Everywhere you look these days, you're likely to see
tricked-out cars. Custom wheels in particular have become all the
rage. Some $3.23 billion was spent on custom wheels in 2002, up from
$3.1 billion in 2001 and $2.9 billion in 2000, according to the Specialty
Equipment Market Association.
"The custom wheel industry is made up of several
hundred very big and small companies selling wheels that make a car
or truck look better and perform better," says Peter MacGillivray,
SEMA's vice president of marketing and communications.
The wheels may be made of aluminum alloy or steel, usually
chrome-plated, and they come from companies such as American Racing,
Dayton and Lexani. They may be outrageously big wheels made for road
performance or smaller wheels made for off-road performance.
He points to hunters, fishermen and other outdoors
people as well as soccer moms who deliver hordes of kids to activities,
all of whom outfit vehicles with custom accessories to accommodate
"The trend also extends to the youth market,"
he says. "You've got high school kids saying, 'Just because
I've inherited a Honda Civic with 140,000 miles on it doesn't mean
it has to look like it's my mom's car. It doesn't mean I can't look
Custom wheels are particularly attractive to kids.
Wheels are among the easiest items to change from stock to custom
parts, MacGillivray points out, and the change in appearance from
the dull steel colors of most original wheels to shiny chrome is
sexy. Let's face it, flashy cars and sex appeal have been associated
with one another for a long, long time.
But isn't trying to make a Honda Civic sexy kind of,
Not when it's the only belle you can bring to the
ball, says Mary Butler, a Cars.com
automotive expert. According to SEMA statistics, the average custom
wheel buyer is an 18 to 34-year-old male, Butler says. "What
kind of cars were they driving 20, 30 years ago? That would be muscle
cars and hemis. Those kinds of cars aren't available at the same
price point anymore because now all the high-performance cars are
over 30 grand."
Instead, kids are pouring money into "tuner cars,"
Butler says. Unlike the muscle cars of an earlier generation, tuner
cars "are everyday cars, such as a Honda Civic, that have been
modified -- or 'tuned' -- with aftermarket accessories to look like
a street racer."
The trend is so big that "Tunervision" is
one of the staple programs on male-oriented Spike cable network.
The biggest, most noticeable, trend in custom wheels
is plus wheels because they immediately make a car look like a racer.
"The trend's being driven by unconventional marketing techniques,"
McGillivray says. "Video games and movies like 'The Fast and
the Furious' use authentic brands from our industry."
It doesn't hurt that big, shiny chrome wheels have
become a status symbol in rap music and among sports stars. Chrome
wheels, once a mark of luxury, had become an afterthought by 1991,
with sales flattening to $1.26 billion, according to SEMA. After
rappers like Snoop Dogg glorified such brands as Dayton wire wheels
in their tunes, the race toward bigger, showier wheels was on. (The
showy stuff includes "spinner" wheels, in which the hub
of the wheel continues to spin after the vehicle has stopped.)
Racing wheels are typically very big, leaving little
room in the wheel well for the tire's sidewall. "They increase
the size of their wheel and then decrease the interior circumference
of their tire," McGillivray says. "It affects performance.
It's no accident that race car drivers have big wheels with smaller
sidewalls. It enhances the performance on the road.
"The prices run the full spectrum," he adds.
"There are wheels that a person can afford on a part-time salary,
and then there's the other outrageously expensive end. I could find
you wheels that are $5,000 apiece."
Wheels with 14-inch to 17-inch diameters are pretty
much standard issue original equipment -- and uncool. Plus-sizers
are buying 20-, 22- and 24-inch wheels and tires to match.
"Glorified rubber bands," Joe Wiesenfelder,
a vehicle profiler at cars.com, calls such tires. He's skeptical
of the value in wheels that can go for as much as $5,000 apiece.
"Mostly what people are getting from these upgrades
is an image boost -- in their minds at least," he says. "There
may be some performance improvement, depending on what they're putting
on the vehicle and what their intentions are."
However, if you're not on a racetrack, performance
improvement may not be your best investment.
"Your tire sidewall has a job: to absorb impact
and energy from traveling on the road," Wiesenfelder says.
"If the tire sidewalls aren't absorbing a lot of that energy,
where's it going? Into the suspension. Manufacturers want to get
100,000 miles typically out of their suspension components. Upsized
wheels make the suspension work a lot harder, and you'll be replacing
shocks, springs or other suspension components much sooner. When
you buy upsized wheels, you get to spend money to spend money as
opposed to spending money to save money."
That's not to mention the potential for theft, Wiesenfelder
says. If they're the easiest custom component to add to your car,
well, the opposite is also true. The Wall Street Journal noted that
in the mid-'90s, police in the Southwest called Dayton wire wheels
"death rims" because they seemed to invite violent carjackings.
The low-profile "rubber band"
tires that big wheels require also are not suited to winter driving,
Wiesenfelder says. "If you live in the Snow Belt or a harsh
winter climate, they are very dangerous. The characteristics that
make them effective as performance tires make them the last thing
you'd want in winter conditions."
Low-profile tires are typically wider than regular
tires and feature fewer grooves, so that instead of biting into
snow, they slide around like sleds, he says.
For custom wheels that thrive on their cool
image, that is a decidedly uncool picture.
-- Posted: Dec. 9, 2003