Prepping a car for track or competition use can be a tricky project. So many things need to be removed or replaced and, in most cases, it’s the interior of your car that’ll need to be completely stripped to reduce weight and your chances of injury. The seats, windows, dash, climate controls, and stereo will all go away, but what about the steering wheel?
When you’re considering a steering wheel change, it can be tough to decide whether or not to go for it. The steering wheel is a command center in many new cars, and almost all carry an airbag for driver safety. Can you remove a steering wheel with an airbag? Should you? Car Bibles’ editors have been through this thought process before and are here to help.
Let’s get rolling.
Can You Even Consider Removing Your Airbag?
Airbags have been a mandatory part of new vehicles for over two decades now, and the one that most people think about is sitting right in front of your face when driving. Inside the steering wheel, an airbag is mounted that deploys in a crash. The system is in place to prevent the driver’s head and face from smashing into the steering wheel and dash.
Aftermarket steering wheels can bring several advantages, including better driving feel, improved steering performance, sportier looks, and can even be theft deterrents if removed. But, most—if not all—aren’t equipped with an airbag either for weight savings, airbags being not competition safe, or because a manufacturer doesn’t want the liability of sending just anyone a steering wheel loaded with an explosive charge.
As to whether you can consider removing your airbag-equipped steering wheel, you absolutely can. But do you want to?
Swapping Your Steering Wheel
There are two ways to look at this question. The first is whether or not you’re replacing your airbag-equipped steering wheel with the same par?. If you’ve been in a crash and your airbag deployed but the car isn’t a total write-off, you can absolutely replace the steering wheel with the same part and new airbag. And you should, especially if this is just an average street car you daily to and from work.
If you’re swapping your steering wheel to something slicker, something like a Momo or NRG, you still can, though you’ll want to understand that it won’t be as safe as your airbag-equipped wheel that comes from the factory. Most folks who swap over their steering wheel to an aftermarket unit also swap their seatbelts to 5-point harnesses.
Unlike standard seatbelts that allow for a little slip and your head to hit the airbag, 5-point harnesses keep your body stationary and are meant for competition use. They’ll keep you from impacting the new aftermarket steering wheel, but they’ll also keep your body stationary and you could get whiplash unless you’re using a Hans device.
There’s the question of legality. Some states say you can’t swap your steering wheel for an aftermarket unit. Others, let’s just say, are laxer. Further, do you want to give up having phone controls and other convenient buttons on your steering wheel? Consider the trade-offs and remember that an aftermarket steering wheel is only really worth it if you’re racing or tracking your car on a regular basis, or if your current steering wheel is completely shredded.
Car Bible’s Glossary for Swapping Steering Wheels
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Supplemental Restraint System
Supplemental restraint systems, or SRS, include airbags, seatbelts, and other safety features that are intended to keep you in one piece in the event of a crash.
In vehicles that have automatic or semi-automatic transmissions, paddle shifters allow the driver to change gears by pulling on levers (paddles) located on either side of the steering wheel. In general, pulling the right paddle upshifts and pulling the left paddle downshifts.
Quick-release steering wheels are used in racing applications because they feature a hub that has a mechanism that allows the driver to remove the steering wheel quickly. This is done to allow the driver easier entry and exit, and lets the driver escape the vehicle quickly in the event of a crash. And, if something in the steering wheel breaks in the course of competition, you can swap it to a new unit quickly.
Alcantara is a suede-like material that is frequently used on steering wheels. The material feels upscale in the hand and provides a better gripping surface than a traditional vinyl- or leather-wrapped steering wheel.
The Car Bibles Questionnaire
Car Bibles answers all your burning questions!
Q: How big does my steering wheel need to be?
A: The size of your steering wheel depends completely on your personal preference, but you’ll need to keep in mind that smaller wheels generally require more effort to turn than those with larger diameters.
Q: Can I install any steering wheel I want?
A: Almost any aftermarket steering wheel can be installed in any vehicle, assuming you’ve got the right adapter and installation kit.
Q: Can I replace my airbag?
A: If you want to play it safe and replace your steering wheel with a unit that already has an airbag installed, it’s completely possible. You may be able to find a junkyard steering that has the airbag intact, but over time the propellants and materials used can degrade. Check with your dealer or local shop, but be prepared to pay dearly for the experience – up to $1,000 or more in some cases.
Q: Are there any challenges with installing an aftermarket steering wheel?
A: Beyond issues with safety and legality, installing an aftermarket steering wheel on a newer car can trigger an SRS warning light. The light is meant to alert drivers to potential issues with airbags and other safety systems, so removing an airbag completely can cause issues with the system.
Q: How expensive are aftermarket steering wheels?
A: Remember that you get what you pay for, so shopping on price alone won’t get you very far. You can find steering wheels for $20 all over the internet, but a solid, basic wheel will cost $200-plus. If you want other features on your wheel, such as a horn or any controls, count on spending more.
The Steering Wheel Video Tutorial
Car Bible’s Favorite Steering Wheel-Related Products
Swapping out an airbag-equipped steering wheel is an easy project, but there are far too many products out there to know which ones to grab. That’s why Car Bibles’ editors have selected a few of our favorites to get you started. They include the Sparco Suede Steering Wheel, Mechanix Work Gloves, and the Grant Suede Series D-shaped wheel.
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