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Curbing the sticker shock of big rims

Posted by Craig Fitzgerald  June 16, 2011 04:44 PM

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(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)

A damaged wheel sits at Sullivan Tire in Boston.

Big wheels and low profile tires make any vehicle look tough. For years, the aftermarket has provided wheels in the most gargantuan sizes possible, wrapping them in tires with sidewalls as thin as an o-ring. As beltlines rise, greenhouses shrink, and wheel arches become more pronounced, manufacturers are routinely shoeing their cars — even relatively sedate family sedans — with wheels 19 and even 20 inches in diameter. They look great, but their durability and expense is questionable, at best.

Larger rims, higher costs

Wheels-200.jpg

CHRYSLER 300C AWD

2007: Continental ContiProContact ContiSeal (225/60R18)
Set of four: $596

2011: Michelin Pilot HX MXM4 (235/55R19)
Set of four: $1,128

KIA OPTIMA

2003: General Altimax HP (205/60R15)
Set of four: $284

2011: Hankook Optimo H431 (225/45R18)
Set of four: $732

FORD TAURUS

1999
SE: Dunlop SP 60 (205/65R15)
Set of four: $288

2011 SEL (with 19-inch option): Goodyear Eagle RSA (255/45R19)
Set of four: $776

Source: TireRack.com

Not long ago — well into the 2000s — most daily driver sedans came with something along the lines of a 205/60R15 tire (See this diagram to explain the numbers). Tires in these sizes typically offer a good compromise between road-holding and ride, providing a nice, fat contact patch with the road, yet allowing some flexibility in the sidewall to soak up pavement irregularities.

Today, the Ford Taurus SEL — the top-of-the-line before you get into the high-performance SHO — comes standard with 18 inch wheels. Many buyers select the optional 19-inch wheels, though, which come with Goodyear Eagle RSA 255/45R19 tires. The alpha-numeric soup on the sidewall might not instantly make sense, but compared to what was previously available on the Taurus, that wheel and tire combination is massive.

As a comparison, consider the 1995 Corvette ZR-1, an ultra-high performance, 405 horsepower Corvette of which 527 units were sold. It came equipped with 17-inch wheels and tires. The front tires were 275/45R17s, meaning they were three-quarters of an inch thicker, had the same height sidewall, but were smaller than the Taurus by two inches in diameter.

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, it gives the Taurus — a car once relegated to rental fleets around the country — a much bolder, more aggressive appearance, with wheel arches full of rubber and chromed alloy. On the performance end of the equation, larger wheels definitely provide better handling, thanks to their ability to put a larger contact patch in touch with the road.

But the negatives are pretty significant, especially in and around Boston, where our roads are rapidly deteriorating, and potholes are a regular occurrence.

In a Globe story this February, reporter Eric Moskowitz noted that Boston fills approximately 19,000 potholes in an average winter, and that the city has gone as far as developing a new app, called Street Bump, that attempts to give drivers the ability to instantly notify City Hall when a new crater appears. And that's just the city of Boston. Do the math and consider how many gaping holes have appeared in the New England region after last winter's prodigious snowfall.

Tag even a small pothole with a car shod with a 205/60R15 tire, and you might experience a cut sidewall, but the tire's fatter sidewall has the ability to withstand a lot more abuse before the wheel gets damaged. Hit that same pothole in something equipped with 19-inch wheels and low profile 255/45R19s, and you'll likely not only blow out the tire, you'll be in for some significant wheel repair since the tire simply doesn't have the sidewall flexibility to protect the wheel. Older steel wheels are less prone to damage from such a strike, but lightweight alloy wheels are essentially designed to deform on impact.

"If I had a preference," says Ina Ames, owner of Rim and Wheel Works in Waltham, "I'd avoid anything with a wheel diameter larger than 18 inches. Once you hit 18 inches, straightening becomes much more difficult. In the Greater Boston area, if you're driving cars with 19- or 20-inch wheels, you're just begging to come into my shop."

Rim and Wheel Works has a proprietary process that can straighten a number of wheel issues, from a "center bend" in which the wheel has actually twisted from impact, to TIG welding wheels that have cracked, then straightening the wheels after they've been welded. For wheels that have experienced slight damage, Rim and Wheel Works can repair them for between $110 to $135 for wheels up to 19 inches, and rising upward from there as the wheel gets larger.

But some damage simply can't be repaired. The replacement cost can run into the thousands. Ames estimates that her shop welds approximately 250 to 500 seriously damaged wheels a year, indicating just how serious the problem is in this region.

Repairs aren't the only pricey setback, When it comes time to replace a high-performance, low-profile tire, the cost can be staggering. Take, for example, the 2011 Chrysler 300C AWD. By the time 35,000 miles pass, according to TireRack.com, you'll be looking at an $1,128 bill if you opt for the factory Michelin Pilot HX MXM4 tires in 235/55R19 size, not including mount, balance, tire disposal, or the four-wheel alignment that's always a good idea before investing in new rubber.

Now consider the car that it replaces. The first-generation 2009 Chrysler 300C AWD was equipped with 18-inch wheels at the largest. A set of four 225/60R18 Continental ContiProContact ContiSeal tires is available from TireRack.com for $596, not including mount, balance, disposal, or alignment at your local retailer.

So what's the alternative? Better keep your large-diameter, low-profile alloy wheel and tire set for the summer months, when the frost heaves have quit poking Buick-sized boulders through the road surface. From late October to the first of May, consider investing in a winter wheel and tire package, including steel wheels in a slightly smaller diameter than the 19-inchers that may come on your car.

A good set of winter tires are a must in our area. The expense will be significantly lower than replacement tires in the larger size, you'll keep half your annual mileage off the bigger tires, and you'll enjoy significantly better traction in the lousy weather.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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