Are Lighter Wheels Really Better?

Like stories like this? This one is from an older issue of our magazine. You’ll see every article as soon as it’s published by reading the print edition of Grassroots Motorsports. Subscribe now.

story and photos by alan cesar

We always hear that lightweight wheels are better. Reducing unsprung mass theoretically helps a car’s suspension work more effectively. Reducing rotating mass should make the car accelerate and stop faster as well.

But how big of an effect is this? We’ve compared light and heavy wheels a few times before, and the results consistently showed a negligible difference in autocross times–even with extreme differences in wheel weight. Of course, autocross testing involves a lot of variables, including changing track conditions and driver fatigue. We thought we’d give it one more shot with some different test methods.

We took our little yellow LeMons race car–yes, a little foreshadowing–two sets of wheels and tires, and an AiM Sports Solo DL to our test track, the Florida International Rally and Motorsports Park. We’d use their kart track to compare lap times, then run a few zero-to-60 blasts up one of the main track’s straights. Using an underpowered car like an old Miata would help emphasize the wheels’ effect on performance, whereas a more powerful car may mask the difference with its oomph.

To determine a trend on the kart track, we took one warmup lap and timed five flying laps. This would show the effect on the car’s suspension and cornering ability, leaving out the time spent accelerating from a stop. And unlike a single run on an autocross course, completing several laps in succession would allow our drivers to become comfortable and their lap times to establish a trend.

Launching the car for the zero-to-60 times was easy: Rev the engine to 6000 rpm and dump the clutch. Our Miata has a viscous limited-slip differential and left some impressive skid marks–regardless of which wheels it was wearing.

For rubber, we used the BFGoodrich g-Force Sport Comp-2; each set of wheels got its own tires. Our heavy wheels for this test were a set made by Masitaly, a company that is, as near as we can tell, no longer extant. The light ones were Volk’s TE37 wheels. We measured the backspacing and determined they were half an inch apart, which necessitated spacers and long wheel studs to accommodate them.

We installed a set of bull-nosed ARP lug studs (left) and mounted our tires. Counting the weight of the spacers, each heavy corner carried an extra 11 pounds, 6 ounces of metal. We did a third zero-to-60 run using the light wheels, but with one of those Masitaly wheels lodged in the trunk to act as ballast. This would help us see the difference between static, sprung weight and rotating, unsprung weight.

The wheelman at the kart track was Bryn Walters, the resident instructor at The FIRM. He’s driven the kart track countless times and is able to nail consistent laps. Bryn and our Online Editor Alan Cesar took turns at the wheel; Bryn’s times are indicative of an expert wheelman, and Alan’s are more in line with an experienced amateur.

Heavy Wheels: Masitaly

size: 15x7 in.

backspace: 57/8 in.

spacer: 1/2 in.

total weight per corner: 42 lbs., 4.6 oz.

Light Wheels: Volk TE37

size: 15x7 in.

backspace: 53/8 in.

spacer: none

total weight per corner: 30 lbs., 14.6 oz.

Drawing Conclusions

Lap times in seconds:

  Masitaly   Volk TE37   Mas (rerun) 
Bryn's average   56.99 56.32 56.63 
Bryn's best 56.57 55.85 56.39 
Alan's average   58.02 57.26 57.36
Alan's best 57.68 57.06 57.22

On the kart track, we tested the heavy Masitaly wheels first, then the lightweight Volks. Then we retested the heavy wheels to correct for any changes in weather, track conditions, and the driver becoming accustomed to the course.

This test showed clear differences both on the kart track and at the strip. Times were substantially worse with the heavy wheels, which slowed the car by 0.31 second on the average lap and 0.46 second on even the best lap. Even though Alan’s final run on the heavy wheels was substantially quicker, it still was 0.16 second behind his best time on the light wheels.

0-60 times:

Volk TE37   8.61
Volk w/ ballast   8.75
Masitaly   9.04

Our zero-to-60 launch was our big test of angular inertia, and it showed substantial results. We ran three tests here, the third with the lightweight wheels and an additional 42 pounds of ballast in the trunk. This would illustrate the difference made by the fact that the heavy wheels aren’t just weighing down the car, they’re increasing the amount of energy required to spin them.

That test was fruitful, too. Though the ballast slowed the car’s zero-to-60 time by 0.14 second compared to the Miata equipped with simply the light wheels, putting that weight on the hubs slowed the car by an additional 0.29 second.

Join Free Join our community to easily find more Mazda articles.
View comments on the GRM forums
OldGray320i Dork
4/12/18 1:45 p.m.

Good timing with this post. 

I'm thinking of getting some 15x8s, and was trying to go as light as reasonably priced wheels would allow, in part because I thought it might help a bit when I auto-x.

At 12lbs per corner (!?), only between a 1/4 and 1/2 second, I shall seek out wheels I like the look of and worry a lot less about weight. 

I'm not competitive enough at this point to worry about a couple lbs a corner. 

Streetwiseguy UltimaDork
4/12/18 1:51 p.m.

