Wheel Showdown: Aluminum vs Steel
Polished aluminum wheels look great, they'll save you weight, and some say they even ride better.
But there's a reason why the industry-standard wheel spec for North American trucks calls for steel wheels -- they're about three times cheaper than aluminum.
"Steel wheels come standard on seven of the eight heavy-duty truck name plates, with the exception of a few higher-end models like the Freightliner Coronado," says Mike Blacker, director of marketing and product management for Accuride, makers of both steel and aluminum wheels.
However, price doesn't seem to deter 40 to 50 percent of truck buyers -- both fleets and owner-operators -- from spending the extra bucks to go with aluminum. And there are four main reasons why, according to wheel manufacturers: weight savings, aesthetics, ride comfort, and resale value.
Weigh Your Options:
With respect to weight, Blacker says the standard Accuride steel wheel weighs 76 or 78 lb, depending on whether it's a five- or two-handhole wheel, whereas a similar Accuride aluminum wheel weighs 47 lb and has 10 handholes. "You're going to save about 30 lb in weight, and if you do that at 10 positions on the truck that's going to save you roughly 300 lb," he says.
While the weight savings are negligble when it comes to fuel economy, it does make a difference if you're in a weight-sensitive application like bulk hauling, where 300 lb off your truck weight means 300 lb of extra cargo. "If you're a bulk hauler, you'll easily recoup the upcharge for aluminum wheels in added revenue.
Plus, there are some long-haul operations that will run pretty much at full gross vehicle weight, so the weight savings are important to them as well," adds Mark Holtz, director of marketing and technology for Alcoa's commercial vehicle wheels group.
Blacker notes that Accuride offers a lighter-weight steel alternative for buyers looking for some weight advantages without the extra expense of aluminum – the lightweight steel wheel. It's 66 lb with 10 handholes and sold at a premium through the OEMs, but the upcharge is "marginal" compared to aluminum.
Both Holtz and Blacker say there's anecdotal evidence that many aluminum wheel buyers will recoup at least 50 percent of the aluminum upcharge when they go to trade their truck in.
"If you were to buy a truck outfitted with aluminum wheels, with 10 wheels at $200 upcharge per wheel, you're looking at $2000. We've done market research that suggests that the resale value of that truck goes up substantially with aluminum wheels. It could be as high as $1500 per truck, so a good chunk of that upcharge is offset by what you get at the back end," says Holtz.
"And it's going to be a lot easier for a person to sell that truck on the used truck market," adds Blacker. "That's why a lot of fleets spec them."
Keeping Up Appearances:
Then, of course, there's the aesthetics. Polished aluminum truck wheels just look good, which is important to many owner-operators as well as image-conscious fleets. Some fleets say they outfit their trucks with aluminum wheels as a driver-retention measure, just because drivers like the look.
However, there's a downside to keeping things pretty. If you're not prepared to expend some elbow grease in keeping aluminum polished, they won't stay shiny for long. With steel, you just wash them. With aluminum, to keep them looking nice, you have to polish them.
Holtz says long-haul fleets started to get into aluminum wheels because of a perceived improvement in ride quality and tire life. Because aluminum wheels are made from a one-piece process, he says they tend to be truer and better balanced.
It's a somewhat controversial point in some eyes, with at least one fleet owner we know saying this may be true in a controlled test environment where you might see less flex with an aluminum wheel, but in the real world it won't make any difference.
Still, if the show n' shine circuit is your thing, or you just like to turn heads when you're pulling into the local truckstop, then aluminum wheels are almost necessary. But the aluminum upcharge may seem a little much considering that the cheaper steel alternative will roll you and your cargo around just as well.