The question that has started more arguments and destroyed more friendships than any other in the four-wheel drive world; should I put alloys on my 4×4? 

(Ed’s Note: Trigger Warning)…

Look, I’m all for ‘pretty’ bits on your four-wheel drive. Hell, I’ve got the old ‘broomstick handle’ UHF antenna on my rig, mostly because it’s a near-indestructible 6.6dBi antenna, but maybe a little bit because it just looks friggen awesome, right. Alloy wheels are a bit like that, except unless you’re planning on racing your four-wheel drive, they don’t really have a point besides looking ‘good’ (though, I’d argue a decent set of steelies look better than any alloy wheels I’ve ever come across). 

So, without any further rather pointless anecdotes from me (well, let’s face it, it’s what I’m good at), let’s have a look at why steelies are the superior wheel, and why you’d be better off running them on your four-wheel drive than their alloy counterparts. 

First off, strength

If you’ve seen the movie Cool Runnings, John Candy has a line in it that goes something along the lines of, “Bones don’t break while bobsledding, oh no, they shatter”. And there’s your first reason why alloys are a dumb idea. 

If you’re out driving on aggressive tracks or even bunting across the Plenty Highway out the back of the Simmo at a buck-ten, and you happen to hit something or come down from a wheel lift a bit too hard, you can (and Murphy’s Law says you WILL) absolutely smash your wheel into something solid. Doubly so if you’ve aired down a bit for better traction off-road, or to soak up some of those corrugations on outback highways. 

The lower tyre pressure will lead to the tyre moulding around the rock ledge you’re about to come down on, or the small boulder that decided to cross the road on a blind corner on the Plenty, and your wheel will impact the immovable object. You’ll either now have a buckled steel rim, or pieces of alloy chasing you down the road. Either way, it’s not ideal, but, one is repairable, and one is not. Bear in mind, that neither are indestructible (you absolutely can split and crack a steel rim, too), which leads us to…

Ability to repair on the run

Now unless you’ve got a TIG welder, lathe, and small engineering workshop in that massive canopy on the back of your four-wheel drive, you’re not going to be able to fix a cracked alloy wheel (save for a bit of Devcon or steel putty that might work). If you’re running steel wheels, and you’ve put a warp in it, you’ll only need a tool of persuasion. Ball-peen hammer if you’ve got your tools, a large rock/borderline-boulder if not (yep, I’ve belted a steel wheel back into ‘mostly’ round with a rock before – forgot the tools and the Scout’s motto that day). 

As we said above, where the difference here is, is that steel will usually bend, where the alloy will nearly always crack, or shatter. If this rather bemusing situation happens to befall you, you’re probably going to have to pop a tyre back on the bead, and then have to deal with your wheel. If you’ve got alloy rims and it’s cracked the wheel, start unbolting the spare and go for the jack; there’s bugger all you can do (unless of course, you’ve got that engineering workshop hidden in a drawer somewhere as we said above). 

If you’ve got steel wheels, reach for the hammer (or rock), and start belting it back into shape. More often than not, if you’ve got decent quality steel wheels (and $40 a wheel eBay jobbies don’t, and never will count as ‘decent quality’ (life lesson there)), any damage to the wheel may be a slight buckle or bend. Not a crack or pieces of the wheel flying down the road behind you. Nine times out of ten, you’ll be able to persuade the rim back into a semblance of round, reseat the tyre on the bead, pump it back up again and carry on on your merry way. 

Then, there’s the price… 

A decent set (and I’m not going to talk about ‘cheapies’ here… cause if you want them, you’re on your own) of steelies will cost you around $600 for a set of four, depending on sizing and width. A decent set of alloys can cost you upwards of $3000 for the same thing, but in alloy. 

If I’m belting across the outback, or throwing six-foot wheel lifts in my 79 Series and coming down hard, and I happen to bust a rim, I’m going to go “bugger” with one type of rim and be an inconsolable mess rocking back and forth in the passenger foot-well with the other. Shouldn’t take a genius to work out which is which, right? 

But alloys are lighter, and generally more awesome, right? 

Yes, and no. Look, when most people think about alloys, they think car wheels. Whether it be factory alloys on their Prius, or upgraded JDM-AF Enkei’s on their Toyota 86, they’re going to be lighter than their steel counterparts. Doubly so if you’re going for quality race-biased alloys. Where the hassle here presents, is that those super lightweight wheels that reduce the rotational mass and give you an extra 15-killawasps of fury are holding your 1,200kg sports coupe off the ground. The wheels on your four-wheel drive need to be able to hold upwards of 3000kg up. Suffice to say, if you put your Enkei’s on your Ford Ranger, they’ll not last real long. 

Are alloy wheels on a 4x4 better

This comes down to weight ratings. As you’d imagine, four-wheel drive rims have weight ratings, right? With a higher weight rating of the rim, comes more strength. With more strength comes… yep, you guessed it, more alloy, and more weight to the actual rim.

See, with a track or sports-orientated car, every bit of torque and horsepower counts. Where you’ve got a torquey diesel four-wheel drive, the rotational mass reduction doesn’t really make that much difference… 

So, it’s a bit of a yes, and no answer – Alloy wheels are often nearly (close enough not to matter, really) as heavy as their steel counterparts, so there’s no real weight saving. And even if there was, are you really going to notice 800 grams difference while you’re driving the Ranger to the local shops with the kids in the back? You might, if you’ve got a six-inch lift, Monster Energy Drink cap on, and you’re towing a jet ski… But… those Rangers are built for urban four-wheel driving through K-Mart car parks, it is what it is. If you’re running a big diesel up the drag strip (and let’s face it, diesel drags are bloody AWESOME), then yeah, the bit of weight will matter… but so will no seats in your rig, a removed interior, dash, air-con… you get the idea.

So Pete, you’re saying that alloy rims are absolutely dumb, yeah? 

Not exactly. Look, I’m the bloke who always chooses function over form. But, there are plenty of folks who don’t go and do dumb shit every other weekend or go traipsing across the countryside with 800km to the nearest bit of help. 

If your four-wheel drive is the family adventure rig, and you don’t drive Little Red in the Glasshouse Mountains on a random Saturday afternoon cause you’re bored, then alloys may be the thing for you. With the look and shape of many modern four-wheel drives, alloys (and I hate to actually write this, I feel dirty) do look ‘good’ on many rigs. They bring them up just that much more, and there are a lot of decent quality alloys on the market that will take a hiding, and keep on smiling. It’s just a matter of getting what suits you, and your circumstances best. 

I will leave you with two little thoughts though.. Ever wonder why the ‘Cruisers you see in the outback are all running steel wheels? Or, did you ever wonder why they don’t make steel rims in anything bigger than an 18-inch wheel, yet you can get alloys for a ‘four-wheel drive’ all the way up to 26-inches? Take all the time you need… 
Now if you’ve gotten this far, without throwing your phone, laptop, or computer out the closest window, and you’ve not been completely triggered, I’ll say this: Get what suits you. There is no right answer one way or the other that covers everyone. Work out what you want from your four-wheel drive, and the wheels specifically, and go forth and do that. At least now you’ve got a bit of info on which is better in which circumstance. Till next time folks, Pete.

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