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Everything You Need to Know About Wrangler Wheels

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Whether you are shopping for aluminum Wrangler wheels or steel Wrangler wheels, up-sizing your wheels and tires will add versatility to your off-road rig! Don't forget to add a lift kit depending on the wheel size you select!

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When it comes buying Wrangler wheels you can choose between aluminum or steel wheels. Steel wheels are usually much cheaper than aluminum wheels which tend to be much lighter. Everyone has their own preference and there are several differences between each type. Wheels also come in various sizes. At Extreme Terrain you will find 15” Wrangler wheels, 16” Wrangler wheels, 17” Wrangler wheels, 18” Wrangler wheels and 20” Wrangler wheels.

Extreme Terrain

Basic Structure of a Wheel

Your Jeep’s stock wheel is a single piece design, but there are multi-piece wheels available including bead locks. If we were to break the wheel apart, it would be comprised of an inner and out lip, central barrel, and the mounting plate/face.

What is Wheel Offset?

Wheel offset is basically the distance of the mounted wheel in relation to the inner components of the Jeep (shocks, sway bar links, inner fenders etc.). In a nutshell, offset has to deal with how far “off” the center line the wheel actually sits. Depending if you want the wheel to sit close or far in relation to the wheel fender, you’ll need to use the offset measurements. A positive offset will push the mounting face out towards the street. This results in less of a deep dish and tucks the majority of the wheel INSIDE the fender. A negative offset will do the opposite, by creating more of a deep dish and exposing more of the wheel OUTSIDE of the fender. Offset is measured in millimeters, which is a quick reference point to make sure you’re looking at offset and not back spacing.

Barricade Rivet Style Fender Flares on a 2007-2017 JK Wrangler
Before and After: JK Fender Flare Kit

What is Wheel Backspacing?

Back spacing is a little bit easier to explain, it’s the measurement of the mounting face to the back edge of the wheel (inner lip). This measurement has a direct influence on whether or not the back of the wheel will make contact with the inner components of the Jeep (shocks, sway bar links, inner fenders, etc.). You can play with the offset to move the wheel further out through the use of spacers or adapters, but back spacing is a set figure when it comes to the measurement of the actual wheel. Back spacing is measured in inches, which is a quick reference point to make sure you’re looking at back spacing and not offset.

1.5in Wheel Spacers Installed on a 1987-2006 Wrangler
1.5in Wheel Spacers Installed

How do You Work with Offset and Backspacing?

Now that we have an understanding of the difference between offset and back spacing, how do both numbers work together? Out of the box the wheel is set to a particular offset and back space. As explained earlier, the offset is the distance (positive or negative) the mounting face is from the center of the wheel. This will tell us how far in/out the wheel will sit under the fenders. 

The back spacing is the space from the mounting face and inner lip, this will let us know if the back of the wheel will come into contact with any of the inner components of the Jeep like the suspension, sway bar links, etc. If we face a problem where the back spacing is too great and comes in contact with inner components we can increase the offset by using spacers. These give the wheel more of a positive direction, pushing the mounting face out further, which in turn creates more space between the inner lip of the wheel and the inner components of the Jeep. In this case the backspacing hasn’t changed, but we’ve increased the offset, which will give us the clearance space we need. 

Counter to this scenario, if the wheel sticks out past the fender too much, we can shave off some of the mounting face, reducing the wheel offset. Again, the backspacing doesn’t change. The only change is where the wheel is positioned under the fender. It’s important to note shaving of the mounting face is a difficult task and could result in a slightly uneven surface, which in turn can be felt while driving. You should always seek to start with the proper offset and avoid the need to reduce the offset.

Front Sway Bar Disconnect in Relation to a 2007-2017 JK Wrangler Suspension
Front Sway Bar Disconnect Kit for 2.5-6in Lifted JKs

Steel Wrangler Wheels

Steel wheels, also called steelies, are typically regarded as cheap and strong. A very popular use of steel wheels is to hold winter tires due to their low price and low maintenance. Steel is a strong, durable metal that is not likely to crack but can bend. If a steel wheel does bend while off-road it can be hammered back to the point where it does hold air. Steel wheels don’t come in many different styles, if you want to make them look fancy you could install hubcaps.

