Us off-roaders aren’t big on change. We’re pushing our vehicles and ourselves to the very extent of our abilities. We travel far beyond conventional wisdom, and well past a helping hand if we find ourselves neck deep in strife. It’s something that not only affects the gear we fit to our adventure chariots, but often the very materials they’re made from. The battle between steel and alloy wheels has debated for decades, but with a recent resurgence in alloy popularity we figured it’s time to re-visit the topic and see if the old logic still prevails.
Traditionally alloy and steel wheels have been broken up into a few pros and cons. Alloy wheels have always been typically lighter than their steel counterparts, the logic goes that they’re not as strong as a steel wheel, and can have catastrophic failure if something does go wrong, so are generally more an aesthetic upgrade than an off-road orientated one.
Steel wheels are thought to bend rather than break, the story goes if you damage a steel wheel you can bend it back into position with a soft-faced hammer to re-seat the bead then continue your journey, of course the downside to this is they’re often 50% heavier than a similar sized alloy wheel.
DO THEY HOLD UP?
So we know the old theories. Do they still hold up? Well, no. Many steel wheel manufacturers boast that steel wheels will “never split or crack”. It’s their calling cry that steel wheels are the only real option for fair-dinkum off-roading, but it’s easily disproved by a quick online search showing many examples of steel wheels with catastrophic failure far beyond the realm of a quick hammer fix to get back on the tracks. As the material is softer too you’re more likely to damage a steel wheel than an alloy.
Likewise, aluminium wheels aren’t as simple as first thought either. Their pros of lighter weight are still as strong as ever, reducing unsprung weight allowing you to offset some of the negatives of larger tyres. But not all alloys are light weight. In fact, many cheaper options are manufactured using very basic methods where they’re forced to add more material to keep strength up giving cheap alloys no weight or strength advantages.
So should you buy a steel or alloy wheel for your bus? That can be summed up with a simple question, what’s your budget? Like for like, steel wheels are always going to be cheaper to manufacture than an alloy. If there’s a $100 steel wheel, and a $100 alloy wheel, the steel will be stronger every day of the week. But, and it’s a big but, steel wheels are very limited not only in design but construction as well. High end alloys are able to be manufactured considerably stronger than their cheaper counterparts by changing the casting process.
Gravity cast wheels are cheap, nasty, weak, and heavy. Pressure cast alloy wheels are generally OEM quality with a much denser material so are lighter and stronger. Forged wheels are the pinnacle of strength and low-weight with a chunk of aluminium pressed into the shape of a wheel. With alloy wheels comparable with strength and considerably lighter, steel wheels are fast becoming the affordable option, not the tough option.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Dan has freelanced for RV magazines for five years. The self-declared “car tragic” has rebuilt more trucks and performance rigs than his age in years and came to RV travel on a US blitz, where he gifted a $1000 Craigslisted camper to a backpacker in Miami. He often travels the east coast with his young family between gigs and has spent time in Cape York and the High Country.