As much as we in the overland community like to tell ourselves we’re all about function over form, our vanity sure seems to come out when it comes time to make those Instagram posts, doesn’t it? Hey, I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I can often be found posing my mud and dust-covered rig and walking all around trying to get just the right shot that shows off those formerly shiny, new wheels (see my Bronco below as evidence).
Once you dive into shopping for wheels, however, you find pretty quickly that there are a lot more factors to consider than most people tend to realize. This can be relatively easy if the wheels you want are designed specifically for your make/model (Jeep guys are spoiled in this way), but for those of us with less ubiquitous bolt patterns or offset requirements, it can turn into a nightmare of compromises quick.
My colleague Stephan wrote-up a fantastic guide on different wheel materials to consider when looking for an upgrade, which is definitely worth a read as you dive into this world. In this article, I’ll be focusing mostly on details related to getting the right fitment, and some other pitfalls to consider before investing in an expensive set of wheels. Wheels can be a shipping nightmare in the best of times, let alone if you need to figure out a return, so it’s best to get it right the first time around.
If your answer is just to get a unique look, that’s OK! No shame in wanting a bit of a unique look to set your pride and joy apart from others. You’ll likely be looking for new tires at the same time, however, and if you’re changing tire height and/or width, this is where the correct wheel dimensions are absolutely critical.
How many of us have had to deal with tires that rub on tight turns? At best it can be a minor annoyance, and garner some odd looks in a tight parking lot. At worst, you can severely damage your tires, your sheet metal, or both. I’ve had to cut away more bodywork, fender well plastic, and sheet metal than I care to remember in pursuit of getting rid of that rub (and still haven’t fully succeeded in the case of my Audi Allroad project).
But assuming you have sufficient wheel options available to you, you should be able to mitigate the issue and get proper fitment to match your lift (if applicable) and desired tire size. Here are a few terms and concepts to familiarize yourself with as you begin your search:
I’ll be honest, even after working in the automotive space for the better part of a decade, I still mix up positive and negative offset and have to sit and think about it for a moment to get it right in my head. The terms seem to be a little backwards than what would initially seem intuitive, but it makes sense with the right visuals:
In the diagram above we can see that the offset of a wheel is measured from the center of the barrel of the wheel and where the mounting surface to the hub is located. A lower offset means the wheel mounts further back in the barrel, pushing the wheel out from the hub. A higher offset means the wheel mounts closer to the outside of the wheel, bringing the barrel of the wheel in closer to the suspension components.
Modern-ish OEM wheels tend to sit with higher offsets, whereas aftermarket options in the off-road world tend to sit around zero to negative offset, depending on the brand and use case (AEV’s JL Wrangler specific Pintlers are one exception). Going to either extreme (positive or negative offset) and means increased stress on your hubs, and will be more likely to be a headache in clearing big tires properly.
Then we have backspacing, a related term to offset, but not interchangeable (contrary to what many seem to believe). Backspacing is a function of your offset as well as the width of your wheel, meaning you measure from the wheel mounting surface and back. This is an important measurement to ensure your wheels and tires clear your suspension components and inner fender wells. This was a more commonly used term years ago than it seems to be these days, with manufacturers preferring more to list the offset (usually in millimeters).
There has been a continual form VS function battle going on in terms of wheel size in the past few decades -- starting from the sports car world, but has made its way into the arena of off-road rigs as well. Sure, huge diameter wheels have been available in the aftermarket for decades now, but even some of the most capable off-roaders today are rolling off the factory floor with shockingly huge wheels (Land Rover and Mercedes are big offenders here).
While those big diameter wheels might look good on the cover of Motor Trend, they make for some serious limitations off the pavement. Just ask the TFL Truck guys who had to replace two tires on their Land Rover Defender after a trip down just one trail.
In order to gain proper traction out on the trail, your tire’s contact patch, the better. More rubber on the ground means more friction against the surface you’re trying to make it over. That’s why off-roaders air down their tires in order to increase that contact patch (your spine will thank you for the smoother ride as well).
With lower-profile tires, however, you run the risk of pinching the tire sidewall as well as rim damage from rocks. This means you won’t be able to air down your tires as much (or at all), limiting the amount of traction you have available to you. Sticking around 17” wheels still gives you a solid amount of sidewall, though, and you won’t have to worry about brake clearance, hence the popularity of wheels like theIcon Compressions andMethod 702s.
Looks aren’t the only reason manufacturers are fitting larger wheels to cars these days, though. With our vehicles getting heavier and heavier, and manufacturers adding more and more power, the size of our disc brakes has also gone way up. Long gone are the days of every 4x4 having 15” wheels. Now most vehicles will require at least 16” wheels, if not 17”+ in order to clear the OEM brakes.
If you’re considering a smaller diameter wheel in order to maximize your sidewall area, be sure to take some measurements and check around with what other people are running in your favorite enthusiast forum or in specialty Facebook groups for your model. These are all very common questions to be asked, so these answers can usually be found with a little searching.
So what do you think? Still having trouble finding the right wheels? Any important details I missed above? Drop a comment below!
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