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There are many discussions regarding steel vs. alloy wheels in Winter on multiple forums. It would be good if someone could lay out full facts and help scale these differences (questions below).

For Steel wheels:

  • Less expensive
  • Uniform and made mostly of stamped steel
  • May bend from potholes or any collisions
  • Rusts if the paint layer wears off

For Alloy wheels:

  • More expensive
  • Mostly cast aluminum alloys
  • More sturdy through potholes, will crack and break on hard collisions
  • Salt will wear off the alloy
  • Better looks and choice in design

The key questions are as follows. Please remember we are talking about a winter in Montreal, QC, meaning lots of potholes and salt on the roads in addition to parking in a heated garage at night:

  1. Is there a noticeable difference in handling due to the added weight of steel wheels? (seems to be 5-10 lbs more per wheel, ignore the salt and potholes for now) (scaling safety and performance)

  2. Are there safety concerns due to the potential bending of the steel wheels or are minor impacts from pothole too minor to be a concern? I.e.: During an accident, would the wheel type be a factor in the amount of damage to the rest of the car parts? (scaling safety)

  3. Would winter and salt do more damage to steel or alloy wheels? In what ways, quantify the amounts.

  4. What is the best long term value given that steel wheels may bend while both types may get salt damage and require replacement/repairs? (scaling costs)

  5. Bonus question 1: Is there a noticeable difference in performance and safety of lighter and higher performance alloy wheels compared to standard ones. (E.g.: Enkei Performance or Tuning Series to unbranded alloys)

  6. Bonus question 2: Are there pre-treatments to steel wheels that would help prolong its lifespan by reducing the occurrence of rust? Assuming the steel wheels come painted.

Thank you! I hope we could get answers, facts and discussions of the same quality as other Stack Exchange sites!

More Information: I forgot to mention it will be for the second set of wheels dedicated to Winter Tires. Car is a 2001 Subaru Forester S but in good condition!

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Tip: If you're going for steel wheels and you happen to get these plastic wheel covers (which might provide some extra protection) on them, fix them to the wheel with a cable tie if you want to keep them. They otherwise go their own way. –  Glen The Udderboat Oct 18 '13 at 7:48
    
You're missing one key point: are you implying that there are two sets of wheels available? One for summer, one for winter? If so, do you have your winter tires on your steel wheels? –  Bob Cross Oct 18 '13 at 11:41
    
Since in Québec its now mandatory to have winter tires from december 15 to march 15, most people(like me) will have to set of Wheel to cut the cost of changing them twice a year. –  Gabriel Mongeon Oct 18 '13 at 13:12
    
@Daemon, I had steel wheels for my winter tires since 15 years, never had to repaint them or have any issues running them. The added weight is negligeable as it's a daily driver and not a race car. Unless you go for the look of it, get steel wheels, it's cheaper and if it's get damaged by salt or potholes you'll save some money on buying replacements. –  Gabriel Mongeon Oct 18 '13 at 13:15
    
@BobCross Yes, I forgot to mention. This is for the second set of wheels that will mount the Winter Tires. There is a separate set of OEM Alloy Wheels mounted on my Summer tires right now. –  Daemon Oct 18 '13 at 16:55

2 Answers 2

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Bob cross makes some good points, however, I would offer the following opinions:

  1. Winter tires don't have the dry grip that summer tires do. Your "high performance" handling will be limited with your winter tires on. Therefore, I wouldn't be too concerned about the incremental difference in handling due to the difference in unsprung weight between steel and alloy wheels. So while Bob Cross is absolutely correct that lighter wheels do handle and ride better, it may not be worth it to spend the additional money for lighter wheels for your winter tires.

  2. In terms of resistance to bending when you hit potholes, any wheel can be damaged when driven through potholes. The best protection is to pick a wheel/tire combination with a reasonably tall sidewall, keep the tires properly inflated, and avoid driving through potholes! With winter tires, I generally choose a smaller wheel diameter and taller tire sidewall than for my summer tires. This affords me more protection from pothole damage, and I enjoy the softer ride in the winter months. Again, high-speed dry cornering won't be great with winter tires, so I see no point in buying big wheels and low profile snows. As far as your steel/alloy choice goes, resistance to damage from potholes wouldn't play into my calculus. Steel wheels are also easy to repair should they get bent.

  3. In terms of salt damage resistance, Bob is again correct that either wheel type can be damaged by salt exposure. I would add that with a steel wheel it's really easy at the end of the winter season to quickly wire-brush off any flaking paint and rust, then touch up the wheel with a can of spray paint. Its easier to match the (typically flat) paint on a steel wheel than to do a high-quality touch up of a glossy painted alloy. The steel wheels may develop rust spots more often than you'd notice chipped paint/salt damage on an alloy, but its just so easy to touch up the steel wheels. With my alloy wheels, I give them a good washing and a coat of good hard wax at the end of the season, which really increases its resistance to salt damage (and brake dust staining for that matter).

