by Paul Williams

Paul Williams goes shopping for shoes… er, wheels

A female friend of mine spends a lot of time in shoe stores. Shoes are important to her, and at the risk of generalization, may I suggest that shoes seem important to several women I have known. Some of them even went shoe shopping in groups.

My friend works hard at finding the exact pair. Then she attempts to show them off to her husband who hasn’t looked at her shoes for — well, ever, actually. To most men, shoes are just shoes.

You see, when it comes to ground contact, men are into wheels. I can tell you this for a fact. For instance, last year a male friend of mine purchased a stunning Santorin Blue V6 Audi A4. This car just gleamed — it was a blue jewel. Perfect, thought his wife. But the first thing he did was rip off the stock wheels and replace them with a cooler, aftermarket brand. I understand that. The correct wheels can absolutely make the car.

The aftermarket wheel industry has exploded over the past few years. Why is this so? Well, partly it’s because tire companies have figured out how to make lower profile tires. The first automotive 16″ tires were available by special order in the mid-1980s. 17″ tires arrived in 1988, 18″ tires in 1994. Now, the sky’s the limit.

The thing to watch with an aftermarket wheel, though, is that the overall diameter of the wheel and tire, also known as its rolling radius, doesn’t change from the original. For instance, going from 175/70/14 wheel and tire combination to 185/60/15 takes you up one size and is referred to as a “plus 1” application. Go up another size, to 195/50/16 and it’s a “plus 2” application.

But even plus 2 applications are the same overall diameter as the original wheel and tire. It’s the wheel that gets bigger, while the sidewall of the tire gets thinner.

Other areas of concern are choosing the correct wheel width, wheel offset, and fender and suspension clearance. Your dealer will be able to advise.

What this means in practice is that rather than running a stock 175/70/13 tire on your Mazda Protégé, you can select a nice 195/50/15, or even a 205/40/16. Dozens of companies now supply very cool wheels to fit those tires.

1980 Triumph TR8 with 15 inch TSW wheels
If you want to see some really big wheels, the limited edition Jaguar XKR Silverstone wears 20″ wheels. The standard XKR runs 18″ wheels out of the box, as does the Ford SVT Lightning Pickup. Porsche Boxsters come with 16″ wheels standard, but you’ll be hard pressed to find one ordered like that. Most buyers go for the optional 17″ or 18″ wheels. Then again, the 15″ TSW wheels on my 1980 Triumph TR8 dwarf the original 13″ alloys, and create a modern look for this older car.

For those of you interested in performance as well as looks, there is a definite improvement in steering response when using a larger wheel, according to Rob Kleins, President of Ottawa’s Robson Racing. “Lower profile tires experience less tire roll when going around corners. Less tire roll means more control, and more control means a safer drive,” says Kleins.

To understand this better, think two pieces of wood. Stand one on end and lay the other one on top, like the letter “T”. Shift the top piece sideways, and the bottom piece falls over. Progressively shorten and widen the bottom piece and it becomes more reluctant to tip. Get it short and wide enough and it won’t tip at all.

That’s one reason the new Porsche 911 GT2 wears astonishingly wide and skinny 315/30 series tires on its 18″ wheels. Yes, 30-series tires.

But you won’t be running those on your Golf or Civic, although for everyday cars, there are many options. TSW and Konig offer a nice line of one-piece, cast wheels at the lower end of the price range. Simmons is a step up, offering three-piece, modular wheels.

Fikse FM10
One of my favorite top-end brands is Washington-based Fikse. This company uses aerospace-specification technology and components to build its three-piece forged, aluminum wheels. These things are like sculpture, but a set of four 19″ Fikse FM/10 wheels will set you back a cool $10,000.00. Plus tires. Plus car.

Local suppliers are very competitive when it comes to pricing a set of wheels and tires, so it’s worth calling around to get a good deal. If you’re online, many wheel manufacturers have tools to try out different wheels and wheel sizes on your car. This is an excellent use of your time while waiting for winter to end, in my opinion.

In fact, some people I know actually go wheel shopping in groups.

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