Whenever you try to shop for wheels you’ll see a couple of things. One is an endless variety of sizes, styles, designs, and colors. The other is the vast price difference. If you’re like me you’ll start looking into why some of these wheels cost double, triple, or quadruple the amount of the others. Read enough wheel descriptions you’ll ultimately come across the words forged for some, flow-forged for others, and cast for a great many.
So what’s the big deal right, aren’t all wheels just made from metal? That’s what I thought long ago when buying wheels for my first car but, wheels are so much more than just the material they are made from. The method in which they are made greatly affects their design, characteristics, and price.
So let’s explore what these descriptions actually mean and get to the bottom of these wheel types so that when you buy your next set you’ll know exactly what you’re getting.
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Cast wheels are by far the most common wheel type you’ll find in the marketplace. Most wheels, OEM and aftermarket, are of this wheel category. Their construction allows for easy design and production but is limited to standard sizes that the wheel manufacturer sets.
As the name suggests these wheels are made by using molten aluminum alloy in a mold or “cast” of a wheel design.
There are two main casting methods, Gravity Cast and Low-Pressure Gravity Feed. Gravity casting involves pouring molten aluminum directly into a mold whereas Low-pressure Gravity Feed Involves injecting aluminum alloy into a mold.
The benefit of this construction is you can cater to many different wheel styles and create wheels quickly. This makes them very affordable because you only use the amount of material needed for each wheel. The waste product is very minimal.
There are a few downsides to cast wheels, however. Molten metal leaves pockets of air in the drying process making the porous metal slightly weaker in its form. Therefore, cast wheels have to be designed with thicker spokes and barrels to compensate and make up for their strength.
All this results in heavier wheels, especially when you move up in wheel diameter. This could affect performance and handling significantly. Cast wheels are often referred to as show wheels because of this flaw. Cast wheels can also break quite easily when put in extreme situations such as racing, from shock load alone.
A typical cast wheel can range from $100 on the low end to $500 on the high end, depending on the size, style, and finish. For reference, a fully forged individual wheel can be 10 times or even!
Forged wheels are the high end of the wheel game. Think “hand-made shoes” but for your car. These wheels are generally custom-made to order and specifically designed for wheel characteristics relating to vehicle type and use.
If you’re looking for a wheel to perform as well as they look, this is the wheel for you. You have an endless variety of styles, shapes, and colors to choose from.
Your imagination is the limit when it comes to forged wheels.
Forged wheels start life as a solid 100-plus pound block of T6 aluminum using heat and pressure to get the dimensions of the barrel and offsets. After the dimensions are set the wheel is machined down to get the exact design and styling per choice.
Since you’re not melting the liquid down the metal is much more robust in a forged wheel. This allows you to remove more material and still have a stronger wheel. It also frees the imagination for more intricate designs and all while still resulting in a very lightweight wheel.
If you want to upsize your wheel diameter without affecting its performance a forged wheel is generally the only way to keep the weight down while keeping strength.
Forged wheels can come in single-piece, two-piece, and three-piece forged. The more pieces refer to the outer barrel, inner barrel, and face of the wheel which are bolted together in assembly.
For any performance or endurance application forged wheels are pretty much the only way to go.
Forging wheels results in a tremendous amount of waste material removal. Add to that the time required to machine a wheel (8+ hours) plus the custom nature of each aspect (offset, design, color, diameter, width, finish) and you end up with a very pricey wheel. For a full set of wheels, it isn’t uncommon to spend $1000 per wheel on the low end and the sky is the limit from there.
Flow-forged has many different names like flow-formed, rotary-formed, and rotary forged. These are all marketing techniques to refer to a slightly tweaked version of a cast wheel. Think of it as a step up from cast wheels but below forged.
Flow-forged wheels use steel rollers and high heat to thin and stretch the barrel of the cast wheel, resulting in a much thinner and stronger wheel overall. While this doesn’t match the strength of a fully forged wheel, it is much stronger than cast alone.
The thinning and stretching of the barrel have two main benefits. One, avoiding the porous nature of molten metal, and two using less material to compensate for strength.
If you need something stronger and lighter than a pure cast wheel, then this is your choice. Since they aren’t fully forged, these wheels come in off-the-shelf designs, colors, diameters, and widths like cast wheels making them more affordable albeit not as customizable.
The price of a flow-forged wheel will be slightly higher than a cast wheel but much lower than a fully forged wheel. Somewhere between $250 on the low end to $700 on the high end for these wheels.
This is the perfect choice for someone who is looking for a strong lightweight wheel without blowing the bank on fully forged.
Wheels can be complicated to figure out but let your wallet dictate how you choose. You want to get the best wheel you can afford because like quality shoes for your feet, a well-constructed wheel goes a long way for vehicle performance.
If you’re wondering which wheels you swap from other cars be sure to check out our article here explaining just that.