So here's how I think about the steel/alloy choice for winter wheels: It's boils down to almost purely an aesthetic question. Do you like the looks of the alloys better? If so, how much are you willing to pay for that? I've had both types, both are fine choices. Where I grew up, we had long winters, so we had to look at our cars with the winter wheels on for quite a while. This may have pushed us in the alloy direction a bit more. However, I also think some cars can look great with a set of black steel wheels.

Don't agonize over the decision, instead, congratulate yourself for making a great choice about buying a second set of wheels and dedicated winter tires. Its the single best thing you can do for winter driving safety.

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Yes, this will be a second set for dedicated winter tires. Could you extend on the type of damage that could happen on alloy wheels? It seems clear on the steel ones but I am having difficulty to grasp the allow situation. –  Daemon Oct 18 '13 at 17:06
    
If the paint on an alloy chips, you can get oxidation of the underlying alloy metal. It won't be red like rust, more typically it will be chalky white. If you catch it before it gets horrendously bad, its simple to clean it up and throw some touch-up paint on to keep the oxidation from spreading. –  mac Oct 21 '13 at 13:48

Is there a noticeable difference in handling due to the added weight of steel wheels? (seems to be 5-10 lbs more per wheel, ignore the salt and potholes for now) (scaling safety and performance)

Yes. Assuming that your steel wheels are heavier than your alloy wheels (which might or might not be true), you'll be facing an increase in unsprung weight and rotational intertia. Your handling will be somewhat affected and you won't be as quick to accelerate or to brake. More specifics are required for a complete analysis.

Are there safety concerns due to the potential bending of the steel wheels or are minor impacts from pothole too minor to be a concern? I.e.: During an accident, would the wheel type be a factor in the amount of damage to the rest of the car parts? (scaling safety)

If you bend a wheel, it won't work as well. If you run into another car, it's unlikely that your wheel choice is going to matter: the frame, body and crumple sections dominate that situation.

Would winter and salt do more damage to steel or alloy wheels? In what ways, quantify the amounts.

It depends. A steel wheel will rust wherever there isn't paint. An alloy wheel might be affected by salt to varying degrees. The specifics of the allow are required to decide how much of a protective oxidation layer might form.

What is the best long term value given that steel wheels may bend while both types may get salt damage and require replacement/repairs? (scaling costs)

It depends. Can you afford two sets of tires and two sets of wheels, allowing you to switch for winter and summer? That's the best bet. If not, are you willing to replace or tolerate bent and rusted wheels for a while before spending money on them? If not, steel wheels might not be for you.

Bonus question 1: Is there a noticeable difference in performance and safety of lighter and higher performance alloy wheels compared to standard ones. (E.g.: Enkei Performance or Tuning Series to unbranded alloys)

It depends on the driver, the vehicle and the environment. Are you on a track driving at speed? If not, it's going to be more difficult to perceive the difference. Are you driving in a rough road environment? If so, you should purchase more robust wheels or there will be tears when you break a hub.

Bonus question 2: Are there pre-treatments to steel wheels that would help prolong its lifespan by reducing the occurrence of rust? Assuming the steel wheels come painted.

Yes: paint and more paint. Keep the salt away from the metal and the metal will last longer.

What I do:

I live in a region that gets salted when it snows but we generally have fairly mild winters (barring the odd hurricane, nor'easter or blizzard). I'm still running with the stock allows that came with my car. If I had the cash, I'd pay for some nice summer wheels, get summer tires for them and keep snow tires on the stock alloys (but I don't so I won't). I've never even considered getting steel wheels.

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Nice answer. But if the car came with nice alloy wheels, buying steel wheels to mount winter tires will pay themselves if you change your tires by yourself. Saving 2 tires change each year over 3-4 years will beat the cost of steel wheels. –  Gabriel Mongeon Oct 18 '13 at 13:34
    
@GabrielMongeon, you're not wrong: if I had infinite cashflow, I could make the initial investment and then amortize the cost over time. However, I chose to have children instead. ;-) –  Bob Cross Oct 18 '13 at 14:09
    
I guess I have infinite cashflow for having children AND steel wheels ;) –  Gabriel Mongeon Oct 18 '13 at 14:34
    
@BobCross More context, it will be on a standard roads (average 50-60 km/h) /highway (under 150 km/h). This is for the second set of tires dedicated to winter. Would your performance answers change? –  Daemon Oct 18 '13 at 17:09

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