Off-Road Wheels: Steel vs Aluminum

The argument of Steel vs. Aluminum is relatively new to the world of off-roading. The old school belief was that steel was the best option for an off-road vehicle, and many older trucks come with steel wheels.

Steel has been around longer and used to be the most common type of wheel, but this is no longer the case in modern times.

These days, aluminum alloy wheels dominate the auto industry. When you see a brand new truck sporting shiny aftermarket wheels with intricate designs, you can bet it’s aluminum.

There are many benefits to choosing aluminum wheels for your truck, but let’s not forget about steel just yet. There are a couple of reasons it is still a popular choice for off-roaders.

I’m going to break down the pros and cons of steel vs. aluminum. This will help you choose wheels that will function and look the best.

Steel vs. Aluminum: Which Weighs Less

I know what you’re thinking – aluminum has to be the winner here right? Well… not exactly. 

It is true that aluminum is lighter than steel, but steel is stronger than aluminum. It will take far more aluminum to reach the same strength as steel, so some heavy-duty aluminum wheels are heavier than equally durable steel wheels. Lightweight steel wheels are also available. 

Generally speaking, aluminum wheels will offer more weight savings than steel. It is important to consider the weight of the wheels and tires on your off-road vehicle.

A set of heavy wheels with fat tires can weigh your car down as much as a full bed of cargo. This will strain your truck during steep uphill sections or get you stuck in mud and sand. The one benefit to heavier wheels is decreased chances of rolling since their extra weight will help your tires stay on the ground.


Weight Winner: Steel wheels can be lighter than aluminum in some cases, but aluminum offers the most weight savings.


Steel vs. Aluminum: Which is More Durable

Off-Road Wheels: Steel vs Aluminum

For top tier durability and strength, forged aluminum cannot be beat. They are the strongest and lightest wheels on the market.

Forged aluminum wheels are primarily used for racing and performance motorsports, and they are the most expensive wheel you can buy. If you have the dough to drop, forged aluminum wheels will beat steel by a mile.

Forged aluminum is usually not the first-choice or the most practical choice for off-roaders. Cast aluminum or steel wheels are more commonly found on off-road trucks.

For the average off-road enthusiast, cast aluminum wheels offer durability at a better price than forged aluminum. Cast aluminum wheels are the most common type of aftermarket wheel. Cast aluminum wheels will not rust as easily as steel, therefore offering a longer lifespan than steel.

The downside to all aluminum wheels is that they crack instead of bend when hitting an obstacle.

A cracked aluminum wheel will need to be replaced or professionally repaired.  This is important to consider for off-roading, since there are many potential obstacles on the trails. 

In contrast, steel wheels will bend or warp after hitting an obstacle. A bent steel wheel can be hammered back into shape, and get you back to civilization faster.

The last thing you want is to be stuck with a busted aluminum wheel in the middle of nowhere. For this reason, many hardcore off-roaders will opt for steel over aluminum, to ensure they can hammer their way back onto the trail.


Bottom line: Aluminum wheels can be stronger and last longer than steel, but steel is easier to repair in remote emergency situations.


Steel vs. Aluminum: Which is More Expensive

Steel wheels are the most budget friendly wheels on the market. Steel wheels can be found for dirt cheap. If you’re lucky you can find a full set of steel wheels for less than two hundred dollars. 

This is not the case for aluminum. Aluminum wheels come in many different styles and sizes, which means the prices will range too. Aluminum will always be more expensive than steel. 

If you go off-road often, it is important to consider the cost of wheels, since steel will be cheaper to replace than aluminum. Off-road obstacles and accidents can lead to many wheel replacements during the lifespan of your truck. 

Aluminum wheels also require more maintenance than their steel counterparts, which will lead to extra costs.


Most Expensive Choice: Aluminum


Which Has a Wider Range of Sizes

Aluminum wheels are the most versatile wheel on the market. Aluminum wheels come in a much wider range of sizes than steel, since they can be shaped more easily.

Wheel sizes for aluminum range from 15 inches to 24 inches. This opens up a lot of choices, but for off-roading you should never go above an 18 inch wheel size. Leave that for the fancy sports cars, since you’ll end up damaging the larger wheels off-road.

Steel wheels come in a much more limited size range – only 14 inches to 18 inches. Steel wheels are not as malleable as aluminum, and this is what leads to their limited size range.

For off-roading purposes wider wheels are recommended, because wider wheels equal wider tires. Wider tires allow for better traction and durability in harsh terrain.

The smaller size range of steel wheels would be quite limiting if your goal is to get larger and wider tires.

16 or 17 inch is a good wheel size for off-road and both steel and aluminum can be found in these sizes.


Sizeable Winner: Aluminum


Which Has a Better Appearance

Off-Road Wheels: Steel vs Aluminum

There is a reason that aluminum wheels have become the most common choice for modern cars. They just look better. 

Modern technology like water jet cutting and laser cutting are used to create intricate designs for aluminum wheels. This means aluminum wheels have a wider range of appearance options.

Durable paints, polishing and other coatings are also available for aluminum wheels. This is why aluminum wheels look much sleeker, shinier, and sportier than steel.

Aluminum wheels fit the overall look of a modern car much better than steel. If you’re looking for more options with more flair, you’ll need to get aluminum wheels.

Steel would be the appropriate choice if you want a vintage look. They are great for old-school truck restorations, where shiny aluminum wheels would look out of place.

Most classic off-road vehicles originally came with steel wheels. This is probably the only case where I would say steel is better looking than aluminum.


Beauty Queen of the Wheel World: Aluminum


Steel vs. Aluminum: Which Should I Choose

I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but as always, it comes down to what your needs are and what you want.

Let’s review the comparisons of steel vs aluminum.

Aluminum Wheels:

  • More weight savings, with forged aluminum wheels being the most lightweight offering on the market
  • Do not rust easy and offer long lasting durability
  • Far more expensive than steel in most cases
  • Large range of sizes and styles available
  • Require more maintenance
  • More modern appearance 

Bonus: Aluminum wheels are beneficial to other parts of your truck, like your brakes. Since aluminum allows for more intricate designs with larger holes, they increase airflow over your brakes. This is great for off-roading in steep downhill terrain, or while towing heavy loads. Aluminum wheels also offer increased acceleration and suspension performance.

Steel Wheels:

  • Trusted, strong and historically reliable 
  • Budget friendly
  • Offers equal durability to aluminum wheels
  • Require little to no maintenance
  • Better for emergency repair situations as they can be hammered into shape
  • Great for vintage vehicle restorations

Conclusion

In the modern day battle of steel vs. aluminum, aluminum will come out on top most often. In the off-road world however, steel is still a strong contender. If you are the type of driver that wants strength and durability on a budget, then steel is your best option. 

If you care more about appearance, then aluminum wheels are the way to go. You won’t be sacrificing much in terms of durability, and you will have far more designs and sizes to choose from. 

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