This year, TheCarConnection.com headed to the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center on a mission: to find the most egregious and the coolest examples of the wheel genre. What you'll find in SEMA's massive South Hall are the wheel manufacturers, and apparently, the wheel business is a profitable business. Booth after booth house Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bentleys, and Rolls Royces all shod with audacious rims. (We inquired at several booths, and the vehicles in the booths were all "company" cars, not vehicles procured especially for the show. Apparently, I went into the wrong business. Capitalism at its best, eh?)
The most expensive rims ever?
On our quest to find the ultimate wheel, we found were scores of oversized, overwrought amalgams of steel and aluminum that defy reason. We were getting close.
Today, many manufacturers produce wheels that are 24 inches in rim diameter. Just two years ago, this was a stretch. Along with the veritable commonness of "dubs" and 24s, a handful of companies now produce 30-inch rims. Wheel maker Lexani even produces 32-inch rolling stock. The cost for a set of 32s, shown above, with tires costs a cool $200,000.
Certainly the wheels are expensive, but so are the tires. Lexani's Andy Franko explained the cost behind the 32s. He said, "Yokohama is the only manufacturer who has ever produced a D.O.T. certified 32-tire, and the company has produced only one lot totally 200 units. We bought them all. Exclusivity has its price."
Surprisingly, the 32-inch rims are not the most expensive rims that Lexani produces. That distinction is reserved for their diamond-encrusted Asantis that cost a cool $1 million per set sans tires. Franko wouldn't comment on how many sets the company has sold.
Franko also showed us his company's largest rim, a 42-inch monster. They produced the rim because they could. The rim, however, is pure hyperbole because it's too large to fit on any vehicle, and no manufacturers make tires so large.
Trends in rims
The Chevrolet Silverado pictured alongside this story is wearing 30-inch wheels shod with Pirelli 315/30R30 Scorpion tires (several other manufacturers also make 30-inch rubber). Currently, these are the largest production doughnuts available. We're sure the owner of this pickup appreciates the tire's M+S rating, but we couldn't find anybody at the display who could reasonably explain the impetus behind selling an automotive accessory that renders the vehicle undriveable. The turning radius of the Silverado may be wider than Rhode Island, plus rolling over anything sharper than an expelled piece of chewing gum will threaten to crack the virtually unprotected rim.
Regardless of the above, big rims are becoming more common. Tire technology is rapidly advancing (as seen by the performance of the huge Michelin run-flats on the 2009 Corvette ZR1), so the compromises we've come to expect from big wheel/tire combinations may not always be the scourge it currently seems to be.
Some wheel and tire experts we spoke to at SEMA felt that rim diameter was reaching its practical limit, so the focus is shifting away from just size to the wheel's construction and look. Most of the best large-diameter wheels (22-24 inches) are made from forged aluminum billet. These hunks are then CNC machined. Quality is high, and the lightness of the forged design can offer performance benefits (less unsprung weight is always a good thing). Expect to pay about $1,500 per rim for a high-quality 24-incher.
Ron Baugh of WTW Corporation (the manufacturer of six wheel brands including Giovanna) pointed out that there is a new industry push to customize wheel finishes. He pointed out three wheels of the same design (the GMG Hampton listing at $12,000 for a set of wheels and tires) that take on dramatically different looks depending on their coloring. Baugh notes that customers like the option of customizing their wheels to match their vehicle. As we saw throughout SEMA's South Hall, some of the results were better than others.
Prices for big wheels are also coming down because low-cost manufacturers are entering the market. Several booths offered 24-inch rims for retail prices of approximately $2,000 per set (plus tires). This is approximately one-third the cost of most major brands. With the Chinese and Indians getting into the wheel production business, the existing manufacturers better be prepared to defend their territory if they want to keep those exotic cars in their booths come next year. It's the way of capitalism…