High-performance rims, tires look cool but damage easier, may cause rollovers
By TY YOUNG
Before spending thousands of dollars on performance tires, consider that wet pavement, potholes, other bumps and your car or truck type may cost you more in the long run, including personal injury.
Often made of sparkling chrome, high-performance tires and wheels are hard to miss.
Much like the nonstop movement of spinners – wheels outfitted with rotating spokes that move even after the car has stopped – the aftermarket wheel and tire industry has spiraled into a $2.25 billion enterprise.
But as customers flock to dealers to increase the size, visibility and performance of wheels, they may sacrifice safety and comfort.
A January Consumer Reports study found that larger, high-performance wheels and tires with smaller sidewalls (low-profile) tires that accompany them are more suspectible to damage from adverse road and weather conditions. Testers from the nonprofit consumer advocacy group found they may lead to more blowouts, hydroplaning, rollovers and a less comfortable ride.
Factory wheels are usually 15 inches to 17 inches in diameter, depending on vehicle make and model, according to Consumer Reports. High-performance rims are larger and usually made of forged aluminum and steel. Low-profile tires are wider but have less sidewall.
The growing popularity of special wheels and tires has added to the English lexicon. Twenty-inch diameter wheels are known as “dubs”, taken from the slang term for a $20 bill which was called a dub, according to Myles Kovacs, publisher and founder of Dubs magazine.
The combination of larger wheels and low-profile tires helps the performance factor of vehicles because the tires grip more of the road, allowing for firmer control when swerving to avoid impediments, Eugene Petersen, program manager for tire testing for Consumer Reports, said.
Performance improves under relatively good road conditions, he said.
But when environmental and adverse road conditions are involved, these products raise safety concerns, he said.
One problem Petersen found was potholes, an issue that has become more problematic for Tucsonans this year due to particularly deep, saturating winter rains..
Using a Honda Accord, Petersen compared factory-issued 15-inch wheels with aftermarket 16- and 17-inch wheels on a test course outfitted with 3-inch-deep potholes.
He found that the increase in sizes not only made for a bumpier ride, but also caused considerable damage, even at low speeds. There was no damage to the factory wheels or tires.
At 20 mph and riding on 17-inch wheels, a test car sustained a bent rim and blister bubble on the tire sidewall when it hit a pothole.
A BMW 530, which comes with 16-inch wheels, showed similar damage on the course, bending the 18-inch and 19-inch rims at 30 mph.
“What that tells us is that when going over potholes, you can have significant damage caused when you have plus-size wheels and low-profile tires even at relatively slow speeds,” Petersen said.
This has Javier Padilla concerned. The 26-year-old Tucson resident plans to replace the 14-inch wheels on his Dodge Neon with 17-inch, high-performance wheels.
He wants better cornering performance and hopes the $1,200 he is about to spend will be a onetime purchase.
“The only drawbacks with riding on (high-performance) rims on Tucson roads is the road itself,” he said.
Padilla said most of his friends have upgraded their cars and trucks, starting with wheels and tires.
Some of them have spent thousands of dollars to replace new wheels after hitting Tucson potholes.
But that does not stop people who want the look and feel of performance rims, he said.
“Different people see it different ways,” he said.
“Some people are in it for the look, while others want better handling and performance.”
By gripping more of the road, the special tires and rims may cause problems when cornering, which shifts the vehicle weight to the outside portion of tires, Petersen said.
Cars and small trucks are able to handle these turns better, especially with high-performance tires and wheels, because they are lower to the ground.
Sport utility vehicles and large trucks, however, have a higher center of gravity, leading to more rollover accidents when cornering, regardless of tire and wheel size.
Tires need to slide out to accommodate the change in momentum when cornering.
Because wider tires grip more road surface, they decrease the ability to slide out, keeping the center of gravity more stable and potentially causing more rollovers, Petersen said.
“Once the center of gravity passes the track of the tire path, you are really in a situation where the vehicle is going to roll or tip up,” he said. “You are going to have a higher propensity for rolls and tips at higher speeds.”
For this reason, Consumer Reports discourages plus-size wheels and low-profile tires on SUVs and large trucks.
With the heavier wheels, brakes and suspension parts must carry a heavier load. Depending on speed and road conditions, the strain could lead to damage to brake and suspension systems.
