Ground clearance is one of the most important factors to consider when leaving the pavement behind and heading off-road. Raising your vehicle’s ride height helps it to clamber over bigger obstacles while keeping its frame and underbody safe from rocks, stumps, and anything else the terrain can throw at you.
Improving ground clearance also serves to improve your off-roader’s approach, ramp-over, and departure angles, meaning that it can take on steeper hills and taller hurdles without its body or frame coming into contact with the ground and becoming stuck.
One of the simplest ways to increase ground clearance is to install larger wheels, but when it comes to building a capable off-roader, is bigger always better?
The short answer is sometimes, but not always. Read on as we compare the pros and cons of 16-inch and 17-inch wheels for a comprehensive guide that will help you to choose the ideal wheel and tire setup for your off-road machine.
16-Inch Wheels Off-Road
- Smaller wheels allow for tires with taller sidewalls that are more forgiving for a softer ride
- Smaller wheels allow you to “air down” more than larger ones, for a larger contact patch and better traction
- Tires for 16-inch wheels are cheaper than those designed for 17-inch wheels
- More variety for tires that fit 16-inch wheels
- Taller sidewalls allow for more flex in pavement driving, which can lead to vague handling
17-Inch Wheels Off-Road
- Larger wheels make it possible to fit bigger brakes to your off-roader
- Bigger wheels allow for bigger tires which improve towing ability
- On-road handling is more stable thanks to a shorter tire sidewall
- Bigger wheels and tires are more expensive
- Lower-profile tires are more susceptible to damage
- Bigger wheels mean more unsprung mass, possibly putting strain on your suspension and brakes
Are Bigger Rims Better for Off-Roading?
As a general rule of thumb, bigger wheels are better for off-roading because they give you the ability to raise the ride height of your vehicle without spending money on a lift kit.
As we mentioned above, bigger wheels allow for bigger tires and create room for you to install bigger brakes. Bigger brakes are always better than smaller ones as the increased surface area of the pads and discs creates more friction while dissipating the heat created by braking over a larger surface area.
That being said, the ideal setup for a dedicated off-roader would be a slightly smaller wheel (though still large enough to fit a big tire) with a tire that features a taller sidewall.
Absolutely go big enough with your wheels to fit bigger brakes if that’s part of your build, but going too big with the wheel means you compromise the size of tire you can run.
Tall sidewalls with plenty of flex are the ideal for serious off-roading and rock-crawling because they have plenty of give in them and can be aired down if needs be to increase the contact patch and therefore traction.
Tires with shorter sidewalls (a.k.a. low-profile tires) are much less resilient to damage from potholes, jagged rocks, and other common obstacles that you may run into while out on 4×4 trails or even during street driving.
It helps to think about tires in off-roading as the first link in the chain of your vehicle’s suspension system. Things can get rough out there, and you need to know you can rely on your rig to take a hit without failing when the going gets tough.
So there we have it. The ideal combination for off-roading is a smaller wheel (though likely still larger than stock) and a big, tall, flexible tire to provide your vehicle with maximum traction no matter what the terrain may throw at it.
However, if you’ve ever driven a purpose-built off-roader on pavement you’ll know that big flexy tires can lead to some challenging handling characteristics. You probably wouldn’t want to use a vehicle with 58-inch tires as your daily driver. So how should you decide which wheel and tire setup is right for you?
Which Should I Choose?
Whether you should choose a 16- or 17-inch wheel for your off-roader ultimately comes down to the way that you’re going to be using it and to good old personal preference.
If you’re building a hardcore, dedicated trail machine that’s going to be trailered to and from off-road parks we’d advise you to go with the 16-inch wheel and a bigger tire. You’ll increase the amount of traction available to you and be far less likely to suffer a flat out on the trails than you would with a lower profile tire.
If, like many off-road enthusiasts, you use your off-roader for a daily driver as well as a weekend fun-mobile we’d suggest the larger 17-inch wheel with a lower profile tire.
You’ll sacrifice some off-road capability with this setup, but that will be countered by a much more predictable on-road driving experience. After all, that’s what you’ll spend most of your time in the driver’s seat doing. You’ll have to tread a little more carefully out on the trails, but your real-world driving experience and fuel economy will thank you.
At the end of the day, you’re building an off-roader because it makes you happy and that’s what should ultimately inform your decision when choosing between a 16 vs 17- inch wheel.
Maybe you’re building a pure off-roader and simply like the way 17-inch wheels look on your vehicle, or maybe you daily drive your off-road rig and you’re happy to live with the slightly vague handling characteristics of 16s with big tires so that you can have every bit of performance available when it comes time to head off-road.
Whichever size wheel you decide to choose, we hope that this guide has informed you on the pros and cons of each setup and will help you to make the right choice for your personal needs. Happy wheeling!