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How Do Lightweight Wheels Affect Your Car's Performance?

Grey-70-Camaro-Z28-01

There's no question about it — one of the most important parts of any classic car project is choosing the right set of wheels. First of all, you've got to pick the right style. Do you want vintage rallye wheels, classic mag five-spokes, or something more aggressive and modern? Then, you've got to select the right bolt pattern and size, and make sure the offset and backspacing are correct for your vehicle. However, there's one more crucial point to consider before making your decision — wheel weight. A set of lightweight wheels can noticeably improve your car's performance.

Why are Lightweight Wheels Important?

You may be asking, why does wheel weight matter? Isn't it the same as weight anywhere else on the car? Well, if you ask an engineer, they'll tell you about something called unsprung weight. In a nutshell, this type of weight has a much greater effect on a car's than ordinary static weight.

wheel-and-tire

Lightweight wheels can have the following benefits:

  • • Quicker acceleration
  • • More effective braking and reduced brake wear
  • • Sharper and more responsive handling
  • • More consistent grip over uneven or bumpy surfaces
  • • Reduced strain on springs, shock absorbers, and other suspension parts

Read on as we explain the reasons for these lightweight wheel benefits.

What is Unsprung Weight?

Unsprung weight is exactly what it sounds like — weight that's not supported by a spring. In the case of a car, it means anything not supported by the suspension system, such as axles, hubs, brakes, wheels, and tires. On the other hand, the car's frame, body, engine, and even the driver would be considered sprung weight (since they're carried by the suspension).

Since wheels make up a large portion of a car's unsprung weight, choosing a light set of wheels is one of the easiest ways to reduce this form of undesirable weight. Of course, this has to be balanced with wheel size, which you can read about in our previous article.

Tires are also a factor. Installing tires with a larger sidewall and heavier-duty tread — such as mud-terrain tires on a truck — will increase unsprung weight, even if wheel weight remains the same.

Why Does Unsprung Weight Matter?

Unsprung weight has a huge effect on any vehicle's acceleration, braking, and cornering abilities. It's even said that at a drag strip, adding a single pound of unsprung weight to a car has the same effect as adding two or more pounds to the body. Check out the diagrams below to see why it makes such a big difference.

unsprung weightAcceleration
In Fig. 1 above, we see a Camaro with a set of small, lightweight wheels. In order to get the car moving, the engine only has to spin 30-pound wheels, so it doesn't have to work very hard. Putting less strain on the engine means faster acceleration. It's that simple.

In Fig. 2, you'll see the Camaro is sporting some bigger, heavier wheels. If you drove the car, you'd notice it feels sluggish, since the engine is working harder to turn the 50-pound wheels. This results in slower acceleration and reduced fuel economy.

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Braking
Just like the engine has to work harder to get the 50-pound wheels spinning, the brakes also struggle to bring them to a halt. A heavy set of wheels can increase stopping distance, and even wear out your brakes faster than light wheels.

Cornering & Ride
Wheel weight can also have a dramatic effect on handling and ride comfort. Check out the diagram below to see why.

unsprung weight 2

So, let's say you're driving down the road, and you hit a bump. This bump must be absorbed by your tire, wheel, axle, and suspension components. If, as seen in Fig. 3, your car's wheel weighs 30 pounds, 60 pounds of force must be absorbed by your suspension.

In Fig. 4, the wider 50-pound wheels would exert 100 pounds of force on your car's suspension when you hit this same bump. More force passed into your suspension means you'll feel a bigger bump, and your springs and shocks will experience more wear over time.

Project 69 Wheel

This same logic applies to cornering, since going around a turn causes the wheels to move up or down as the car leans into the curve. Lighter wheels are also able to "bounce back" faster after bumps, allowing your tires to stay in contact with the road longer, and providing more grip. The end result is confidence-inspiring handling and improved cornering speed.

Where to Buy Lightweight Wheels

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From NASCAR to Formula 1 to your local drag strip, racers everywhere are concerned with reducing unsprung weight to improve performance. And, even if you're never going to race your car, purchasing a lighter set of wheels can be very beneficial for street driving safety and comfort. So, next time you're looking to buy a set of wheels, consider how much they weigh — lightweight wheels make a big difference.

Classic Industries has a wide selection of lightweight factory-replacement and aftermarket wheels. Browse the wheels section of our web store, click the button below to get a free parts catalog, or give us a call at 1-800-854-1280.

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