Might as well face it, you’re addicted to dubs
“Rock bottom is everything out of focus… it’s a failure of vision.” That’s what Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote in her controversial and often difficult memoir, Prozac Nation. I like her phrasing because it implies both cause and effect; we know we’ve hit “rock bottom” because we are unable to understand or see any way out, yet we have likely arrived there courtesy of our inability to productively focus on the future. Rock bottom is the natural, almost inevitable, consequence of short-term thinking.
It is, of course, also commonly associated with addictive situations and behaviors. I hit a sort of rock bottom as an over-involved cycling parent about three weeks ago when I specified titanium spokes for the wheels of my nine-year-old son’s new BMX race bike. In doing so, I spent hundreds of dollars to save perhaps four and a half ounces—the same weight savings we could get by having him eat a lighter breakfast. Ridiculous, right? I was so ashamed of my actions that when the wheels arrived I could barely bring myself to, er, post five photographs from various angles, plus a complete and detailed list of components, on Instagram. Talk about addictive behaviors.
Yet my choice of titanium spokes wasn’t entirely insane, and it wasn’t solely for the purpose of intimidating my fellow BMX dads on social media. It’s a common rule of thumb in cycling that “One rotating ounce is worth three static ounces.” That ratio is derived from some truly half-assed back-of-the-envelope calculations, but it works pretty well in practice. If you add an ounce of weight to the frame of your bicycle, you only have to accelerate it forward—but if you add an ounce of weight to the wheels, you have to accelerate it forward and you have to rotate it. This effect is magnified with distance from the axle, because the outside edge of a wheel travels a greater distance than its center; if you must decide between shaving an ounce from your tire and shaving an ounce from your hub bearings, choose the former.
It’s no wonder, therefore, that cyclists tend to be obsessed with wheel weight—and that savvy automotive competitors trail that obsession at a dignified, but not excessive, distance. This is particularly true in low-horsepower series like Spec Miata. Shaving five pounds off each wheel and putting 20 pounds’ worth of ballast in the right location can be worth a few tenths of a second per lap. In “SM” that’s an eternity, so it became common to take extreme measures in pursuit of reduced rotating mass. For safety’s sake, the sanctions now enforce a minimum wheel weight of 13 pounds for the class, which sounds ridiculously light but which is actually about 12 Burger King Whoppers above what you can accomplish if you’re willing to endanger your wallet, your neck, your SCCA license, or all three in the pursuit of greatness.
As you would expect, a three-pound-per-wheel difference is much less obvious on the grocery run than it is during a lap around Laguna Seca. A 12-pound-per-wheel difference, on the other hand, can be felt in every aspect of vehicle operation, from the eagerness with which a car responds to a lane change to the suspension’s ability to recover from a deep pothole hit at high speeds. I know this because I have made it a habit over the last decade to replace the “gravity-cast” wheels on my daily drivers with forged or “pressure-cast” alternatives from manufacturers like O.Z. or Borbet. Where possible, I will also often reduce the diameter of the wheel by an inch—this is called a “minus-one” conversion—while increasing the diameter of the tire sidewall to account for the change. This takes a few more pounds off, since I’m taking a space that used to be filled with solid metal and replacing it with air, rubber, and a mixed-materials woven belt.
The net result is always positive, but in the case of my 2014 Accord V-6 coupe, it was almost transformative. The front end went from miserably leaden to tolerably frisky, while the shocks bumped rather than crashed on road imperfections. (If you want to understand why, try playing catch with a tennis ball and a medicine ball, in that order.) On a lark, I built and installed a setup with 15-inch wheels, down from the original 18 inches. The handling wasn’t great, because the tires involved were cheap, but the Honda rode like a Lincoln and felt light on its feet like a Sentra SE-R.
When a friend bought a 2017 Accord Sport with 19-inch wheels, I insisted on taking it for a spin. Five minutes into the drive, I found myself humming “Big wheels keep on turnin’. Proud Mary keep on burnin.’” The car felt like it weighed 500 pounds more than my V-6 coupe on forged eighteens, but in reality it was 200 pounds lighter thanks to its four-cylinder engine. It was a brutal lesson on the ability of large and heavy wheels to destroy a car’s character.
