It used to be that allow wheel rims were quite a special thing to have on a car. They really set the vehicle apart from the competition aesthetically, and often added quite a premium to the sticker price. In the modern age, however, alloy wheels are much more commonplace.
These days, it’s not really a question of whether or not you have alloy wheels but rather their size, color, composition, and design. The more intricate, sporty designs in black-gloss finish or another specialty color, for example, will come on the premium- or special-edition models, while the base models feature simpler designs in standard silvery or metallic color.
Looking After Alloy Wheels
While alloy rims undeniably look better than their older steel counterparts, they are still in need of great amounts of care on the part of their owners. Right now, it’s not really the price of the alloys that makes them so in need of our protection, but more their composition.
The fact is that while ally rims are aesthetically a huge improvement on steel wheels, they lack the physical constitution, and are susceptible to scratches, dings, chips and a host of other potential problems that we will describe below. The focus of today’s article is providing a comprehensive guide to alloy wheel care.
Armed with this information, we believe you’ll be able to better keep your alloys in good shape, avoiding the need for expensive professional attention to cure them of their many possible ailments. It’s especially important if you’ve invested a lot of money in a unique and distinctive set of wheels that form an important part of your vehicle’s overall look.
Benefits of Alloy Wheels Over Steel Wheels
Before we get into the pitfalls and problem-solving, let’s focus on the more positive side of owning alloy rims or mag wheels. Below are the main benefits that come with owning a nice set of alloys:
Alloys Look Far Better
There’s no denying it, when you look at older car models with their steel wheels or plastic-look hub-caps, can there be any doubt that these wheels and this look are better off consigned to the dustbin of history? In earlier designs, what alloys offered was a chic, brushed-metal look that was just so much more stylish than functional steel.
Over time, however, as the process got cheaper and designs more intricate, wheels now feature interesting spoke patterns and shapes. Even the basic 15” or 16” alloy wheels that you find on the base model of a $20,000-or-so sedan are infinitely superior in looks to those of yesteryear.
Alloys are Lighter
Every pound of weight that your car can shed can help to improve the overall fuel economy of the vehicle. The average weight for an OEM steel wheel of 17 inches is about 46lbs. Aluminum alloy wheels of the same size will come in at about 22 or 23 pounds, and 16-inch wheels — standard on most new passenger cars — are about 18.5lbs.
Lighter weight means better fuel economy and better performance. If you compared the two, you’d find that the acceleration and handling on the alloy-wheel car would be that much more agile and nimble than the steel wheels. Perhaps one advantage of the steel wheel, however, is that they help to lower the center of gravity, which does give good secure handing on tight corners.
Alloy Wheel Stopping Speeds
For those who drive bigger, heavier vehicles for which the bulkier steel wheel is appropriate fit them hopefully knowing that the heavier wheel will add to their stopping time overall. There’s something known as the 10-10-10-1 rule of thumb. This refers to the well-founded theory that a 10 percent increase in overall wheel size results in a 10 percent decrease in brake performance. In addition, 10lbs more weight in the wheel and/or tire will give you a 1-percent decrease in brake performance.
Following this principle, we can start to see how alloy rims can bring some added safety benefits, as well as just looking the part. None of this is to say that steel wheels are unsafe — otherwise why would they still be street-legal — but rather that one should consider exactly the use that one has in mind for the vehicle, and the various requirements in terms of performance. If you need sharper braking and more agile handling, then alloys are a better choice.
Common Alloy Wheel Problems
Let’s move on to some of the problems. Below are several issues that are known to commonly happen with alloy rims. It’s interesting to see how few drivers really understand the vulnerabilities of alloy wheels. Yes, they’re metal, but it’s usually a somewhat softer, weaker construction than the old dependable steel wheel. Still, they look the part, so that’s why people want them.
Scuffs and Dents
Bumps with other vehicles or unfortunate scrapes along the curb can lead to quite serious scarring, dents and even pieces of the alloy being chipped away. If it’s not the metal itself, then at least the coated surface will take some punishment. When alloys are placed primarily for aesthetic purposes — and they are — then any kind of scuff, dent or chip is like a serious disfigurement; it’s an unsightly sore on the otherwise unblemished surface.
Distortion and Bending
Another common issue that affects alloys is distortion or bending in the rim. It’s a very common result of even fairly minor accidents or collisions, or even if you hit a pothole too hard, depending on the exact situation. Careless driving as a habit is bad for many components of your car, but with the inherent vulnerability of alloy wheels means that they become easy targets for bending and distortion.
The softer metals used to make the alloys rims are more susceptible to acidic materials that are hurled at the various surfaces of our car on a daily basis. Everything from bird droppings to tree sap can create corrosion on parts of the wheels, once again badly affecting their appearance, but also their structural integrity.
