Steel wheels, or steelies, are automobile wheels that are constructed out of the metal. Due to their cheap and simple design, they are fairly ubiquitous, and are often included as the stock wheels on the cheapest base trim of many car models. They are somewhat unattractive, compared to more expensive alloy wheels, and so are often fitted with plastic hubcaps, which replicate the shiny, spoked look of alloys.
Steel wheels have been a staple of the automobile industry virtually since its inception. The very first automobile wheels were wooden designs that were basically modified wagon wheels. With the higher speeds and greater strain put on them by newer motors, however, the need soon arose for sturdier materials.
Around 1900, the first steel-spoked wheels were introduced. These initial designs consisted of a steel hub, and numerous steel wires connecting the hub to the rim. The introduction of steel wheels roughly coincided with the proliferation of air-filled tires, providing greater overall resiliency to road defects, and more comfort to passengers. Steel wheel designs have not changed all that much in the past century, and although manufacturing processes have been refined, most wheel innovations have taken place in the field of alloys and not steel.
Typically, a steel wheel, which is pressed together from separate pieces of sheet metal, is heavier than an alloy wheel of the same size. This makes it less fuel efficient, slower to accelerate, and worse at handling. Left untreated or unpainted, steel wheels are prone to rust, and are more likely to bend or warp. Their main advantage over alloy wheels, however, is their significantly cheaper cost. This alone is, in large part, why steelies see continued use and popularity among both manufacturers and drivers.
Particularly in rear wheel drive cars, drivers often choose to have two sets of wheels — one an alloy set with high performance tires for summer use, and a set of steel wheels and snow tires. Since they are relatively cheap and robust, steel wheels are often used in conjunction with snow tires for use in winter weather. With conditions generally harsher during colder months, steel wheels represent a cost effective option for driving through snow, ice, and salted roads, without the fear of superficial damage that exists with alloys. A steel wheel is also often provided as a full-size spare tire in many cars, even those otherwise fitted with alloys.