A Paean to Taller Sidewalls
How I miss thee, once mighty 16″, when you roamed the sports car savannah unchallenged, peerless as the wheel diameter of choice for any respectable performance car.
Then, one day, the 3000GT VR-4 and the JZA80 Supra Turbo arrived on the scene, with their exotic new 17″ wheels. Suddenly, the floodgates were open, and wheel diameters have been increasing at a rapid pace ever since. These days, 19″ wheels are virtually de rigeur if a manufacturer wants a sports car to be taken seriously.
The reasons for the increase are understandable: The evolution of tire technology has permitted shorter sidewalls for a given width at a somewhat economical price, and the neverending perception that more = better. But to these eyes, we’ve lost a couple of things as automotive fashion has tilted toward larger diameter wheels:
- The price. Tire prices seem to go up exponentially for each inch increase in diameter, and the difference in price between a set of 18″ tires versus, some quality 15″ pieces is outrageous. Don’t doubt me; check Tire Rack for confirmation.
- The look. This is more arguable, but larger wheels make cars look smaller and more toy-like. Combine the wheel size with the lack of surface artifacts currently in vogue, and you have a crop of new cars that ends up looking distressingly like Hot Wheels™. And while that may be appreciated by some, I like my cars to look a bit more, well, adult, thankyouverymuch.
- Suspension life. Taller sidewalls absorb road imperfections much more readily than shorter ones. With every increase in wheel size, for a given road, we’re asking more of our suspension bushings, shocks and body structure. Granted, the advances in CAD-optimized body stiffness and suspension component material somewhat mitigate this downside, but why not have the best of both worlds? Control arm bushings that could last 150K miles or more? With taller sidewalls, it’s definitely within the realm of possibility.
Maybe I’m just a cheapskate. Or maybe I’m just an old fogie trapped in the ’80s, when cars were made with wheel arches proportioned to accommodate smaller wheels, and that look profoundly silly when some enterprising teenager decides to slap on a set of wagon wheel 19s (with the wrong offset as well, natch). Perhaps. But come what may, I’ll always be a fan of cars that just look right with a set of good-looking basketweave 15s or 16s. Maybe 17s. But not an inch bigger.