Wheels and Tires: Making or Breaking a Car


Most car buyers don’t really think about wheels and tires. The donuts made out of black rubber aren’t exactly sexy and are usually only remembered when they fail. Consequently, tires tend to be nothing more than round things on a car for most drivers. Still, people appear to like large wheels that fill the wheel wells, at least based upon what I see on the roads, so car buyers do pay at least a little attention to what’s rotating underneath their vehicles. If only people understood exactly how important the wheel and tire decision is when purchasing a vehicle and how that choice can make or break the overall handling dynamics and ride quality of an automobile, not to mention owner’s pocketbooks.

I recently spent a week in England in the new 2017 Mercedes E-Class. The all-new German sedan was fitted with optional 20-inch wheels carrying run-flat performance tires. Leading up to UK trip, I spent an extended period with a similar E-Class in the USA. That car was fitted with 18-inch wheels with conventional, non-run flat performance tires. Both cars carried the same optional air suspension at all four corners. I was blown away by how much the large, 20-inch wheels and shorter, unforgiving sidewalls of the run-flat tires compromised the relaxed nature of the latest Mercedes midsize sedan. The car I drove in England felt heavier and more cumbersome over imperfections, while also crashing over bumps and never feeling properly settled. Additionally, the big wheels bring along staggered tires — wide 275 mm rear tires paired with 245 mm front tires. This means that rotating the tires to extend the life of the rubber is out of the question. Why someone would want such wide, performance-oriented tires on a four-cylinder luxury sedan is beyond me. The 18-inch wheels carrying the E300 in the States made it a far nicer car to live with.

Unfortunately, it’s not as straight forward as just picking the size of the wheels. In the UK, the “AMG Line” models (“Sport” in the USA) all come fitted with summer run-flat tires while the base E-Class models (“Luxury” in the States) feature conventional summer tires (not run-flats) along with a fix-a-flat repair kit in the trunk. All non-AMG E-Class models in the USA carry run-flat, all-season tires but Mercedes-Benz USA is thinking about offering performance tires as a special order option — either run-flat or conventional, they haven’t decided. The E-Class will no-doubt handle and steer better on performance tires versus all-seasons, but that choice forces the winter-tire averse American buyers that live in the snow belt to purchase a second set of tires. I see no issue with this and always buy winter tires for my cars, but many people don’t see the clear logic or fully understand the benefits.

It’s also interesting to study the tire setup of various other models that are sold in both Europe and the USA. For example, the Ford Focus ST comes standard with basically the same performance tire on both sides of the pond. The difference is that our Focus ST carries a full-size spare, robbing valuable cargo room. In Europe, a fix-a-flat compressor and tire seal kit lives in the cargo area instead. Additionally, American buyers can order all-season tires on the ST in case they are looking to compromise the handling of their car (instead of the smart choice of a dedicated set of winter tires).

Speaking of winter wheels and tires, they can get rather complicated depending on certain performance options and brake upgrades. If you want to run winter wheels and tires on a Volkswagen Golf GTI, the optional Performance Pack changes your options. The base Golf GTI can run 16-inch steel wheels and winter tires, saving money. The larger Golf R-sourced brakes that come with the Performance Package force you to run 17-inch alloy wheels for your winter setup. It’s the same story over at Porsche and BMW. If you spec the optional carbon ceramic brakes, be prepared to shell out more money for larger diameter winter wheels and tires due to the dimensions of those expensive brakes.

2015 Ford Edge front three quarter in motion 07

There is also the replacement cost of large wheels to think about if you bend or damage one, even with more pedestrian automobiles. The 18-inch aluminum wheels on a 2016 Ford Edge cost roughly $590 each to replace — not crazy expensive for factory wheels. The 20-inch wheels, however, run $1300 each. Should you turn all four wheels into a taco-shaped mess after visiting a ditch, you are looking at over $5000 to replace the set.

The lesson here is to get down on your hands and knees and study the wheels and tires on the car you’re interested in purchasing, whether new or used. Do your research and understand what compromises you may be making in exchange for a certain look or optional brake or performance package. And take a look at all four corners of the car, not just one. A friend of mine bought a used, rear-wheel drive Mercedes S-Class from an out-of-state dealer a few years ago. He didn’t plan to drive it a ton in the winter so he wasn’t going to purchase winter tires but I told him that he would have to because of the car’s summer performance tires. He told me I was wrong as he confirmed his new car carried all-season tires. It turned out we were both right: the front axle had all-season tires and the rear had performance tires. Do your research and confirm everything, ladies and gentlemen.



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