During the past week, I drove two very well-executed cars—a Chevy Blazer and an Audi Q8—that obviously suffered from oversized rolling stock. They both rode like NASA American Iron cars and clomped down into potholes as if their shock absorbers had rusted solid. The Blazer had 21-inch wheels, while the Audi had an optional 22-inch package. It was a relief to get back into my new Lincoln MKT, which has relatively high-sidewall tires surrounding a 19-inch wheel. Yet I’ve already made plans to put the Lincoln on 18-inchers this summer; it will then ride even better.
Let’s get the obvious question out of the way. I’m just a club racer with a liberal arts degree. Why would you listen to me instead of to the professional vehicle engineers around the world who are fitting their cars with ever-larger wheels? The answer is that many of the engineers in the business also disagree with this trend—but it’s being driven by three factors over which they have no control.
The first factor is the need to fit their wheels around larger brake packages. This makes perfect sense on a McLaren Senna or Corvette ZR1 but if you take a look at most of the common-garden SUVs out there you will see a lot of air between the caliper and the wheel rim. Even in situations where everyday drivers are fitted with massive brakes, as was the case with the Q8 I drove, it’s not at all certain that they actually need that level of hardware.
The next factor is a perceived desire on the part of the customer for higher cornering limits, which leads to taller wheels with less tire sidewall. While I can’t deny that a 1990 VW Fox fitted with the optional 175/65R14 tires would outhandle my own 1990 VW Fox, which had 155/80R13 rubber, I sincerely doubt that the average Audi Q8 buyer really sees any difference when she goes from 21 inches to 22 inches. She does, however, notice that the wheels are easier to damage on potholes and curbs, and that the cost of replacing her tires is higher. If you need proof of this, walk around any upscale suburb and take a look at the off-brand Chinese rubber on all the six-years-or-older SUVs and crossovers. They might have been delivered with $2000 worth of Michelins or Continentals, but when it’s time to replace them the owners rarely maintain that exalted standard. The next time a 2008 Cayenne Turbo on $139 “ROAD POWER FORCE CHAMP ZXPQi” tires blasts past you on a rain-soaked freeway, you should strongly consider leaving as much room for said Cayenne as possible.
Ah, but the above pair of justifications for big “rims” cannot compete with the real reason everybody from your dentist to your general contractor has to roll on chrome twenty-twos, and that real reason is… styling. Everybody, including your humble author, loves the look of properly-designed wheels filling out the corners of a car or truck. Our eyes are naturally drawn to them, in motion or at rest. Time and time again, I’ve had the lead engineers of a newly-released car tell me that their preferred wheel-and-tire package ended up being vetoed by the styling or marketing departments—and the change is always towards bigger and bolder wheels.
You don’t have to follow the lead of the marketing department the next time you buy a car. You can research and install a “minus-one” or even a “minus-two” package with forged wheels and high-quality tires. Sometimes there’s a cheap way to do it; I will probably replace the 19-inch Lincoln wheels on my MKT with an 18-inch fitment from the mechanically identical Ford Flex. Or you might have to call a custom builder like Fikse or CCW to get smaller-diameter products that won’t interfere with your brakes.
Reducing the size and weight of your wheels would manifestly improve your daily-driving experience. It might even save you money in the long run. That’s why I do it, and that’s why many of the club racers I know do it, but I’m not naive enough to think that the average new-car buyer would even consider making that change. The late LJK Setright used to refer, somewhat caustically, to a fictional character named T.C. Mits, “the celebrated man in the street.” T.C. Mits wants the biggest wheels possible, what all the cool kids call “dubs,” and the manufacturers want to give him what he wants. The engineers and the tire manufacturers will just have to live with it. Eventually the fad will expire, just like tailfins or Landau tops. Right now, it rules the world. Might as well face it; we’re addicted to dubs.