In many cases, brake systems must be upgraded along with plus size-wheels, said Roger McDowell, owner of Payless, a tire and wheel shop at 2301 S. Sixth Ave.
This can lead to repair bills beyond just wheel and tire wear. He said because tires absorb shock when driving, reducing the sidewall size puts more stress on brake calipers, rotors and wheel bearings.
“If you get higher than 22 inches, you need to change your brake systems, and people aren’t doing that,” he said. “If you don’t take everything into consideration, you’re going to have problems.”
McDowell recommends wheels no larger than 20 inches on two-wheel drive SUVs, 22 inches on four-wheel drives.
For cars, anything more than 20 inches is too much, he said.
The high-performance trend is unlikely to slow, Petersen said.
“Twenty years ago, you were looking at 60 tire sizes available,” he said. “Now that’s upwards of 250 or more. It’s a very popular trend that is probably not going to end anytime soon.”
Insurance agencies are waiting for more testing to decide if their rates should reflect tire and wheel sizes.
With so many options available at aftermarket dealerships, insurers are at a loss when determining if certain vehicles are more dangerous with certain tire and wheel combinations, said Jim Frederikson, executive director of Arizona Insurance Information Association.
“If there is evidence that shows there are some (combinations) that are dangerous, the industry will do its best to notify the public of these dangers,” he said.
“But if the individual car owners are customizing their vehicles to the point where they are more dangerous, then it is tough to address.”
Cruisers not a problem here
A sincere effort to cooperate with police and communicate with residents has paid off.
By DAVID L. TEIBEL and TY YOUNG
Some of the drivers opting for larger wheels on their rides also cruise Tucson’s streets as members of car clubs.
But while cruising was a problem in Tucson several years ago, area cruisers worked with police and city officials to keep the streets safe.
Sandra Teran, who runs Dukes car club with her husband, Alfred, said the city’s acceptance of cruising has made life easier. A cruiser since 1982, she said communication with residents and law enforcement is the key.
“We have introduced ourselves to the police, to the mayor to the City Council,” she said. “We really want to show who we are, that we’re not a gang and we’re not committing crimes. If you want respect, you have to show respect.”
Cruising has not been a problem here for 2 1/2 years, said Capt. Sharon Allen, the Tucson Police Department’s chief of staff.
At that time, car cruisers shifted from their traditional South Sixth Avenue cruising area to East Speedway Boulevard. Problems included random shootings, vandalism, traffic congestion, aggravated assaults, robberies and other crimes. But, police implemented what they called the Safe Speedway 2001 Program, increasing the number of officers patrolling the boulevard, mostly on weekends, for a month.
City Council members whose wards cover traditional cruising streets agree the problem has disappeared.
They said a proposed state law that would have reduced traffic caused by cruising and provided authority to seize cruisers’ cars if they blocked residential and emergency vehicle traffic, would not likely have been implemented here.
“We don’t have the problem, you have to have the problem first,” said Councilman Steve Leal, whose Ward 5 covers South Sixth Avenue.
Councilman Fred Ronstadt, whose Ward 6 covers the former East Speedway Boulevard cruising area, agreed.
The laws in effect are sufficient, he said.
Apparently, state lawmakers agreed. The House rejected the bill 37-19 last week, with four members not voting.
The measure targeted cruising in Maryvale and other Phoenix suburbs, but would have applied to all Arizona cities.
Patrick Gibbons, who lives near East Speedway Boulevard and North Craycroft Road, said he has not run into problems with cruisers. As president of the Harlan Heights neighborhood association, he said this is a sentiment his neighbors share.
“Nobody in our community has raised concerns about cruising,” he said. “It has become an accepted part of the culture here.”
GRAPHIC: The rub against dubs
Sources: Consumer Reports, tirerack.com/Gannett News Service
PHOTO CAPTIONS: VAL CAÑEZ/Tucson Citizen
Abel Teran’s 1948 Chevy Fleetmaster sports performance wheels.
GARY GAYNOR/Tucson Citizen
Oversized chrome wheels, such as these at Payless, come in many sizes and styles.
Martin Beltran places a 20-inch tire to a wheel at Payless, a tire shop on South Sixth Avenue. The tire and wheel wll weigh about 80 pounds.