Your vehicle’s wheels determine more than just appearance. Different wheels have varying levels of durability and effects on fuel economy. The right set of wheels can even improve handling. Understanding the different types of wheels can help you pick the right set for your car and driving style.
Rims vs Wheels
Many people use the word rim interchangeably with wheel. But the rim is actually just the outer lip of a wheel. When a wheel is pressed from a single piece of metal, the rim and wheel are closely connected. But there are several methods of wheel formation that leave the two separate.
Types of Rims
Safety rims are the primary type of rim you’ll see on passenger vehicles. These rims have bumps extending inward that hold the tire bead to the rim but away from the outer rim edge. The bumps get a lot of assistance from tire pressure, and won’t work as well if the tire is underinflated.
Heavier vehicles sometimes use a multi-piece rim assembly. These use a side ring or lock ring to hold the tire in place. You’ll find split rims on tractors, forklifts, and other heavy-duty utility vehicles.
Multi-piece wheels can be dangerous if they are suddenly separated. This means they’re considered an explosion risk. For this reason, you won’t usually encounter them on passenger vehicles.
Beadlocks are probably the most unique type of rim.
Beadlock rims are used for off-roading. Beadlocks physically clamp the tire bead to the rim. When tires have low pressure and are underinflated, they are more likely to come away from the rim. Beadlocks solve that problem by creating connections that don’t rely on pressure.
While there are a few beadlocks that are DOT compliant, most aren’t legal for road use. This is because of the off-chance that the bolts holding the tire to the rim could loosen. In general, beadlocks are very heavy, so most people are only interested in them for off-road use.
One of the most important attributes of a wheel is the material it’s made of. The material will determine the price, the weight, and the durability of your new wheels.
Steel wheels are the least expensive wheel option. Sometimes referred to as “steelies” these wheels have been used for years. Steel wheels are durable and easy to repair if damaged.
Unfortunately, steel wheels aren’t the most attractive option. While most manufacturers use steel wheels, they typically cover them with wheel covers. Good wheel covers can make steel wheels look a lot like alloys, but bad wheel covers look like cheap plastic.
Another unfortunate downside of steel wheels is how heavy they are. Steel wheels are by far the heaviest wheel option.
There are times when a set of heavy, durable wheels is exactly what you want. And that time is when it’s snowing. Many people keep a set of steel wheels around just for the winter months. The weight helps your car’s tires to dig into the snow, improving traction.
Alloy wheels mix multiple metals to gain the advantages of each. One of the primary metals used for this is aluminum, so these are sometimes referred to as aluminum rims. Magnesium is another popular component.
Alloy wheels are lighter than steel wheels. Their weight makes them more desirable for high performance driving. Alloy wheels are also generally considered more attractive.
Alloy wheels have better heat dissipation. This means that during hard braking, they can decrease the rate of brake failure from overheating.
Because of the way they’re manufactured, alloy wheels can have more intricate designs than steel wheels. They also have a wider variety of finishes.
The versatility of alloy wheels makes them the better choice for most drivers.
Carbon Fiber Wheels
Carbon fiber wheels are strong, light, and attractive. They’re also the most expensive wheels on the market. If damaged, carbon fiber wheels can’t be repaired the way steel and alloy wheels can be.
This means that outside of a Shelby GT350R or a serious performance car, you’re unlikely to see carbon fiber wheels. As the cost of carbon fiber production declines, they’ll likely surge in popularity.
Steel vs Alloy vs Carbon Fiber Wheels
|Harder to Repair
|Impossible to Repair
Wheel Manufacturing Processes
Wheels are manufactured in many different ways. These manufacturing methods have an effect on their durability and appearance.
Pressed Sheet Metal
Steel wheels are typically pressed from sheet metal then welded together. This is part of why steel wheels are so limited in design.
The steel is then painted and hidden beneath wheel covers or hubcaps.
Forged vs Cast Wheels
Alloy wheels are usually either forged or cast. Forged wheels are made from a solid block of metal that’s shaped and pressurized. Cast wheels are made by pouring liquid metal into a mold.
Cast wheels are less expensive. Because of how they’re made, they’re more likely to have pores though. These pores can lead to cracks. For normal driving, cast wheels are great. But for performance driving, the heat can cause the wheels to crack more quickly.
Forged wheels are lighter and stronger. They’re also more expensive.
1,2, and 3-Piece Wheel Construction
While cast wheels tend to be one-piece, forged wheels come in two and three piece options. This is where the distinction between wheel and rim is important. In 2-piece construction, the centerpiece and rim are two separate pieces. Each piece can have separate construction and properties.
In three piece construction the rim is further separated into two rim halves.
Bare metal corrodes quickly. This means that some kind of finish is necessary to keep your wheels looking great. These finishes often have properties of their own.
Wheels with chrome plating are sometimes referred to as “chrome wheels.” In fact, a wheel made entirely out of chrome would be expensive and impractical. Instead, a thin layer of chrome is applied to steel or alloy wheels.
Chrome plating is one of the more classic styles of wheel finish. A mirror-reflective chrome finish looks right at home at a classic auto show.
Chrome is very susceptible to pitting. Any scratch can lead to quick oxidation. Mild pitting can be dealt with at home. Because of the environmental impacts of chromium, getting wheels replated can be very costly. This means that caring for chrome-plated wheels should be done regularly. It’s best to use a soft rag and mild soap. A wheel protectant can also be helpful.
Powder coating is durable and attractive. This technique also allows for bold, bright colors.
You need professional equipment to apply a powder coat, which makes touching up the finish nearly impossible. Fortunately, with regular cleaning, touch-ups shouldn’t be needed frequently.
The most important rule for cleaning powder-coated wheels is not to use bleach. You should also check to make sure you’re using a non-acidic wheel cleaner.
If you love the look of polished metal, you’re not alone. Especially for machined wheels, there’s a clean elegance to bare metal. A clear coat allows for that brilliance to shine through without worry of corrosion.
Many also follow a paint layer with a clear coat to keep colors bright for years to come.
Though clear coated wheels look metal, it’s very important to not use metal polish on them. Metal polish is designed to be abrasive, and it can scratch a clear coat. Mild soap and water should be all that’s needed. You can also touch up a clear coat on your own if you notice it succumbing to scuffs.
Picking the Best Wheels
Though wheels aren’t just for looks, they’re one of the modifications that can most improve your vehicle’s appearance. Once you know what metal and manufacturing style you want, you’ll still have plenty of style options.
Once you’ve found the right style, you’ll also want to look into backspacing and offset. How your wheels sit on your car will also affect how they perform and how long you can expect to use them.
Pick out wheels you love, and take good care of them to ensure you get to use them for years to come.
This article was researched, written, edited, and reviewed following the steps outlined in our editorial process. Learn more about CJ's editorial standards and guidelines.