What Exactly Are Steelies?

Steelies or alloys. Know the difference.

If you’ve shopped for aftermarket wheels for your car, there’s a good chance you saw plenty of fancy designs and larger-than-life sizes. Sometimes, though, the simplest choice is the best choice. That’s the case presented by steelies, or steel wheels, which can be the perfect choice for vehicles that need rugged, strong, and affordable rolling stock.

Car Bibles’ editors love a good steelie, and we’re here to share that love with you. We’ve slapped steelies on everything from an old Mitsubishi Montero, to a brand new Ford Focus, so we’ve got some expertise on the topic.

Let’s get rolling.

What Are Steelies?

Steelies is a term used by enthusiasts to describe steel wheels, which are cheaper and sometimes stronger than alloy wheels. If you own a vehicle that has hubcaps or wheel covers, there’s a great chance that you’re riding on steelies. Many people even choose to use them as winter wheels, because of their increased durability and lower replacement costs when compared with alloy wheels. 

Off-roaders and utility vehicles frequently use steelies for the same reasons, and there’s almost nothing better than the look of white steel wheels on a classic Land Rover. 

Why Do Enthusiasts Talk About Them A Lot?

Steelies wormed their way into automotive enthusiasts’ hearts and never left. At some point, it was cool in an ironic way to love base model cars, which often come with steel wheels and hubcaps. Now, ironic love has morphed into adoration, as people truly enjoy putting steel wheels on all types of vehicles. On the off-road side, steel wheels are popular because of their durability and because they’re easy to repair and cheap to replace.

A new Cadillac Escalade on steelies.
A new Escalade on steelies for transport. (Photo: Justin Jacobsen / Facebook) FACEBOOK | JUSTIN QUINN JACOBSON

What’s the Difference Between Steelies and Alloy Wheels? 

Alloy wheels are a popular choice on today’s cars, because their aluminum content makes it easier to create intricate designs and crazy patterns. The metal alloys also used to create them yield wheels that are lighter, which allows for better handling, agility, and even fuel economy. Unlike steelies, alloy wheels also come in a variety of sizes, some of which stretch deep into the 20-inch range. 

Steel is heavier than aluminum, which translates to a heavier wheel. That weight will ride on the vehicle unsprung, which means it’s not supported by the suspension. Unsprung weight—which is typically the wheels, brakes, and surrounding components—has a direct impact on a vehicle’s handling and performance, and even a small increase in weight can cause problems.

What Are The Other Types of Wheels?

Beyond steel, you’re likely to see a variety of materials used in wheel construction. A large portion of passenger vehicles today use alloy wheels, which are made from aluminum and other metals. 

Chrome wheels are popular, but are usually just a chrome veneer sprayed or applied over another type of metal. Many high performance vehicles use carbon fiber in their wheel designs because of the material’s lightness and strength.

Pros and Cons Of Steelies

Obviously, there are some pros and cons to steelies you’ll want to consider. Here a short introduction to those. 

Pros

Good ol’ steelies do have some benefits that make them a better choice than alloys in some situations.

  • Easily repairable
  • Less expensive than alloys
  • Can be painted or covered with hubcaps

Cons

Steelies are far from perfect.

  • Adds unsprung weight (weight on, or around the wheels), which can be bad for handling
  • Can rust if not painted correctly
  • Steelies are often limited in size and don’t frequently come in larger diameters
A white Ford Bronco on steelies.
The new Ford Bronco looks great with steelies. (Photo: Ford) Ford

Car Bible’s Glossary for Steelies

Welcome to bible school!

Alloy Wheels

Alloy wheels are made from aluminum and other blended metals, such as nickel, magnesium, or titanium. Most wheels made this way are cast, which is done by pouring molten metal into a mold.

Unsprung Weight

Unsprung weight is weight that your vehicle carries off of its suspension. In other words, any weight that isn’t supported by the suspension. This usually includes the wheels and brake components. Unsprung weight is a big deal, so even a small increase can change the way a vehicle handles and responds.

Hubcaps

Many vehicles with steel wheels get hubcaps or wheel covers at the factory to make them more cosmetically appealing. Hubcaps can be plastic or a metal of some sort, but are not as durable as alloys or steelies and tend to fall off over time.

Lugs

Lugs, or lug nuts, are the fasteners that hold a vehicle’s wheels onto the hubs. Some vehicles have four or five lug nuts, but many trucks and larger vehicles have quite a few more.

The Questionnaire

Car Bibles answers all your burning questions!

Q: Are Steelies Safe?

A: Steel wheels are just as safe as alloy wheels. Even with surface rust, the wheels should be completely operational. If there is significant damage or rusting through, however, the wheels should be repaired or replaced.

Q: Are Steelies Better Than Alloy Wheels?

A: Steel wheels are better than alloys in certain applications, but not all. Keep in mind that steelies are heavier than alloy wheels and not as visually complex, so there are times when an alloy wheel will be better, such as with performance vehicles and those that need an upscale look.

Q: Can I Paint My Steelies?

A: Absolutely! In fact, it’s probably best that you do paint the wheels, because the coating can help prevent rust and may make the wheels look better in the process.

Q: How Much Do Steel Wheels Cost?

A: You should be able to find a replacement steel wheel for between $50 and $80, though pricing will depend on the size and may be higher if a tire is included with the sale.

Video on Steelies

If you’re looking for steel wheels or related products, it can be hard to know where to start. That’s why Car Bibles’ editors have gathered a few of our favorites to get you started. They include Dorman Steel Wheels, Pro-Lift Jack Stands, Mechanix Gloves, and Car Guys Wheel Cleaner.

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