Opinion: We all need smaller wheels

5 April, 2013 | by Lance Branquinho

Look: a four-door supercar with 17s. Funny, that.

Toyota’s 86 is our current car of the year. We love it.

Despite its lack of obvious “Poweeeeerrrrrrr” Clarkson loves it too. All told, it’s a perfect product design execution of less being more. Something of a rarity in automotive design nowadays.

A crucial element enabling 86 to be such a delicately engaging driver’s car are its tyres, or rather, lack thereof. In a world madly obsessed with inched-up alloys and Lamborghini Countach reincarnated tire cross-section measurements, 86’s 205/40/17 appear decidedly underwhelming.

When you drive an 86, though, it just works, you don’t for one moment dwell on its Prius-like tyres. Turn-in is sharp and deliberate, with rear-end break-away about as progressive (and predictable) as the foam build-up from pouring a draught. All of this despite rolling rather undersized rubber.

My point? Less is more.

So why aren’t we rolling smaller wheels and tyres on more cars? Well, there’s a rather good, but admittedly alarming, reason for that: they’re too mechanically obese. With all the infotainment equipment, sound-deadening material, safety intervention systems onboard and general ballooning in size of evolutionary model ranges, vehicles are now so heavy they require oversized brakes to keep all that rolling (marauding) momentum in check. And therein – the problem…

To fit really big brake rotors, you need a lot of wheel clearance: hence the ridiculously oversized wheel diameters that have now become standard. Remember when BMW’s e34 M5 rolled those ventilation design ‘white wall’ 17-inch alloy/tyres, and we all thought they were totally massive? The new M5 can be had with 20s, and beyond their impressive appearance they’re also necessary because the mass discrepancy between e34 and F10 M5 is no less than 295kg. Is that progress? Really?

The wisdom to be gleaned from this is simple: it’s time for smarter materials to reduce weight, resultantly requiring smaller brake rotors, enabling wheel size to shrink and thereby resurrecting normal tyre profile aspect ratios, with all the ride quality and associated dynamic benefits that will most surely bring.

Land Rover’s showed what is possible with the new Range Rover’s mass loss, a notable 400-odd kilograms, thanks to its meticulously engineered aluminium construction.

It’s not solely the fault of product planners. We’re also to blame. Customer demand should be tailored to request more discerning equipment and trim levels. Our cars are carrying too much stuff on-board, a lot of it surfeit to the driving experience, or even passenger comfort. There needs to be a choice to bin some of it.

When the e34 M5 poster was on my bedroom wall, the idea of an optional 19-inch wheels on any 3 Series was a notion beyond even the silliest comprehension. Now, it’s a reality. Which means, somewhere, we’ve gone about supersizing our cars all wrong.

As Toyota’s 86 illustrates, less is more.

     

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