Piston Slap: Design Weak: Big Ass Wheels

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

Mike writes:

Sajeev, what ever happened to 14-inch wheels? I mean, seriously, does the Caliber really need to be shod with 17-inchers? Why does my dad’s new half-ton pickup have 17-inch wheels? His old one had what used to be the industry standard 235-75R15. He about had a coronary when he found out new tires would be over $100 each. Perhaps if I put on my tinfoil hat, I’d say the tire companies are behind this. So really, does the average family sedan or minivan really need anything bigger that a 15-inch wheel/tire?

Sajeev replies:

Of course the Caliber doesn’t need 17-inch wheels: they can’t possibly fix Chrysler’s rolling abomination. But let’s think about why every modern car has big wheels.

Speaking from an Engineering Standpoint: wheels over 15-inches provide space for bigger brake rotors (and calipers) and a shorter profile tire in the same tire diameter. The benefits are better braking in extreme conditions, like mountain roads or any form of towing. Shorter profile tires provide more road feel and tread grip, completely changing a car’s “turn in” during the act of corner carving. In theory: most cars lose these benefits above 18” wheels, as more unsprung weight and rubber band tires make things worse.

Furthermore, modern cars/trucks are heavy, straddled with more gizmos, bigger (and taller) cabins and more rigid bodies. When you add more weight, you need more stopping power.

Speaking from a Design Standpoint: styling is a major factor in the mass-acceptance of larger wheels. By the 1980s, both the downsized American icons and Japanese entrants required a certain passenger volume without resorting to the bulk and shocking overhangs (front and rear) of previous decades. Which required a taller DLO (Day Light Opening) for more trunk space—among other things—and created a taller car in the process. And, in general, taller cars naturally look better with “taller” wheels filling out their wells.

And big wheels were here to stay when Ford sold Explorer SUVs like buttered popcorn, making everyone ride tall in the saddle. Hence the need for taller profile wheels and bigger brakes merging with America’s insatiable need for sleek sheetmetal since the 1950s.

Maybe 15” wheels can make a comeback, but vehicles need to ditch their platform shoes and go on a serious diet. I’m not holding my breath.

[Send your queries to mehta@ttac.com]

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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  • Spencer Williams Spencer Williams on Nov 10, 2009

    I don't have any big problem with people putting large wheels on their own cars, doesn't affect me. BUT, when manufacturers create new models that are designed to wear big wheels, they look bad when wearing normal-sized tires, and it makes me cringe. Case in point, I have an 09 Mustang with 17" tires on it. The wheel wells were made large enough to accommodate not only the stock 19" wheels they offer, but the stock 19" with snow chains on them. So, with my little seventeen inch stockers in there, the wheel gap is tremendous. And sure, I could lower the car to work around it, but I'm not going to sacrifice my car's handling characteristics for looks. So I kind of look chumpish. Oh well.

  • KalapanaBlack KalapanaBlack on Nov 10, 2009

    Explorers didn't gain wheels bigger than 16" until 2007. I always marvelled that my '96 Galant with 15" and 195/55 tires looked perfectly proportional, while the base G6s I was driving at work with 17" plastic-fascia (or whatever GM called them) steelies with covers looked terribly under-wheeled. I now drive a car with 14" alloys ('95 Infiniti G20) and it looks perfectly fine, too. It has four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, so I don't buy into that argument. I think it's purely style, with maybe a little revenue generation push from tire makers. Funny related aside - has anyone driven a current Chevy Impala LTZ or SS with 18" wheels? The old W-Body can't handle them, but GM jammed them on, anyway. Every single one I've ever driven, when taken around a turn with a bump in the middle, rubs the inner fender. I don't see how this is safe. I was shocked at the under-developed feel of that happening at first, and have since become acclimated to it. Every single ones does it - even brand new ones with perfect alignment and less than a thousand miles on the odo.

  • Jeff Not bad just oil changes and tire rotations. Most of the recalls on my Maverick have been fixed with programming. Did have to buy 1 new tire for my Maverick got a nail in the sidewall.
  • Carson D Some of my friends used to drive Tacomas. They bought them new about fifteen years ago, and they kept them for at least a decade. While it is true that they replaced their Tacomas with full-sized pickups that cost a fair amount of money, I don't think they'd have been Tacoma buyers in 2008 if a well-equipped 4x4 Tacoma cost the equivalent of $65K today. Call it a theory.
  • Eliyahu A fine sedan made even nicer with the turbo. Honda could take a lesson in seat comfort.
  • MaintenanceCosts Seems like a good way to combine the worst attributes of a roadster and a body-on-frame truck. But an LS always sounds nice.
  • MRF 95 T-Bird I recently saw, in Florida no less an SSR parked in someone’s driveway next to a Cadillac XLR. All that was needed to complete the Lutz era retractable roof trifecta was a Pontiac G6 retractable. I’ve had a soft spot for these an other retro styled vehicles of the era but did Lutz really have to drop the Camaro and Firebird for the SSR halo vehicle?