Big wheels a big deal

Big wheels
A little band of rubber around a BIG wheel.

Big wheels

Wheels are the cosmetic jewelry of the auto industry. From the time a designer sketches a proposal for a new vehicle, to the time its’ third owner gets through personalizing it, big wheels and tires often become a prominent feature of any vehicle. A sure sign of the significance of this trend is an aftermarket wheel industry comprised of more than 145 companies generating annual revenues approaching $1 billion! That’s big business by any standard.

And a business the automakers want a piece of. Wheels are the largest, most expensive and most common modification made to a vehicle. At an average cost of $1,500 per set (wheels and tires) at retail, this is money going elsewhere. In some cases it may even represents more profit potential than the actual vehicle itself! Dealers have long been enjoying the benefits of this swap at or shortly after purchase. Now manufacturers are getting into the game, in a major way. You can buy the lowest priced vehicle in a model line and dress it up with a set of great looking wheels – right from the factory. The very same car with no other modifications looks a lot better with a set of 18-inch alloys wrapped in low-profile rubber than it does with lowly 16-inchers barely covered by a plastic hub-cap.

Designers have always favored large wheels and tires. But engineering and marketing decisions often prevent the idea from getting through to actual production. To obtain the desired ride quality and keep the parts from falling off, engineers like tires with large sidewalls – the part of the tire between road and rim. These 50 to 70 -series tires are very much part of the suspension, helping the shock absorbers cushion the ride. They are also dirt cheap when purchased by the millions.

But consumer demand – combined with pressure from the designers has resulted in bigger wheels wearing lower profile rubber. The overall height of the entire wheel-tire package remained the same, but the wheel is much more prominent. With the added engineering potential of computers and requirements for meeting crash standards, chassis design has became much more sophisticated. Engineers are no longer dependant on the tire sidewall for shock absorption.

Voila, big wheels and tires right from the assembly line. The factory-engineered and warranted 18-inch and larger wheel has become common practice. In pickups that number is 20 and growing. You simply add the extra to the bottom line and roll it into the monthly payment. Relatively painless. Until the snow flies, or you have to replace those big meats. Opting for the larger wheel-tire combo is a great idea, until it becomes replacement time, either for weather or wear.

As rule of thumb, the lower the profile the higher the price. Many consumers are opting for the standard, inexpensive steel wheel for their winter tires, and the big alloys for summer use.

About Richard 166 Articles
At the age of five I was already obsessed with all things automotive being able to identify the make and model of car by just the sound of its engine going down the street in front of our house in the small town on the south shore of Nova Scotia. Although I have been covering and writing about the automotive scene for more than 40 years and the light still grows brightly.