Every time this topic comes up, I relate the story of basically revalving the Koni's in my Neon IT car by going from stock wheels with RA1's to Slipstreams with Goodyears.  Lost about ten pounds per corner, and the shocks were perfect after that.

te72 New Reader
4/13/18 12:25 a.m.

Lap times may be one thing, but ride quality on the real world streets are another. Heavy wheels make for a less compliant ride when it comes to the daily drive. However, with less weight, one also should consider strength of design. If you sacrifice rigidity for less weight, you might be risking bent wheels if you happen to catch the wrong piece of road debris or an unseen pothole.


Perhaps the biggest thing I notice is steering effort and quality are much better with a lighter setup. Also, lighter wheels are easier to change, for what that's worth. I store my off season wheel / tire combos in the basement, which means a flight of stairs, one trip per corner. Less weight is better in that case!

jharry3 Reader
4/13/18 9:06 a.m.

All I know is when I went from the original steel wheels to miata alloys on my 90 miata the ride vastly improved.  I lost almost 10 lbs per wheel and it really made the car feel better in rider comfort.  I guess the lighter wheels have less gyroscopic effect because steering effort into tighter turns also decreased.    This car was a Club model with no frills like A/C or power steering, I think it weighted 2100 lbs,  so weight changes were very noticeable.

ccwebb New Reader
4/13/18 9:28 a.m.

Awesome test!

We’re braking distances tested?

Great article, thanks for quantifying. This topic while much discussed in digital and print almost never includes test data. In fact I don’t recall ever seeing any data contained in the many thousands of words written on this topic until now. So once again GRM for the win!

FuzzWuzzy Reader
4/13/18 9:28 a.m.

My main want for light wheels is to get my wagon as far away from it's original 4,000lbs self as possible.

Being ever so slightly faster w/ improved MPG is also a big bonus in my eyes.

44Dwarf UberDork
4/13/18 9:36 a.m.

It depends on the type of racing. On circle track for instance where contact is a normal thing, I've found the mid weight wheel offered the best performance.  Ultra light spun shells deformed to easily with light contact and having an out of round wheel was just as bad as the flat that might also happen.  A heavy weight or (stock junk yard steel rim) wheel made it harder to turn slowed the cars reaction time and tore up the front end and bent frame rails if you tested the wall that day.  Mid-weight wheel had better on-track resistance to damage but lessened the damage to other components when You got in to a nasty wreck like testing concrete wall strength...

xflowgolf Dork
4/13/18 9:38 a.m.

Reading between the lines, I'm thinking my fatass losing 40 pounds is good for about 15 hundreths on my 0-60 times.  cheeky

To cheeseburger, or not to cheeseburger for lunch...  

Jere Dork
4/13/18 10:26 a.m.

Just throwing wider tires on the same wheels adds a lot of weight something some might want to consider. I went from 195s to 215s and gained about 10 lbs per corner (same aspect ratio which meant a taller tire by an inch, so that effects things further). Ride comfort and cornering grip, braking seem improved but gas mileage and power suffered

OldGray320i Dork
4/13/18 11:30 a.m.

I was wondering how much difference a pound or two makes in performance and feel. 

The 11lbs per corner is  LOT in my mind.  But going from 14lb wheels to 11 or 12 probably isn't going to be a huge difference, at least based on the test.  Looks like it averages a little over a tenth of a second per couple pounds in change.

I suspect the car would ride better with lighter wheels, on the inane theory that wheel inertia plays a part - kind of like the difference between a 3lb sledge and a 5lb sledge - when the 5lb hits, it hits with more force given the same rate of motion.  Of course, the opposite might be true in that it's harder to start moving 5lbs than 3.  My ignorance shining through.

In any case, since I'm not starting with 20lb wheels, and given that I'm just not that competetive in auto-x at this point (and probably won't ever be, really), might as well focus more on what I like than how much it weighs.  Current 15x7 wheels are 14lbs, and between the 15x8s I'd like to get, 6UL's, Hypergrams, S1 Storms, Dial-ins, etc, it's 2-3lbs a wheel.  Probably not setting my world alight.

fearlesfil New Reader
4/13/18 2:48 p.m.

In reply to xflowgolf :

Adding 40 pounds of sprung weight would require another test :-)


fearlesfil New Reader
4/13/18 3:05 p.m.

We ran "Factory Fours" on a "split 8" oval at , and our Mitsubishi MightMax/ Dodge D50 came with the heaviest steel wheels I had encountered short of an E-350 Class-C RV. When we switched to Toyota 4X4 alloy wheels we went from running 7th place to winning. The butt dyno didn't register the increase in acceleration, though it did notice the extra traction in the turns which are a bit bumpy. I was able to carry more speed through the center of the turns, and pick up the throttle about half a car length earlier. Big difference.

sfisher71 New Reader
4/13/18 6:43 p.m.

Several thoughts:

1 - Wow, the difference between the light and heavy wheels is greater than the weight of each (bare) 15" RPF-1 I mounted on my last Miata.

2 - Is there anyone here wouldn't sell his or her grandmother for half a second per minute? 

