I work for a major manufacturer of custom wheels, and I'm often amazed at the way that many retail customers try to buy custom wheels for their vehicle. Most people expect that the wheel they want will be available for their vehicle in the size and finish they want. Unfortunately, custom wheels often don't comply with shopper's dreams.
In this guide, I'll walk you through the wheel-buying experience, including common pitfalls and how to avoid them.
Step 1: Research Your Vehicle
The first step, as it is with so much else, is to do a little bit of research.
First, look up your vehicle. Make sure you look up your vehicle's exact bolt pattern, offset, and stock tire size. This will be the first limitation as to what you can actually get for your vehicle: If you drive a 2001 Honda Civic, you're not going to be able to put a set of 22x9.5" AX805 Force wheels on it.
There are certain bolt patterns that are very difficult to find. If your vehicle has one of the following bolt patterns, don't spend any time looking over wheel catalogs; instead, if you really want wheels, just go to your tire dealer and ask them if they can find anything at all to fit your vehicle. These bolt patterns, and the most common vehicles that have them, are:
- 4x4.25/108: Ford Focus
- 5x105: Chevy Cruze, Chevy Volt
- 5x130: Porsche, some VW, a scattering of other models
- 6x4.5: Some years of Dodge Durango, Dodge Dakota, Nissan Frontier
- 6x115: Cadillac CTS-V, SRX
- 6x120: Cadillac SRX
- 6x5: Chevy Trailblazer
- 6x132: GM Acadia
- 8x180: 2011 and newer Chevrolet 2500 and 3500 single-axle trucks
- 8x200: Ford Superduty Dually
- 8x210: 2011 and newer Chevrolet Dually
- 8x225: Ford Superduty Dually
In addition, some vehicles have an unusual offset that can make finding custom wheels difficult. In particular, Corvettes, all-wheel drive Chargers and similar Dodge vehicles, four-wheel drive Chevrolet S-10 trucks, and Camaros made between 1992 and 2003 are very difficult to fit.
Step 2: Research Wheels
Next, visit the various manufacturer's websites. Some manufacturers to consider:
- Wheel Pros: Wheel Pros holds the patents to many of the classic wheels by American Racing. They also have many popular modern wheels in their KMD, Motometal, and Motegi lines. Wheel Pros does tend to be on the pricey side, however.
- Velocity/Wheel Mart: Velocity wheels are very affordable. However, their warranty is a little threadbare and their quality isn't terribly great.
- ATD: ATD is a relatively new entrant into the wheel market. They recently acquired several wheel lines, including Cragar, Dick Cepek, and Mickey Thompson. Wheels still aren't a major part of their revenue, so availability on all but their most popular wheels is pretty low.
- The Wheel Group: This manufacturer is similar to Wheel Pros, but without many iconic wheels. I honestly don't know much about them; their presence has been steadily fading in my local market, so I don't hear much about them anymore.
Most of the wheel lines you see on the market are subdivisions of one of these major manufacturers. Some of the national tire dealers—Discount Tire (America's Tire Company), for example—also have their own captive brands. Each of the major manufacturers has strengths and weaknesses beyond what I've outlined here; look online or leave a comment if you'd like to know more about any particular manufacturer.
Don't get attached to any particular wheel while you're perusing the websites. Custom wheels are a naturally slow-moving product, so most manufacturers don't like to have a lot of dead inventory on hand. Most manufacturers only actively produce their best sellers; my company, for example, is currently only building about a third of the wheels in our catalog. Rather than looking for the one wheel you want, just try to get a feel for each manufacturer's style.
Lastly, be flexible about sizes. While the size of the wheel does impact your ride, for the most part it's immaterial as far as how tall your vehicle will sit; that is determined by the tire. Availability or price may force you to change your original sizing plans, so if you go into the ordeal with a flexible mind you'll have a better chance of driving your vehicle away on a new set of rims.
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Step 3: Set Your Budget
Last, before you go visit a tire dealer, set a budget for yourself. Wheels can get expensive, and it can be easy to let yourself be talked up $50 at a time.
For painted wheels, you should expect to pay anywhere from $100 to $300 a wheel, depending on the size of the wheel. If you want a polished wheel, add between $20 to $40 per wheel. For chrome wheels, add between $50 and $100 per wheel.
If you want multipiece wheels, throw your budget out the window. Expect to pay more than $10,000 on your set of wheels by the time you're done with everything.
Tires are typically just as expensive as your wheels, if not more. Unless you're staying with the same size of wheel as your vehicle came with, you'll need to buy new tires along with your wheels.
Assume that you'll pay shipping, especially if you don't live in a major city. Some manufacturers include free shipping, but don't count on it. You can expect to pay between $15-$30 per wheel for shipping charges. That's not your tire dealer trying to gouge you: Wheels are heavy and expensive to ship. I can't speak for any other manufacturers, but we charge our dealers exactly what our shipping company charges us. I assume that most dealers charge the retail customer the same freight as we charge the dealer, though obviously I have no way to verify that.
Lastly, you'll need to pay a mount and balance fee. This is usually a flat fee per wheel regardless of the size of your wheels, and is usually between $8-$25 per wheel. Some dealers may charge extra for exceptionally large wheels.
Step 4: Visit a Tire and Wheel Dealer
Armed with your plans and your budget, head down to your trusted dealer. Ask to speak to the salesperson in charge of wheels. You want a salesperson who is experienced at selling wheels. Wheels are surprisingly complex; if your dealer orders the wrong wheels because the salesperson was inexperienced, you may have to wait even longer to get the wheels you want onto your vehicle.
Tell your salesperson what you're looking for in a wheel, along with all pertinent information about your vehicle. Year, make, and model are just the start of the information he or she will need. Your salesperson will also need to know about any modifications you've done to the vehicle (brakes, lift kits, lowering kits) along with any options that might impact the wheels and tires of your vehicle, no matter how minor you think they might be.
Have your salesperson call their distributors and find out which wheels are available for your vehicle, along with the current price. After receiving a quote from the salesperson, write down the information and leave. Sleep on the quote for a night before deciding whether to go ahead with your purchase.
You may want to take the opportunity to call around to other dealers in your area. Some dealers may get a better deal from the manufacturers, while other dealers may put a lower mark-up on their wheel sales.
If you still want to purchase a set of wheels after thinking about it for a night, waste no time in getting to your dealer. It never fails; a set of wheels may languish in my warehouse for months, only to have five different dealers call on that same set in the same day from completely different states. Your dealer will likely have you put down a deposit on your wheels; now, all you'll have to do is wait!