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Steel vs. Alloy Wheels

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Steel or alloy wheels—how do you know which one is right for your vehicle? These two options are the most common types of rims used in cars today. Each type has its own set of pros and cons that you should be aware of before making a purchase.  

Alloy rims are a great choice if you want stylish, lightweight wheels that allow faster acceleration. Steel rims, on the other hand, are popular among heavy-duty vehicles meant for driving on rough terrain and year-long use. 

This guide will compare alloy and steel rims in detail and put them head-to-head in terms of factors that you should consider such as durability, maintenance, design, and cost.

Alloy Wheels vs. Steel Wheels

Wheel rims come in different shapes and sizes and are typically made from either steel or aluminum alloy.

Steel Rims

Steel rims came as standard in most vehicles until only a few decades ago. Billets of iron and carbon alloy were cut and pressed by hydraulic equipment to create this type of rim. Parts are subsequently welded and ground together to complete the wheel. 

The nature of their fabrication limits the spoke designs that can be applied to steel wheels. This is why most of them come with plastic hub caps to improve their otherwise plain designs.

Closeup of a steel wheel on a classic car
Steel rims were preferred for decades because they were relatively cheap to make.

This wheel type is known for its relative strength and durability compared to other types of metal. Off-road vehicles are likely to carry steel rims that can withstand abuse on rough terrain. 

Steel rims were preferred for decades because they were relatively cheap to make. However, their main disadvantage is that they typically weigh three times heavier than their alloy counterparts. They were eventually edged out by alloy rims when the latter became easier and cheaper to manufacture.

So, what are alloy wheels and how are they different from steel?

Alloy Rims

Alloy rims are made from a combination of metals—typically, a mix of aluminum or magnesium mixed with nickel is used. The combined strength and malleability of these metals make it possible to create different designs and spoke styles.

 However, these rims are more prone to damage if they accidentally hit the curb.

Most of the lightweight wheels found on performance vehicles are made from aluminum alloy. This is because their construction helps improve acceleration and vehicle dynamics. 

Soon enough, car manufacturers were able to develop a process that made manufacturing aluminum alloy rims more affordable. This was the turning point that completed the shift from steel wheels to aluminum.

Today, aluminum alloy wheels are made in one piece by casting molten metals into a pre-made mold before being compressed for added durability. Faster and easier fabrication also meant lower manufacturing costs, which made it possible to make these rims standard in most modern vehicles.

Steel vs. Alloy Wheels: Comparison

 SteelAluminum Alloy
Durability   Prone to dents and scratchesCan withstand abuse
Weight– 3x heavier
– May reduce fuel efficiency
– Lightweight
–  Contributes to better
fuel economy
Functionality– Workhorses
– Heavy-duty vehicles
– Off-road vehicles
– Year-round driving
– Daily drivers
– Performance and
custom vehicles
– Show vehicles
Maintenance & Care– Chrome finishes are not recommended for
use in rainy or snowy months
– Bare finishes can get damaged from
deicing chemicals
– Easy to repair and less likely
to crack or bend upon impact
– Low maintenance required
for all seasons 
Spoke
designs
– Limited
– The raw metal is typically covered
by hubcaps to improve looks
– Wide variety available 
Available
finishes
– Painted
– Powder-coated
– Chrome-plated
– Painted
– Clear-coated
– Bare polished
– PVD finish
– Chrome-plated
– Powder-coated
CostStarts at around $50$100 and above
Closeup of alloy wheel on modern car
Alloy rims are made from a combination of metals—typically, a mix of aluminum or magnesium mixed with nickel is used.

Rim Designs

Both types of rims come in various finishes that fit different styles. You may opt for a chrome finish for a flashy premium look or choose from a wide selection of colors if you want your wheels to pop. 

You may also get accessories like spinners, which continue to move even after the wheels have come to a stop. These don’t add any functionality to the assembly but add to the visual appeal of your vehicle.

How to Choose the Right Rims for Your Vehicle

Most people focus on design and looks when choosing a wheel for their vehicle. While these are important things to consider, there are a few other details that you shouldn’t overlook when selecting new rims. Here are a few things you should keep in mind.

Choosing the Right Fit

Knowing your car’s correct wheel size is critical to finding the right rims for your vehicle. Most experts recommend “Plus Sizing” your wheels. 

Plus Sizing means maintaining your overall tire diameter when changing tires and rims. This means increasing your tire width by 10mm and decreasing sidewall height by 5 to10% for every inch added to the wheel diameter. 

This technique allows your vehicle to maintain accurate speedometer readings as well as sufficient ground clearance.

Functionality

Different sizes and types of rims will help you achieve the kind of performance you wish to get out of your wheels. If you’re happy with how your vehicle currently drives, save yourself the trouble and stick to the same size that you already have.

If you wish to improve your car’s acceleration and cornering, you should go larger on the diameter of your rims. Just keep in mind that these may wear out faster. 

You can also choose to select a smaller diameter to maximize ride comfort, although this may have a negative impact on your car’s handling.

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CarParts.com

Staff Writers

In the Garage with CarParts.com is an online blog dedicated to bringing DIYers and devoted car enthusiasts up to date with topical automotive news and lifestyle content. Our writers live and breathe automotive, taking the guess work out of car repairs with how-to content that helps owners get back on the road and keep driving.

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