For the previous five decades, while the automotive world has grown and evolved, wheel diameter sizes have stayed relatively the same. While early economy cars could be had with extraordinarily small wheels and tires, ranging as low as 13”, for the most part 14” to 18” diameter wheels grew to be the norm, depending on the use of the car. Life, and tire purchasing, was simple.
Since the turn of this past decade, things in the wheel and tire world have begun to change. While traditionally 19” wheels and above were considered big—and reserved for the aftermarket—it is now not uncommon for certain cars, trucks, and SUV’s to be offered with 20” or 22” wheels as factory options. Some companies like Mercedes have decided to split the difference and offer the unheard-of-by-me 21” wheel size.
Generally, such large wheels are only offered on SUV’s, yet economy cars are not escaping the bloating either. A perfect example is the perineal econo-box; the Volkswagen Golf. Anyone shopping for a Golf can get wheels that range all the way down to 15”, straight on up to 19”. Purchasers of the Mk1 Golf in 1974 had to choose either 14” “steely” wheels, or 15” alloy wheels. Life has become less simple.
While this may seem a non-consequential part of automotive design, there are a few tangible effects from this new and sudden physical growth. The main enabler of the increase in wheel size is the advancement of tire technology: less sidewall is required to support heavier vehicles, allowing good looking, low-profile wheel/tire design combinations. However, this decrease in sidewall puts less rubber and air physically between road imperfections and the driver: as such ride quality tends to decrease in relation to increased wheel diameter.
Another less thought of effect is the effect this growth has on tire replacement. While in the past tire shops could safely stock a few very common tire sizes for immediate service, this is becoming less and less possible. With automakers selling cars with 15” tires, all the way to 22” tires, more often tire shops must rely on slow, centralized warehouses. In the event of a blow out, and the need for a replacement tire quickly, this can be disastrous.
This raises the question of whether automakers are going wild with the wheels. The example for today’s review—and an example of other cars with odd (number or otherwise) tire sizes—will be the 17” wheels and tires on my new 2016 Fiesta ST. While a normal Fiesta is given the choice between 15” and 16” wheels and tires, the ST is only given the choice between silver or black 17” rollers. These unique 17” wheels help differentiates the sporty ST model from the more pedestrian Fiesta models, providing a better stanced look. Besides the look of the vehicle while stationary—and more on that later—do these increased diameter wheels provide an increase in performance, as well as comfort and convenience?
Simply put: No. There are four main areas where wheel and tire diameter have major effects. These are the stationary look of a vehicle, the performance of a vehicle (wet and dry), the comfort of a vehicle, and the convenience of maintenance. Generally, the larger a wheel and less sidewall of a tire, the better a car looks. While the Fiesta ST does feature handsome wheels, I must question the wisdom of making them an inch larger than the pedestrian models in the range.
Due to the small rear brakes of the Fiesta ST, having an increased wheel diameter provides a slightly silly look, whereas a meatier—meaning a smaller wheel—tire sidewall could provide a determined, rally-bred look. This is the most superficial complaint, and most personal, and despite my misgivings, the wheels do look good when looking at the car as a whole, and not just the rear quarter panels.
Performance is where the increase in tire technology negates any misgivings I could have regarding the choice of 17in wheels. Modern tires are so good, that a 17” tire will be the same as a 16” tire of the same brand and type. The only complaint some people might have regarding the size and performance is that the Fiesta ST is not capable of mounting winter tires on the stock 17in wheels without rubbing the fenders. This is a non-issue in my mind, because I am a firm believer that not only should you have a summer and winter tire set, they should each be mounted on their own wheels, allowing beater wheels to be eaten by winter salts.
Comfort and ride quality are the arena where smaller wheels with larger tires shine. A 16in wheel on the Fiesta ST would fit, despite the larger front disc brakes, and the increase in rubber and air would certainly be noticeable. While no one south of their 60’s would call the Fiesta ST a harsh-riding car, the suspension would not have to work as hard to remain steady over uneven road if it were aided by the effects of a smaller wheel. As mentioned, performance would remain about the same.
The last factor is the least thought of and hardest to consider: the convenience of maintenance. What this means is essentially the availability of replacement tires. Normal maintenance such as rotations and alignments will not be affected by the size of the wheel or the tire, but as mentioned above, replacing them will be, especially in a jam. Sadly, despite only having about 500 miles on my car, I have already had to experience the ire of replacing a 17in tire on a Fiesta ST. Thus begins the ‘Quest for the Rubber’.
Around 250 miles into my time with the Fiesta ST, the passenger-rear tire suffered a catastrophic puncture. The result was the need of a new tire. After finding out that Ford not only wouldn’t replace it under warranty—understandable, if hard to swallow—and that they had none in stock in Northern California—odd since it is their car—I was on the hunt in the wide open market.
I started with the quoted price of $252 for a tire from Ford, which I knew was high. After calling the nine local tire shops—from chains to local outfits—I had new estimates ranging from $161 to $192. While some shops were more helpful than others—America’s Tire Company offered the most help and ended up doing the install, while Les Schwab dismissed me with three words—the consensus was the same: finding a local 17’ tire would be damn near impossible, mainly due to the oddness of the size. Getting one ranged from 6 days, to two weeks. Considering I was paying for my lease while my car sat on a donut, this was not an option.
Once I accepted that I was not going to get a tire the same day, I turned to online retailers. Being a Friday when I was shopping, I consigned myself to my car sitting the weekend out. Tirerack.com came through, selling me a tire for $119, with a Monday delivery to the local Firestone/Bridgestone shop. Once it received the tire, this shop told me it would take four days to put a single tire on a wheel, and thus America’s Tire was called up to bat. The tire was on within two hours.
While my story of inconvenience serves to demonstrate my bad luck, it also demonstrates problems people with strange tire sizes will face. While a 17” tire is not the most uncommon tire, and I was able to get one within 72 hours, owners of cars and trucks with 21” or 19” wheels and tires may not be so lucky. Again, the question of whether having a 17” wheel—or any other special wheel size—being worth it or not is shown to have many factors.
Given the option, I would have chosen 16” wheels on my Fiesta ST. The above reasons all play a factor in my preference, but that being said, the 17in wheels are by no means bad. Ride comfort is good, if not great, performance is smile-inducing; however, maintenance sucks.
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I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.