3 - I recall, from the old autox list on Team.Net a billion years or so ago, that somebody quoted the mathematical formula for calculating accelerative performance improvements from reducing rotating mass. ...No, no, it was more recently, when I was writing the PRI feature on cooling systems and in particular, C&R Racing's new Hustler fans for classes that require engine-driven fans. This Web site has a few JavaScript calculators for those who want to estimate for themselves:

Though it basically concludes by saying that, when it comes to handling effects, math is hard. I'll stick with half a second per minute as a rule of thumb.

OldGray320i Dork
4/13/18 8:19 p.m.
sfisher71 said:

2 - Is there anyone here wouldn't sell his or her grandmother for half a second per minute? 

Me.  Half second won't help.  I suck.

CyberEric Reader
4/13/18 10:56 p.m.

Thanks for the great test!

BluEvo210 New Reader
4/14/18 8:47 a.m.

In reply to xflowgolf :

I keep hearing words to the effect that the most effective modification is driver improvement. smiley

...And I, too, have 40 lbs I could live without.

Trackmouse UltraDork
4/14/18 3:15 p.m.

I’m wondering how the “butt Dyno” feels it? And I’m not talking “sear of the pants acceleration”, I’m talking “wow, my steering wheel feels incredibly light and the whole chassis seems to respond to my every flick!”

ProDarwin PowerDork
4/14/18 4:30 p.m.
sfisher71 said:

2 - Is there anyone here wouldn't sell his or her grandmother for half a second per minute? 

I think the interesting thing in this test is that that 1/2 second came with wheels that are 12 POUNDS (!) heavier per corner.  When most of us look at wheels that size, almost all the options are in the 10-12lb range.  If the difference is linear, a 2lb weight difference is probably averaging in the 0.05second range - which would probably fall in the noise on a test like this. 

te72 Reader
4/16/18 11:12 p.m.

In reply to Trackmouse :

Steering effort gets noticeably easier the lighter you go, in my experience. Kinda figure it's like trying to hold a hammer out at arms' length. The lighter the hammer, the easier it is to move it around where you want it. =)

200mph New Reader
4/24/18 11:05 a.m.

Lighter wheels/tires give the biggest benefit on the driven axle.  The reduction in rotating mass produces an improvement EVERY time you accelerate.


rslifkin SuperDork
4/24/18 12:06 p.m.
200mph said:

Lighter wheels/tires give the biggest benefit on the driven axle.  The reduction in rotating mass produces an improvement EVERY time you accelerate.


This affects the wheels / tires on all axles, driven or not.  They all have to spin up the same as you accelerate regardless of whether they're directly powered or not.  

ProDarwin PowerDork
4/24/18 5:20 p.m.
rslifkin said:
200mph said:

Lighter wheels/tires give the biggest benefit on the driven axle.  The reduction in rotating mass produces an improvement EVERY time you accelerate.


This affects the wheels / tires on all axles, driven or not.  They all have to spin up the same as you accelerate regardless of whether they're directly powered or not.  

Not if you lift them off the ground :P


LuxInterior Dork
4/25/18 5:30 p.m.
sfisher71 said:

2 - Is there anyone here wouldn't sell his or her grandmother for half a second per minute? 

Sell? No. Rent?... Possibly.

ErikTheSwede New Reader
4/25/18 8:48 p.m.

What about braking data. 60-0 distance and maybe 3 or 4 hard stops then measure for heat soak.

trakktapedude New Reader
10/29/18 12:09 p.m.

Having done a lot of research on this topic for both cars and motorcycles, I found several evaluations on both applications with light wheels. One interesting item that surfaced a few times was the comment that pulling one pound out of unsprung rotating mass has an overall effect similar to taking FOUR pounds of sprung mass. 

I have been tracking my 2006 Elise for over ten years and recently went from a set of Rota Slipstreams (a great wheel for the money, in spite of comments by some) to a set of 15/16 Volk CE28's. The effect on acceleration and ride quality is noticeable. The effect on turn-in or cornering is harder to feel, but must certainly be there. With two piece rotors and the Volks, I think I have pulled about 36 pounds out of unsprung weight. Also, by going 15/16, they are a little lighter than a 16/17 setup. I like 15/16 for several other reasons, as well. There is a wider variety of DOT legal competition tires available like the RA1 and it allows me to run the car at a bit lower ride height without having bumpsteer issues from the stock steering rack. 

Now, if I could just get a set of wheels for the Lotus like I just bought for my KTM 950 SuperMoto! 

On a motorcycle, the difference is astonishing as the gyroscopic effect from the wheels is greatly reduced at turn-in.   All fun stuff!

ebonyandivory PowerDork
10/29/18 12:56 p.m.
OldGray320i said:
sfisher71 said:

2 - Is there anyone here wouldn't sell his or her grandmother for half a second per minute? 

Me.  Half second won't help.  I suck.

Mine are all dead sooooooo....

ebonyandivory PowerDork
10/29/18 12:58 p.m.

From flipping around at Ecomodder, it seems wheel weight makes a signal difference in mpg.

I suppose that could factor into racing but maybe not until you get into the more expensive type racing where the rules are tighter?

Our Preferred Partners