Big Wheels Are Quantitatively Worse

Photo: CONCAVO WHEELS, Flickr

Car design sketches have a lot of similarities that stretch back decades: dramatic lines, mail slot windows, and wheels so impossibly big there is literally no room for a tire. A lot of times you’ll see wheels that intersect with the ground, so the wheels are so large they occupy the same space as the road. Yo dawg, my rims are so big they violate the laws of physics.

Image: Jaguar MENA, Flickr

I remember years ago when people started buying absurdly large wheels, usually as shiny as possible, and they would mount the lowest profile tire on them in an effort to assure maximum pothole damage. I thought it was a trend that would run its course after a few years and we’d get back to 15s or, for large vehicles, 17s.

Not these Big Wheels (Photo: John Morgan, Flickr)

A lot of automotive designs stick around for a few years and then disappear. Some of them return later, but most exist for a finite time thanks to safety requirements, advances in manufacturing, and a changing zeitgeist. But big wheels are still here. Everywhere, decades later.

Production cars often imitate design elements of race cars to make them look sportier, but fat sidewalls have ruled in the top levels of stock car and open-wheel racing for decades. Yet, all the performance cars and performance wheels are really big, with minimal sidewall. The trend in big wheels and short sidewalls is so enduring that F1 is switching to larger wheels so the tire manufacturer can have some road relevance. Usually, when a race car mimics a road car it is done with stickers so people will think a pushrod v8 powered tube-frame race car is actually a Toyota Camry.

I don’t personally like big wheels, and I haven’t since they became a thing many years ago. I look at them and I think of that kid in my high school parking lot driving the $1,000 car that had $4,500 “rims”, blasting Limp Bizkit and dumping his ashtray out the window.

People have different experiences and different tastes, and that’s fine. But bigger wheels affect your car’s performance and it’s almost always for the worse. For one, they’re aerodynamically inefficient. If you opt for the largest wheel on a Tesla Model X, your range is reduced by about 10%. This is true with internal combustion engine cars, too. If you go for the big 22” wheels over the 19s, then every time you fill up, one or two of those gallons are going to help those extra three inches churn up all that air.

Larger wheels also transmit more load into the suspension, which means the suspension has to be heavier and more expensive. The tire sidewall is the suspension for the suspension, so the shorter the sidewall, the more impact all that stuff behind your wheel sees when you hit a pothole. Larger wheels are almost always heavier, too.

Obviously the world doesn’t need to all trend towards optimised engineering where we all drive Lada Nivas. Unless you want to? No? OK, yeah we can have unnecessarily large wheels, just like we can have unnecessarily fast cars, or unnecessarily lifted SUVs. It’s things like that, and the big wheels too, that make automobiles interesting.

But they are quantitatively worse.

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