Pros:

  • Less expensive
  • If bent on trails it can usually be hammered back so it holds air
  • Less choices
  • Lower center of gravity
  • Low maintenance
  • Can be easily repainted
  • Very difficult to crack

Cons:

  • Rusts
  • Easier to bend
  • Usually heavier
  • Worse fuel economy
  • Doesn’t dissipate heat as well
  • Worse handling
  • Heavier wheels cause increased stopping distance
Pro Comp 15x10 Steel Wrangler Wheel for 1987-2006 YJs and TJs
Steel Wheel

Aluminum Wrangler Wheels

Aluminum wheels were first used in 1924 by Ettore Bugatti on the Type 35. Nowadays most automotive manufacturers use an aluminum alloy for their wheels. There are several different types of wheel construction with the two most common for Wranglers being cast and forged. Forged wheels are lighter, denser, and stronger than cast wheels so if you plan to get aluminum wheels you should aim for a forged set. Aluminum wheels tend to hold up better off-road due to aluminum is lighter which allows you to have more material while still being lighter than steel. Aluminum wheels will usually give you better fuel economy and handling thanks to they are typically lighter than steelies.

Pros:

  • Usually lighter
  • Better on road performance
  • Better fuel economy
  • Better heat dissipation
  • More choices
  • Better handling
  • Less likely to oxidize

Cons:

  • More likely to crack than steel
  • Cast aluminum wheels are weaker and weigh more than forged
  • Difficult to repair if at all possible
  • Can be hurt by certain types of cleaners
  • Require more maintenance
Beadlock Style Aluminum Wrangler Wheel
Aluminum Wheel

Aluminum vs. Steel Wheel Finish Durability

Aluminum and steel wheels offer a varying levels of differences when discussing durability. Aluminum wheels are often powder coated and typically hold up well to most weather conditions. They are often lighter than steel wheels and offer a better level of performance on the road. Aluminum wheels are however softer and easier to damage on the trail, when compared to steel wheels. So, despite the stronger powder coated finish, when compared to a painted finish, the chances of damage is still greater.

Steel wheels are stronger and harder to damage on the trail, but the painted surface is easier to scratch and expose the metal to the environment, which leads to rust and eventual structural failure. Steel wheels are also heavier and more difficult to balance properly, making them more of an issue on the road and everyday use.

TJ Wrangler on the Trail

Understanding Tire Dimensions

33”, 35”, 37”, what does it mean? These are the most common upgraded tire sizes for Jeep owners. They are also difficult to decipher since tire manufacturers use a combination of metric and standard measurements. In order to understand tire dimensions let’s start with the basics. For example, let’s look at a Goodyear Duratrac sized at 315/70/17.

  • The first number, 315, is the width of the tire in millimeters. So this Duratrac is 315 millimeters or about 12.4 inches wide.
  • The second number, 70, is the height of the sidewall, which is 70% of the width. In this case 70% of 315 which is 220 millimeters or 8.6 inches of sidewall height.
  • The last number, 17, is the rim diameter already in inches, to further confuse the situation.

Now for a little math, multiplying the sidewall height in inches by two and adding the rim diameter will give you the estimated size of the wheel in inches, which in this case is 8.6” x 2 17” = 34.2”. The final size of what is then referred to as simply a 35” wheel.

Various Tire Sizes in Front of Two Wranglers

What Size Should I Choose?

Sometimes this decision is made by aesthetics or need, whichever the reason, there are important pros and cons to consider with each size. How is the Jeep affected when tire size is increased? There are several components that are affected the more you increase the wheel size. An initial problem is wheel positioning and contact with the Jeep body and fenders. If you don’t lift and correct the Jeep’s suspension you will encounter rubbing issues the larger you go.

33”: a slightly bigger wheel than stock, this is the first step up in the world of larger wheels.

Pro: For day-to-day use this size wheel doesn’t require much modification to the Jeep and if your goal is purely looks, then this option will give you the best results with little disturbance to the Jeep.

Con: if you plan on taking your Jeep off-road, this wheel size will offer very little clearance improvement than stock and require at least a “leveling kit” or “budget boost” small lifts to give you enough clearance between the wheel and the Jeep. Gas mileage is slightly reduced.

Application: light off-road use on dirt roads and snow/gravel terrain. This wheel size is better suited for minimal elevation changes and green-blue trail levels.

Leveling Kit on a 2007-2017 JK Wrangler
Leveling Kit on a JK

35”: this is probably the most common wheel upgrade size for Jeep owners.

Pro: great for day-to-day driving, provides more ground clearance and more tire options to choose from.

Con: this tire size will require a “leveling kit” or “budget boost” to even mount onto the Jeep and drive on the street. Handling is slightly affected, especially on 2-door Jeeps. If you plan on off-roading then you will need at least a 2.5” lift for clearance. Gas mileage is also reduced.

Application: moderate off-road use with more elevation changes requiring significant articulation. Ideal for blue-black level trails.

