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A Winter Wheel Primer

With winter just around the corner, itís time to start thinking about changes. Most people think tires, unfortunately neglecting the wheels. But what to choose: Alloy or steel? Hereís a few things to take into consideration before shelling out those hard-earned bucks...

With Atlantic Canada winters about as unpredictable as finding money, a lot of attention is paid to driving during that season. And make no mistake: winter driving is all about confidence and performance, so you want to ensure the maximum safety and handling of your vehicle.

This means a lot of attention is given to tires: whether they’re winter tires or all-season.

But what about wheels? An often-neglected feature of our cars, wheels are the foundation upon which the best tires sit.

The MacPek team: back row left to right - Michel Laframboise, Eric Boudreau, Mathew Thibodeau, Sylvio Chan, Guillaume Thibault, Alexandre Raby. Front row left to right - Benedicte Sty Cyr , Sofia Damian, Marie Catherine Bergeron

Their compositions may also make them harder to mount on cars that require enough brake clearance. This would be the advantage for alloy wheels.

“Winter wheels are a sound decision because the weather is unpredictable,” says Jeff Pouliot, president of Quebec-based Macpek, North America’s largest distributor of car wheels.

There are plenty of good winter wheel/tire packages to choose from, but when shopping it’s best to look for an integrated package that will affect variables such as traction control, speedometer accuracy, transmission shift quality, anti-lock braking and vehicle stability control.

Either aftermarket alloy wheels or steel wheels can be used. Some people, usually guided by price, feel conflicted when choosing between the two. Steel rims were, until fairly recently, the standard that arrived with most vehicles. Older steel rims were composed of welded steel that made them both affordable and durable, and very heavy. They tend to do better during winter than alloy because they are better equipped to deal with damage caused by road conditions. The down side to steel rims is that they lack good heat conduction so brakes require more maintenance. OEM steel wheels can be chromed, but usually painted black or silver. Factory steel rims have slots to reduce weight and have a continuous recess so the hubcap can be added for style.

By comparison, alloy wheels are made of a composite of various metals and have the advantage of being able to match the exact specifications of a vehicle. Some of the newer cars have a lower amount of clearance between the tire and the wheel well and require a certain rim size to be able to fit chains or snow tires. Here, an alloy rim is the choice to make. An alloy rim containing lighter metals will also make the rim lighter and enhance winter performance.

Alloy wheels are “sexy”. They can also augment the look of your vehicle and are manufactured to exact standards to meet performance requirements. They weigh less than steel wheels and offer more strength, but salt and sand damage may harm the finish and thus require more attention.

Because steel wheels are heavier, they might, in some cases, offer less than optimal performance.

Whatever you choose, you will have some choices to consider when winter rolls around. It’s a good idea to invest in a good set of winter wheels. Some say there’s really no difference between winter and summer wheels but with salt, sand, ice and grime being serious culprits, why risk damage? Put the summer wheels away until Spring.

The up-front costs may be a touch more expensive but the long-term investment is worth it, especially in terms of wear –and-tear, not to mention remounting and rebalancing twice a year. However, this can often be done more cheaply by “downsizing” wheels. By reducing from 19” wheels to 17” for example, you will improve car performance and save some money, Pouliot says.

“On average, you will save 20 percent. The overall outside diameter (OD) needs to remain the same if you are using a smaller wheel,” he says. “The advantage is that the tire has more traction.” He adds that sometimes you can also put on a narrower tire for more grip.

You will also find that another bonus for wheels is a reduction in alloy maintenance with passing time. Mounted wheels that are kept clean over the colder season will mean less maintenance over the long term or refinishing the face because of corrosion.

Whatever you choose, winter wheels will not only compliment the look of your vehicle, they will pay for themselves over time, and just might help save a life. That alone is worth the investment.

Much, much more in the print addition of Auto Atlantic.
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