Brake dust is another source of corrosion, but at least all of these things can be solved with some regular cleaning. As long as they’re not allowed to accumulate or sit on the surface for too long, the damage done won’t be too severe.
Alloy Wheel Care: Washing
The first part of care for the alloy wheels is in the cleaning routines. In the United States, we have a huge variety of environments, and that can have some impact on recommended alloy-wheel cleaning habits. Here are some important aspects to consider:
Alloy Washing – Temperature
Heat is not your friend when washing any part of your car. When it comes to your car’s paint, this is an important factor because a lot of heat means the washing water and solution will evaporate quickly before you have time to dry it, thus leaving streak marks or worse. Even if the ambient temperature where you are isn’t hot, if you’ve just been driving your car around the whole morning, then the wheels will be fairly hot.
The result of both of these considerations is that you need to find a cool space if your surroundings are hot, perhaps a shaded area, or in a covered space like a garage or car port. In the second situation, then you need to allow time for the wheels to cool down before setting yourself to the task.
Alloy Washing – Cleaning Products
Look to quality dedicated alloy cleaning products like the following:
- Sonax Full Effect Wheel Cleaner – a solid all-around choice, with a 16.9 fl. oz. bottle costing around $15-16 on Amazon
- TriNova Wheel Cleaner – another affordable product, but not quite as heavy-duty as the Sonax; though this one is acid-free, which is an added bonus
- Car Guys Wheel Cleaner – will cost a little bit more than the others, but it’s way more eco-friendly and doesn’t have run-off as you apply
These are a few ideas to get you started, but there is seemingly endless choice out there of products to suit your specific needs. Another useful feature to look for is a product that claims to foam, especially if your alloy wheels are of a particular ornate or intricate design pattern. Foaming products are great because as you apply them and they foam up and expand, they get into every little nook and cranny to create a really thorough cleaning effect. Spray-on liquid cleaners are fine for simpler designs, especially those with broader, less finnicky builds, but are harder to get all over the wheel in more complex designs.
One other important thing to remember is not to use household detergents to clean the wheels. It’s the same rule as your car’s paint. These products have different chemical compositions are were not made for cleaning automotive surfaces.
Alloy Washing – Equipment
From the above section, you might now be concerned that we are going to suggest a long list of expensive equipment that one needs in order to perform an effective alloy wheel cleaning. In fact, alloy cleaning can be done very simply with products described above and a simply brush and towel for scrubbing and drying.
If you want to make your life a bit easier, though, then a pressure washer is another invaluable tool. You don’t need to spend as much as you think on pressure washers, either, because there are some great household ones that are very reasonable at $120 or a little more. It’s a good investment if your alloys regularly get caked in dirt. The high-pressure water is so much more effective at quickly removing caked-on mud, and it will make short work of brake dust. Like the foaming action cleaner, it also helps you get into every corner of the alloy rim.
Alloy Washing – Wax
Believe it or not, there are even waxes for your alloy wheel. These products are not just for the color paint on the car’s body. Well-known brands include Magic Guard, Chemical Guys and WheelWax. Just like the best carnauba waxes, they restore color and shine to your alloy, but also can repel brake dust, grime, salt and other contaminants that threaten the sheen and even surface integrity of the alloys.
Alloy Washing – Drying
Finally, just as you should never forget to use a clean and dry microfiber towel to dry off the paint surface after washing, the same applies to your alloys. Keep a supply of clean towels and dry towels for this purpose. It’s essential they haven’t been contaminated by another cleaning job because otherwise you’re just spreading those contaminants to the freshly washed alloys.
Dry properly, and follow the other above tips, and your alloy washing will be successful and effective.
Alloy Wheel Care: Gutter Rash
So-called gutter rash (or curb rash) is an appropriately named condition to describe alloy wheels that have experienced one too many close encounters with the curb or other hard edges. It creates an unsightly rash-like effect on the surface of the wheels that just strips away that allure that so attracts the eye to an alloy rim in the first place
Such an unsightly disfigurement is not worthy of your alloys, so you should take some steps to avoid it from becoming a problem:
Start with the Right Tires
Some gutter rash is caused not by bad driving per se, but rather favoring the look of certain tires instead of the practicality and appropriate fit. Let’s say you love the look of narrow or stretched tires. They look slick, and you think they go well with the image you want to project from your car’s exterior. The trouble is that such wheels will inevitably leave the rims outer edges somewhat exposed.
The solution here is to prioritize fit over looks when it comes to putting tires around your precious rims. Properly fitted tires will act as a protective and cushioning blow, helping to shield the rims from as much harm as possible. You at least give them a fighting chance.
