I’d been looking for a set of track day wheels for my old Clio 172 Cup and found a set of lovely OZ Ultraleggeras with barely used Dunlop semi-slicks in just my size. Happy days! OK, going by the vendor’s online profile there was a suggestion her recreational rubber fetish went beyond tyres. But thankfully it was only my wallet that took a spanking.
I haven’t got the Clio any more but I kept the OZs and recently put them on my Eunos to see how they’d go with my new BBR Koni suspension kit. Turns out on both cars this same set of rims has an absolutely transformative effect, albeit for entirely opposite reasons. One thing’s for sure, they’ve taught me just how important wheels are to a car.
I know, I know. What I mean to say is how important wheels are to a car in terms of the way it drives. And why pose value or ‘mine are bigger than yours’ bragging rights are the last things you should be thinking about when considering your options, be that on the configurator for a new ride or as an aftermarket addition to your existing one.
I’ll spare you the rant about the modern fetish for big wheels and skinny-sided tyres. Other than to say that, for me, the jump-the-shark moment came when I realised you could spec a 300bhp Porsche Cayman with 20-inch 911 Turbo wheels, designed for a car with nearly twice the power. Daft.
But it’s not as simple as saying smaller wheels are always better.
My Clio came on those lovely Speedline Turinis, a signature look for both the 172 Cup and the 182 Trophy. A gorgeous wheel and, in 16-inch size, just right for the Clio. The Dominatrix-spec OZs were an inch smaller and nearly a kilo less per wheel. And looked ace. Because, full disclosure, I’m also a complete tart and appearances DO matter.
The way they transformed the handling was even more impressive. On stock Speedlines the 172 Cup is a brilliant car. Possibly better than the Trophy and a contender for best hot hatch ever. But on the smaller, lighter wheels it was improved in every possible way.
Because of the reduced unsprung weight it was plusher, it turned in even more enthusiastically and the already lively handling was sharper still. Basically it felt like a set of lead boots had just been removed. I loved the original look on the Turinis. But I couldn’t argue with the way it went on the OZs.
Same wheels, different car and a very different outcome. I recently picked the Eunos up from BBR and, new suspension or not, my first impression was it felt like a half-set blancmange on its 14-inch ‘Daisy’ wheels and tall profile Dunlop eco tyres. Turn-in was light and vague, the steering seemingly flexing the tyre sidewalls as much as it was turning the wheels. Loaded up in fast corners it felt like the tyres were going to fold over themselves too. But it rode beautifully. And the response to a neat, measured driving style was a lesson in less is more dynamics. It drove like an NA Eunos should, basically.
Then I put the OZs on, in this instance going an inch up in size, down a bit in profile and from a 185 section to 195 compared with the OE set-up. Hardly drastic. But a totally different car as a result. With less sidewall flex I have more steering response and feel, the front wheels follow the cambers just a little and the wheel wriggles in my hands a tad. In a good way. The front end has bite, the rear end digs in and I can be a lot more aggressive with my inputs, driving it in a ‘modern’ fashion, as opposed to a more leisurely old-school one.
But the car now judders and thuds over bumps again, as it did on its previous, stiffer suspension. I can feel the body flexing. Even small surface changes clatter through the structure. Of course, unless you only drive your car in one place every change to wheels, suspension and the like is going to involve a compromise. I’m now uncertain where I want to pitch mine.
What this has taught me is just how important choosing the right wheel for your car actually is, the same applies to both supercars and superminis. There’s no right answer in this one and opportunity to try out different wheels is limited, unless you’re an idiot like me and keep a cellar full of various sizes and colours.
Either way, I think we all need to drop the obsession with claiming an extra inch or two over the next guy and put aesthetics and posing power at the bottom of the list. Anyone who begs to differ deserves a damned good thrashing. And I know just the person to administer it…