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What are Steel Wheels?

By Mike Howells
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments

By Markerrag — On Feb 08, 2015

@Melonlity -- That may have been the problem once upon a time, but manufacturers have been making those better looking steel wheels for years. I am willing to bet that any problems with warping, bending or anything else has been dealt with over the years.

You usually only have to worry about such weird problems if you are an early adopter. No one who buys nifty looking steels wheels these days is not an early adopter by an stretch of the imagination.

By Melonlity — On Feb 07, 2015

@Terrificli -- We are seeing more of these things, but it is important to remember that that those wheels are only better than traditional steel wheels in a cosmetic sense. You might get a better look, but you don't get the same advantages of allow wheels.

One thing I do wonder about is whether these things are durable over time. Steel wheels are big and heavy and must be covered by a hubcap because they are so ugly. If they are made with less materials so they look more like alloy wheels, could they warp and cause problems with heavy use?

By Terrificli — On Feb 06, 2015

Manufacturers have developed ways over the years to make some steel wheels look more like alloy wheels. You don't get the same weight and performance advantages, but the wheels are still inexpensive and that means you can save some money and have a wheel that looks pretty good.

It is one of those compromises for the sake of price that isn't that bad.

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