Use Protective Products
Items like wax that we mentioned above are not a substitute for being more careful on the road, but they may offer at least some protection from the worst effects of low-speed encounters between alloy and obstacle. It’s better to have them on and offer at least some level of protection to at least mitigate the worst effects or slow the advance of gutter rash. An unprotected wheel has no chance at all.
Get Better at Parking
The somewhat more awkward or harder-to-accept reality might be that your parking skill is just not up to snuff. Unless you are the victim of another bad driver who is constantly scuffing his or her own vehicle up against your own, you are likely to blame for the gutter rash afflicting your rims.
To remedy the situation, why not spend some time in your car (slowly) practicing your parking technique to avoid collisions with the curb. If you aren’t, for whatever reason, making use of your car’s ADAS features for parking, then start doing so immediately. Personal pride is not worth the humiliation of scuffed and unsightly wheels.
Know Your Vehicle
Finally, in this part, keeping your alloys safe is a question of knowing and understanding the dimensions and limitations of your vehicle. If you know how big the wheels are, if the alloys are slightly protruding or not, and therefore the need to be more careful, then you can factor that into your driving.
Alloy Wheel Care: Repairs
Gutter rash is one thing, but your alloys are also vulnerable to a number of other problems that your paint is, such as scratching and chipping. On the top of that, the rim itself can physically warm or become bent by certain impacts. In this section, we’ll deal with what to do about these issues.
The good news here is that the procedure for clearing and fixing up scratches is much the same as it is with paint. First you clean the area thoroughly, finishing with a good glass cleaner to get a really nice, clean surface to work with it. You’ll need to tape off the tires or other areas that are at risk of overspray when you get to the priming and painting stages. After that, you need to sand away the area until its ultra-smooth to the touch. After that, you apply several coats of primer, waiting about 10 minutes between each coating and sanding down the areas again to get them ready for the paint layer.
Once the area is prepped and primed, you apply the alloy paint. You can match the color of your wheel with your manufacturer or by checking the owner’s manual. The vast majority will be silver or some variant of it. It’s always good to be sure though because the wrong tone of paint will cause the repaired area to stick out like a sore thumb. After painting, you apply two light coats of clearcoat, waiting about 10-20 minutes between coatings, or as your specific product indicates.
After 10 minutes rest, you can remove the tape and the rim should be looking good as new.
Dents and Bending
This one requires a bit more skill because the only way to do the repairs is to pound the dents out. If you have some confidence and ability in car repair, then it’s worth doing to save yourself on a repair bill, but, overall, it might be better to leave some things to the professionals.
To do this, you’ll need a propane torch, heat monitor, large ball peen hammer, a metal mallet and some heat-resistant gloves. The first stage is to fully remove the tire and put it onto an accessible and spacious work area. You should ensure that there’s little or nothing around you to get in the way. If you can’t remove the tire yourself, you might have to bite the bullet at least for this stage and have a pro remove it with their mounting machine.
Next, you use the torch to apply heat to the dented part of the rim. It should reach about 250-300 degrees — that’s what the heat monitor is for — which is when it will be malleable but not melting. It’s still dangerous though, so ensure you’re wearing your heat-resistant gloves at all times. After heating, it’s time to pound out the dent. Start by placing the round end ball peen hammer against the dented edge to prevent you from getting flat spots. Then, use the mallet to hit the flat side of the ball peen hammer. You need enough force to create movement in the metal, but don’t go overboard.
Add more heat if the metal proves too hard to move. It should respond well to the hammer and mallet, so no movement suggests that the heating process isn’t done yet. Once the shape is restored, leave it to cool and then restore the tire. It should be good as new.
Fixing these dents is important because even small dents can cause air leakage from the tire. In fact, if you notice one tire losing pressure quickly, the cause could be a dented rim rather than a puncture. It’s always worth looking into.
Alloy Wheels – Repair or Replace?
To conclude, we’ll deal with another question that bothers alloy wheel users. Is it worth spending money to repair alloy wheels, or might it be better to just cut your losses and invest in a new set? Here are two basic rules you can follow:
Rule #1: When dealing with scratches, scuffs and minor dents and bending, repairs are worth it. Not only can much of the problem be solved with a bit of DIY and elbow grease, but even professional attention won’t break the bank, and it will be much cheaper than a brand-new set. If you like the wheels, and the damage is minor, then always repair.
Rule #2: When dealing with multiple points of damage, or alloys that have been bent in a more serious collision, then the benefits of repair become heavily outweighed by the costs. It would be much easier and cheaper in these cases to invest in a new set that can be directly installed with minimal fuss. It’s nice to get a refreshing new look, anyway, after another set of alloys has been more seriously damaged.
In the end, your alloy wheels still represent either a focal point on your vehicle’s design, or a custom piece of hardware that you have invested in to purchase and have installed. Hopefully this guide will help you maintain great-looking and head-turning alloys wheels that are the pride of your automobile.