37”: typically, these larger wheel sizes are more common on four-door Jeeps since the longer wheelbase is better suited for the both the look and feel of wheels this size.

Pro: increased ground clearance provides a great advantage when off-roading, along with greater articulation options.

Con: depending on the actual wheel size you will need a larger, more expensive lift with more components. Handling will be greatly affected and your fuel mileage will be noticeably reduced.

Application: heavy off-road use with significant elevation changes. Ideal for black level trails.

3.25in Suspension Lift Installed on a 2007-2017 Wrangler JK 2 Door
3.25in Lift on a JK

What Other Mods Do I Need with Bigger Wheels?

Depending on the size of wheel you upgrade too, you might need to modify several Jeep components. These are some of the most common.

33”: you can run 33” wheels on most Jeeps without any modification. If you want to go off-road you will need to install a small 1”-2.5” leveling kit to raise the Jeep slightly and avoid any potential contact during articulation.

35”: to avoid any contact you will need to run a minimum of 1”-2.5” leveling kit for road use. If you plan on off-roading you will need to install at least a 2.5” lift kit that includes a front track bar, control arms, steering stabilizer, bump stops and brake line extensions. Also, you will need a FlashCal programmer to adjust the speedometer and properly program the Jeep’s ECU to take into account the larger tire rotation. In addition, depending on your drivetrain gearing, you might need to invest in new differential gears to accommodate the larger wheel rotation.

Superchips Tuner Being Loaded Up on a Wrangler

37”: Larger wheels will require a larger lift, usually 4” lift kits that provide a complete replacement of the suspension including, shocks, springs, front & rear track bars (or relocation brackets), top & lower control arms for the front & rear, new longer brake lines, steering stabilizer, and bump stops. You will also need the FlashCal programmer to adjust the speedometer and properly program the Jeep’s ECU to take into account the larger tire rotation. It is also important to note that these larger wheel sizes will also require body modifications to the bumpers and fenders, along with mechanical gearing to accommodate the larger wheel rotation.

Once you decide on the ideal wheel size for your needs and take into consideration all the parts that will be affected, you should have a great time with your Jeep and take advantage of an important Jeep modification.

1987-1995 YJ Wrangler on a 4in Lift
4in Lift on a YJ

What is the "Bead" of a Tire?

A tire has a rolled lip along the inside edge referred to as the “bead”. When the tire is mounted to a wheel, the tire’s bead falls between the outer lips/edges of the wheel. When air is pumped into the wheel, pressure pushes the beads to the lips/edges of the wheel, creating and maintaining enough pressure to keep the tire properly seated and inflated for road use.

Overall this design works well in normal road use. It’s also very functional off-road, allowing you to reduce the air pressure in the tire to more than half of the full inflation. This in turns provides much better traction while on the trail. The only drawback is when the air pressure is reduced too much, often within single digits, the tire can start to slip and rotate freely from the actual wheel. You can actually lose pressure completely and possibly have a bead jump out of the wheel lip, requiring you to re-mount the tire while on the trail which is not a fun task.

How Beadlock Wrangler Wheels Work

What are Beadlock Wheels?

Beadlock wheels address the concern of running extremely low tire pressure. Their outer lip/edge is a separate piece from the wheel itself. When the tire is mounted, the removable outer lip/edge ring is bolted onto the wheel with the tire bead sandwiched in-between. This type of attachment clamps the bead of the tire itself, securing it into position, this allows you to run a very low tire pressure without the fear of having the bead unseat from the wheel. It also allows you to mount/unmount a tire yourself without the need of special machinery. In addition, the multi-piece wheel design allows for easy replacement of components if you bend or damage a part of the wheel. 

Some of the drawbacks of running a beadlock wheel is weight. The multi-piece design is often heavier than a single aluminum cast, one-piece wheel. Beadlock wheels also require monthly maintenance. You should routinely check all the bolts are properly torqued to ensure a secure fitment and prevent the risk of leakage or damage while driving. In addition, beadlock wheels are also significantly more expensive than single-piece wheels.

Exploded View of a Beadlock Wheel

The Pros and Cons of Beadlock Wheels

Pro:

  • The ability to run a very low air pressure for optimal traction during off road conditions. A tire with a lower pressure will mold around the terrain for the best traction.
  • Serviceable repair if there is any damage to the wheel.
  • Tires can be mounted/unmounted easily while on the trail, without the use of special machinery.

Con:

  • Weight
  • Monthly maintenance
  • more expensive
Fitment includes: JK, TJ, YJ, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018