of a Shelby GT500 equipped with carbon-fiber wheels learned that when he hit something hard on a typical roadway.
As great as carbon fiber is, it's brittle. It doesn't flex like steel or aluminum and will shatter under excessive forces. We can't say what the driver of that Shelby ran into, so there's no way to know if other materials would've survived, but we do know that the brittleness is an issue.
The owner of that Shelby had to shell out an excess of $7,000 for one wheel. That reminds us of the other drawback to carbon fiber wheels: the expense. Carbon fiber is neither cheap nor common for use in wheels. That means setting up your car with a set is going to demand a fortune. That paired with the structural concerns makes for a wheel that's not worth it for the average street-driven vehicle.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Titanium Wheels?
Yeah, titanium wheels are a real thing, and they’re pretty insane. Titanium is as strong as steel but about half the weight. It also happens to have fantastic corrosion-resistance properties like aluminum does. If you’re scratching your head wondering why it isn’t something we use more frequently, it’s because traditional manufacturing processes don’t agree with this material.
HRE Performance Wheels put 3-D printing to work to produce its titanium wheels. This process allowed the company to use titanium successfully and achieve unbelievably gorgeous designs. However, titanium is reserved for use in the hub and spoke portions, while the wheel's barrel is crafted using carbon fiber.
The advantage of the material used in wheels is that you get the high strength of steel without the weight, a combination that’s very desirable for performance purposes. When it’s paired with a complex manufacturing process, you’re able to capitalize on that strength-to-weight ratio by cutting off the fat for a remarkable appearance.
With the use of exotic materials and complex manufacturing processes comes an increase in price. The HRE wheel was a concept meant to push wheel development forward, but anything with hand-finishing and manufacturing is going to be expensive. After all, this is a wheel meant for high-end applications.
What About Piece Count?
Hang on, we're not quite done yet. Another thing you're going to come across when comparing and shopping for wheels are terms like two-piece and three-piece wheels. These options are different from a single-piece wheel in how they are structured and how they are manufactured.
A single-piece wheel is simply a wheel that's made entirely as a single piece. That means the main body of the wheel and your centerpiece are made from a single chunk of metal. The primary benefit of this process is that it's simple, and you aren't paying anything extra for additional work.
However, building an entire wheel in one shot creates some impossibilities from a machining standpoint and leaves room for some pieces to be stronger than others. By manufacturing the wheel in pieces, each piece can be of much better quality and this allows room for more complicated wheel designs. It allows manufacturers to put more time and detail into parts such as the barrel by breaking it into multiple pieces or even the center section in a three-piece wheel. Because the process becomes more complicated as wheel piece count increases, you can expect to pay more for a two-piece and three-piece wheels.
A Glossary of Wheel Terms
A slang term for magnesium-alloy wheels. It was something commonly used to describe wheels on older vehicles. You might still hear people calling old-school wheels mags, but they likely aren't made from magnesium. Even wheels styled like the wheels made famous in the era when magnesium was commonly used are now made of aluminum.
A material that combines two or more metals. In aluminum-alloy wheels, aluminum may be mixed with iron, copper, silica, zinc, or even magnesium. The same is true for modern magnesium-alloy wheels, which often consist of magnesium, aluminum, or calcium. By mixing materials, desirable properties can be enhanced, and production costs might even be lowered.
Forged materials are those subject to tremendous forces to change their molecular structure. Metals have a grain, and when they are cast into a mold, the misalignment of the molecules disrupts that natural structure, compromising strength. By subjecting the material to tremendous forces, those molecules are pressed into a better structure, thereby restoring or boosting the wheel’s integrity. This process can either be done by forging an entire block and then cutting your shape from that block or forging the wheel during the shaping process after casting with a rotary forge.
FAQs About Wheel Materials
You’ve got questions. The Drive has answers.
Q: What is the best car wheel material?
A: At the end of the day, aluminum is likely the best option for the average car. There are so many aluminum options that it's hard not to find one that's a perfect match. Many are also affordable and built to endure the stresses of day-to-day use and then some.
Q: What are the parts of a wheel?
A: Wheels can be broken down into numerous parts, which warrants a discussion in itself. However, we can simplify the structure by breaking it down into three main parts: the barrel, center section, and mounting hub. The barrel is the outer portion of the wheel, the center section is the supportive structure that includes your spokes, and the hub is the mounting surface in the middle. This is not a thorough description of a wheel's anatomy, but it's enough to give you a basic understanding.
Q: Are magnesium wheels safe?
A: Magnesium wheels are iffy. If they're brand new, they're perfectly safe. Again, modern alloys incorporate calcium to counter the flammable nature of the magnesium used. However, that's not the case for many older wheels. Also, magnesium corrodes and isn't safe for use after 15 years or so.
Q: What wheels are the most expensive?
A: Carbon-fiber wheels are the most expensive. You are bound to find a designer wheel made from other, more costly materials than the average carbon-fiber wheel, but that's not the typical situation folks find themselves in.
Q. Which rims are strongest?
A: Carbon fiber does give steel a run for its money, and it's a stronger material in many ways. Aluminum wheels are also no slouch in this category, and some can outshine many steel offerings. However, there's simply no replacement for steel for overall strength. You pay for structural integrity on account of the weight, but there's no substitute for heavy-duty applications.
We know we dumped a lot on you, and it might be hard to remember much of what we talked about. So, we attached a quick video to recap the pros and cons of steel and aluminum wheels. It doesn’t touch on the exotic materials, but those aren’t the choices most drivers are bound to go with anyway.
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