Big wheels keep on burning ... money


How about a little math.

There are about 250 separate and distinct vehicle models (Chevy Corvette, Nissan Maxima, Volvo C30, etc.). Now, each of those 250 models arrives in an average of about three trim levels, for a total of 750 trims. And, each of those trim levels is usually offered with its very own set of specific wheels and tires. That means there are probably more than 1,000 different styles of wheels and tires available.

Here's a little more math.

The average wheel diameter is in the 17-inch range. It many cases you'll see 18- and 19-inch wheels. All that shiny metal sure fills out the wheel wells. Ask anyone: The bigger the wheels, the more we want them.

So, now that you have them, there's more math to consider: the replacement price for those big-diameter, low-profile tires. Just so you know, these aren't $59 each, the price you might have paid 10 years ago to refit your Corolla. No, slide that decimal place over to the right a notch and you'd be closer. Tires specifically sized and designed for a given vehicle can run double that. It gets even weirder when your car has different tire sizes front and back and they happen to be directional (they can then only be rotated side to side and must be removed from the rims to do so). In extreme cases, each tire is a separate part number.

Then, of course, there's living with those beautiful and bigger wheels and tires.

Living with them?

Driving a car with extra-big wheels and low-profile tires requires a totally new respect for the road, as in every pothole, every piece of broken pavement and bridge expansion joint.

Your first realization of this comes rather quickly once you're parked on the side of the road with a bent (or broken) rim and a flat tire to match. Yes, that short sidewall height doesn't provide much cushion from poorly maintained/abused roads. If I had it my way, pothole dodging would be a demonstration sport at the next Olympics. It's difficult enough navigating busy traffic without having to worry about every little boo-boo in the road.

The next surprise is the wear. It's unlikely that you'll get 50,000 miles -- or even 30,000 miles -- out of a set of high-performance low-profile tires. The reason is that the rubber is softer so they grip better. But, as you're already surmising, softer rubber scuffs off the tire quicker.

It's a personal peeve. Why do tires that cost twice as much last half as long? Because, of course, you're not buying durability, you're buying performance and when it comes to tires -- with very few exceptions -- one is given as a direct trade-off for the other.

Be sure to check the tread-wear rating of those big tires, otherwise you might end up with an equally big surprise (four new 18-inch tires) well before you expect it.

The last piece of math involves foresight, as in a lack of it will always cost you more. If you live in a climate where it snows even one day of the year, and you order the big wheels and the accompanying performance, which roughly translated means summer tires, it will most likely be suggested that you purchase a second set of winter-specific tires. Wide summer tires and even a skiff of snow can be a lethal combination, so be sure to check what you're getting into.

If you live in a salt-/rust-belt area, those beautiful chrome wheels won't look that way in the spring. Buying a set of black steel wheels to affix the new winter tires is a good idea, but, cha-ching, part of the additional expense associated with the extra expense of owning a set of big, beautiful wheels.

This column is not a knock against them. Most would agree that a crummy (small) set of wheels can break a car as much as a good (big) set of wheels can make it.

There's just a little math you need be aware of before diving in.

Among her numerous accomplishments, Courtney Hansen is the author of "Garage Girl's Guide," the host of Spike TV's "PowerBlock," the former host of TLC's "Overhaulin'" and a writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can e-mail her by logging on to www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

 

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