SHOWDOWN: ALUMINUM V. STEEL WHEELS

Aluminum’s lighter, but they’re going to cost you in price and elbow grease.

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 wheels.

“Steel wheels come standard on seven of the eight heavy-duty truck name plates, with the exception of Sterling, as well as a few higher-end models like the Freightliner Coronado,” says Mike Blacker, Director of Marketing & Product Management for Accuride, makers of both steel and aluminum wheels.

However, price doesn’t seem to deter the 40% to 50% 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 weights, 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 wheels 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.”

While the weight savings are neglible 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 longhaul 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 they’re sold at a premium through the OEMs, but the upcharge is marginal compared to aluminum.

Trade-in time

Both Holtz and Blacker say there’s anecdotal evidence that many aluminum wheel buyers will recoup at least 50% of the aluminum upcharge on the back-end of a truck’s lifecycle when you go to trade it in.

“If you were to buy a truck outfitted with aluminum wheels, with 10 wheels @ $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 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 is 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. That fact, besides the extra cost, is a major reason why St. Thomas, Ont. Carrier LE Walker Transport doesn’t spec aluminum wheels for its fleet. “With steel, you just wash them. With aluminum, to keep them looking nice, you have to polish them,” says fleet manager Bill Arthur. “If you’re going to pay the extra premium on aluminum you want to keep them shiny, and that takes a lot of extra work.”

The ride

Holtz says longhaul 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.

Arthur says this may be true in a controlled test environment where you might see less flex with an aluminum wheel, “but as far driving a truck in the real world, I don’t think there’s any difference in ride quality between steel and aluminum.”

So there you have it. If the show n’ shine circuit is your thing, or you just like to turn heads when you’re pulling into the local Husky, then aluminum wheels will definitely be a boon to the look of your ride. But if you’re at the dealer spec’ing a new truck, the significant upcharge for aluminum wheels may seem a little superfluous considering the much cheaper steel alternative will get you and your cargo around just as well (unless you’re bulk hauler, of course.)

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