Having finally decided what size tires I wanted to fit on my Jeep, and after much consideration about what type of tire, I finally settled on the 315/70-R17 Treadwright Guard Dog M/T. Part of my overall decision centered around what wheels I wanted to mount them on, and this became a bigger decision than I anticipated.
Most aftermarket wheels are of significantly lower quality than OEM wheels because a combination of smaller production numbers, tremendous competition, little to no commitment to meeting D.O.T. safety standards, and a majority of buyers valuing bling over performance, has driven production overseas and quality to the ragged edge of acceptable. There are of course some notable exceptions to this broad generalization, but most of those alternative options are very expensive.
Over the many years I have been building and 4-wheeling a broad variety of vehicles, I have been exposed to many different wheel and tire combinations. Between my own vehicles and those of my friends and other 4x4 owners I've 'wheeled with on the trails, I have pretty much seen everything out there in real-world use, from street to trail. My experiences led me to consider the following factors while making my decision:
- Welded steel wheels are inexpensive and strong, but they are heavy (which negatively affects acceleration, braking, fuel economy, ride quality, and handling), harder to balance, and very rarely concentric due to welding inconsistencies, so they're notorious for causing vibrations and "death wobble."
- Cast aluminum wheels are a bit more expensive than steel and are of widely variable quality. They are light in weight and very concentric due to machined finishing so they're great on-road, but they are much less forgiving of trail damage and are notorious for bending or cracking.
- Beadlock (or faux beadlock) cast aluminum wheels address the strength issue around the bead area, but they are oftentimes as heavy as a steel wheel and even higher up the cost ladder.
- Forged aluminum wheels are strong, lightweight, and drive very well, but they are much more expensive due to the more complex manufacturing process and the resulting reduced economy of scale.
Another problem I ran into is that there are only a very select few wheels that are actually made for a JK. Sure, almost every aftermarket wheel manufacturer produces a wheel with approximately the right offset and the Jeep's 5x5" lug pattern, but that does not mean the wheel was actually engineered for the Jeep; they start with a generic casting, and then machine a handful of standard lug patterns with a one-size-fits-all hub bore. This means that the wheels center onto the axle on the wheel studs (a.k.a. lugcentric) instead of being truly centered on the hub center (a.k.a. hubcentric).
Don't let the dissenters mislead you; hubcentric wheels matter. A wheel that centers on the hub has a much larger, precision-machined index on which to center itself, and it takes the load off the wheel lugs to allow the lug nuts to be accurately and consistently torqued. Proper torquing not only prevents loose nuts from backing off, but it also prevents distortion of the brake rotors and potential wheel vibrations that can lead to "death wobble." (It is for these same reasons that a spindle or unit bearing is "shouldered" to fit snugly into a precision-machined surface on its steering knuckle, rather than simply allowing the spindle/unit bearing studs to take the entire load.) I acknowledge that there are people out there who have had great luck with lugcentric wheels on their Wranglers, but I don't want to half-ass the buildup of my Jeep in hopes that it still drives okay when I'm done modifying it.
The JK's hub bore measures 71.5mm, while almost all aftermarket wheels have much larger bores. Sure, you can buy plastic hubcentering rings that adapt your wheels to your hubs, but these still aren't as good a fix as a proper, precision-machined, metal-to-metal interface. This narrowed down my wheel choices to only the following Jeep-specific, hubcentric wheels:
AEV Savegre 17x8.5" with 5.2" backspacing
Rugged Ridge 17x9" with 4.625" backspacing
Spidertrax precision machined JK wheel spacers would allow me to re-use my perfectly good OEM Rubicon wheels:
With such a taller and wider tire, you can't simply mount the OEM wheels on the axles; the 6.25" backspacing on the OEM wheels means the tires will rub on the frame and control arms when steered sharply, which is why wheels with a different offset are required. 1.5" thick wheel spacers bring that backspacing to a much more reasonable 4.75" and the narrower 7.5" wheel width keeps the tires from sticking way out past the fenders.
Some may consider the Jeep's original wheels to be rather bland or boring or too stock-looking, but I particularly like them. Going along with my theme of building my Rubicon the way that I think Jeep should offer directly from the factory, my decision to retain the factory wheels gives my Jeep an understated factory appearance and avoids the ostentatious look that plagues many modified Jeeps.
The OEM wheels are cast aluminum with a typically vulnerable outer rim, but the slightly narrower 7.5" width now pulls the outer lip of the rim inward by 3/4-inch compared to a 9-inch-wide wheel, helping avoid trail damage. The narrower profile also helps keep the tires' beads seated when aired-down on the trail. Although slightly narrower than ideal for highway tread life (faster wear in the center of the tread than on the shoulder lugs when driven primarily in a straight line) my Jeep's role as a daily driver typically puts more wear on the outside tread blocks, so these narrower wheels should help compensate for that by slightly rounding-off the tires' contact patches and return more even treadwear. Extensive off-road mileage will play more of a factor in the treads' wear anyway. I plan to provide future long-term updates, so keep checking back.
I had a choice of lots of different wheel spacers, but I found out that not all are created equal. Spidertrax makes the very best that are available: they are CNC machined from 6061T6 aluminum to dimensions that are specific to each application. They each come with five wheel studs preinstalled and include thread locking compound to help ensure that the supplied lug nuts never come loose on their own. Installation is easy but you still need to make sure that you're properly torquing the lug nuts to 90 ft-lbs in a star pattern using a torque wrench and the supplied Loctite.
The Spidertrax wheel spacers are machined hubcentric on both the hub- and wheel-side faces, so once they are installed, your wheels will run perfectly true and transfer vertical loads directly to the hub instead of through the wheel lugs. I am very pleased with the performance from my OEM wheels with these spacers - I have none of the typical seat-of-the-pants vibrations or steering wheel shimmy that I've felt on so many different 4x4s with aftermarket wheels and tires. In fact, I drove my Jeep for a week without the steering stabilizer installed to verify that I had no feedback that could have been masked by the damper.
A full set of 4 of these American-made wheel spacers costs less than one Chinese-made aftermarket Jeep wheel while providing numerous other advantages. If you like the look of your original Jeep wheels, you won't be disappointed with this setup.