The Differences Between Steel and Alloy Wheels

Why do some cars have steel wheels with basic hubcaps, and other have alloy wheels? And, what are the differences? We turned to our resident expert, Steve Menzies, who covers the BC region for AlloyGator, and who owned and ran a retail tire operation for many years – so thank you Steve for the insight for this article.

[NOTE: AlloyGator, as you might have guessed from the name, is designed for alloy wheels not steel wheels, nor steel wheels with hubcaps.]

Steel Wheels

Steel Wheels are less expensive, costing about a quarter, or less, of an alloy wheel. They are also heavier. The hubcap is a thin piece (usually plastic) that fits over the wheel, and it sticks out past the wheel itself. You can see in the photo below that hubcaps can lift off the wheel quite easily and become damaged.

Figure 1: Hubcap lifts off wheel

While steel is tough and dents can be removed, it can also rust around the grooves or holes in the design, especially if exposed to road salt. 

Figure 2: Rust forming around the holes in a steel wheel without hubcap

Steel wheels are most commonly seen on a) economy cars, utility vehicles, and taxi cabs or b) winter tires. If you hit a curb and have hubcaps on, then you’re just scratching a hubcap, which is cheaper to replace than the whole wheel, but the hubcap itself can look beat-up in short order. Winter can also damage hubcaps easily since they do protrude more than an alloy does, and it can be tough to judge a curb covered in snow.  

So why would anyone use steel wheels? Probably for winter tires. In northern areas of North America, if you see a nicer car with no hubcaps at all (i.e. the whole wheel looks black) that’s likely just a steel wheel likely being used for winter tires. These detract from the look of the car, but if it’s in an area that gets rough winters, it can be commonplace to see this. In short, steel wheels are basic, tough, heavy, cheap, and not really bought for the aesthetic value. 

Figure 3: Steel Wheel without Hubcap
Figure 4: Very Damaged Hubcap over Steel Wheel

Alloy Wheels

Alloy wheels are what you’ll see on 85% or so of today’s new vehicles, as they really enhance the look of the car. Car dealers used to sell them as an upgrade, but today you’ll often see them on even entry-level import vehicles. Aesthetically they are certainly more beautiful, but they also offer other benefits.

Figure 5: Alloy Wheel

Alloy wheels are much lighter, made with a high amount of aluminum. This means they put less pressure on your suspension and give better performance, both with accelerating and decelerating. In fact, ultra-fast race cars use alloy wheels that are so light, you could easily lift them with one finger!

Although they do not rust, lift off easily, or crack open like steel/hubcaps do, Alloy wheels can also scratch, and if this occurs, they can corrode. If you lease a vehicle, returning it to the dealer with corroded or scratched wheels will generally penalize you financially, as alloy wheels can be very valuable, especially on higher-end cars.

Figure 6: Corrosion on an Alloy Wheel

AlloyGator and Wheel Style

As mentioned, AlloyGator is designed for use only on alloy wheels. Since hubcaps over a steel wheel are only a thin lip, the AlloyGator does not seat itself correctly in this configuration. AlloyGator can enhance the look of your alloy wheels by accenting the colour of the car, or be completely invisible, blending in with several shades of chrome or black.

Figure 7: Alloy Wheel with contrasting red AlloyGator
Figure 8: Alloy wheel with black AlloyGator installed

If you have any further questions about fit, we encourage you to check out our FAQ’s.

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