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Welcome to Wheel Hell

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David Kennedy
| Contributor
Posted March 1, 2002

Torture Testing Wheels: Aluminum vs. Steel

Step By Step

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  • When we hit the dirt and rocks, the first thing we noticed was how little ground clearance you get without a 35-inch tire holding you up. We were grateful we ordered 16-inch wheels. Otherwise we would have been dragging the IFS over every grain of sand. The second thing we noticed was how hard even gravel roads are to drive on when you are missing a tire. A bare wheel acts more like a field plow than a roller and it cuts a nice little trench everywhere you go. Total dirt travel was 500 feet per wheel, which was about how far we went when we noticed the Mickey Thompson cast wheel had cracked.

  • We weren’t even going to try to explain what we were doing to the local tire shop, so we headed over to Off Road Unlimited in Burbank to have them—try to follow along here—mount, balance, dismount, and then remount and balance our Claws on three sets of tires. See why we couldn’t go to just any tire shop? Mike at ORU told us the ideal way to balance a set of bias-ply tires is to drive on them for a day before you have them balanced. That way they can go through a full heat cycle and settle into a more concentric shape.

  • Everyone told us we were crazy to drive on just a wheel and no tire. So we knew it was a great idea. Each wheel was driven close to 300 feet on pavement with a big three-point turn at the end to really grind some metal. Other than the killer vibration we got through the steering wheel, and the terrible metal-on-pavement grinding sound that makes the Claws seem silent, it didn’t feel too bad. The pavement portion of the test was definitely the toughest on the wheels. We kept speeds under 10 mph for safety, and actually performed all “road” testing on a deserted piece of asphalt. We’ve all seen the Cops chase videos of what happens when you race down the highway without a tire, so we didn’t feel the need to duplicate it here. “No, officer, we have no idea how all those white lines got on the road.”

  • Out on the trail we tried our best to rip into the rims on all three wheels, but, man, is it tough to do when you have the big bulge of a Baja Claw pushing everything out of your way. We finally got the reinforced rim of the Weld StoneCrusher into a situation where it could live up to its name and found that all we could do was scratch up the aluminum. It was even harder to make the other two wheels contact any rocks because their smaller rims make for hard targets.

  • The Mickey Thompson cast wheels looked the worst of the three after the no-tire test. The outer lip broke off in a few places, and the inner lip developed a few cracks. Still they made an impressive showing because this was a brutal test. Cost to fix: $50. If you want the ultimate in strength and the M/T logo, Mickey Thompson also has its own line of forged aluminum Classic and Challenger wheels made by Alcoa.

  • The heavyweight titan of the test was clearly the White Tracker steel wheel from U.S. Wheel. These things just laughed at the no-tire test and looked like you could still mount a tire on them with just a little sanding of the rim surface to smooth out the rough spots. No need for run-flat tires when you have steel wheels. Cost to fix: $25.

  • The big gun in both looks and price was the Weld Racing StoneCrushers. They definitely proved their forged aluminum worth and strength in the no-tire test. No cracks, nothing bent, and no irreparable damage means these wheels act like steel, but in a 10-pound-lighter package. Cost to fix: $25.

Right away we can tell you that this isn’t going to be the typical off-road magazine wheel and tire test. We aren’t going to bore you with the usual—we mount a set of the newest tires on the hottest new wheels on the market, and then tell you how great they both are.

Instead we wanted to bring you a different kind of test, something you’ve never seen before. That meant taking three kinds of wheels and basically trying to destroy them by driving on them with no tires at all. This seemed to be the only way to find out if it really matters what your 4x4’s wheels are made from. When it was all over, we took the wheels to a local repair shop to find out how much it would cost to undo the damage.

We decided the ultimate wheel test wouldn’t be between brands and styles, but rather between materials and designs. We took the three basic kinds of wheels that are sold to the off-road light truck market—forged aluminum, cast aluminum, and steel wheels—and showed them no mercy, the way only 4-Wheel & Off-Road could.

We think you’ll agree that the ultimate test of any off-road equipment is its strength and performance. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, what color it is, or whose name is on it. If a part breaks off-road, you lose. It’s as simple as that. So to test the strength of three sets of wheels in the ultimate real-world torture test we headed for the 4WOR secret test facility. There we beat on new wheels from Weld Racing, Mickey Thompson, and U.S. Wheel (far away from any stress-testing fixtures, load capacity calculations, or anything scientific at all) until they cried uncle.

Along the way we learned some things that surprised us and horrified a few on-lookers, and we thought we destroyed a wheel or two. Turns out that all the wheels did much better than we anticipated, and the only problem we had was convincing the California Highway Patrol that we knew we were driving on just a wheel, and that we wanted it that way.

The Contenders

All the wheels we tested were 16x10s with an 8-on-6 ½-inch bolt pattern for our K2500 pickup. Surprisingly, none of the wheel manufacturers even flinched when we told them how we were going to test their wheels. We thought the idea of driving on a wheel with no tire on our front-heavy ¾-ton truck would horrify them. Makes us wonder just how hard the manufacturers test their own products!

The Verdict

When people go out to buy a new set of wheels they look for a style that will fit, something they think looks good, and something they can afford. Very rarely does wheel performance or wheel weight figure in to what wheel people choose. Most people think heavy equals strong, and many times it does. But a wheel that has all the strength you need without any extra weight is truly the ideal wheel. Ultimately the best wheel for your rig comes down to what you can afford versus what will work on your application.

If you need an economical wheel that you can beat back into shape with a ball-peen hammer, go with a steel wheel. If you’re a mud, sand, and snow guy, or are just looking for a new wheel for your daily driver, then a lightweight cast wheel is the one for you. If you need the strength of steel without the weight penalty, break out the credit card and finance a set of forged aluminum wheels.


Weld Racing
Kansas City, MO 64129
Off-Road Unlimited