Wheel of Misfortune?

Andy Enright

Safety experts are concerned by a flood of low-quality replica alloy wheels that look much like original equipment items but are made to a critically lower standard. In tests these wheels were shown to buckle and break when hitting potholes at speeds of only 50km/h.

More than half a million wheels are imported from China every year, but not one is tested to assess compliance with Australian Design Rules. It’s easy to see why many would be tempted to buy counterfeit alloy wheels.

A set of four 20-inch wheels from a Mercedes dealer, for instance, could easily top $10,000 whereas eBay will have wheels that look superficially similar for 15 percent of that asking price.

“The genuine wheels performed safely under the same test and didn’t receive any visible damage while the fake wheels disintegrated at just 50km/h. This is the speed limit for residential areas in most parts of Australia,” Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries Chief Executive Tony Weber (pictured) said. “To make matters worse, when the fake wheels broke apart, sharp metal shards were flung off and landed many metres away.”

Mercedes-Benz Australia Senior Engineer for Engineering, Certification and Testing Timothy Clarke said the low speed at which disintegration occurred was concerning. “Travelling at 50km/h is a real-world speed and you can easily see people encountering this situation.

A piece of rim breaking away is not only dangerous for the people in the car but also for those on the side of the road considering how far the piece flew.

Based on those sorts of results I wouldn’t want to put those rims on my car,” Mr Clarke said.

But are things really that cut and dried? Has main dealer overcharging for optional or replacement wheels driven many into the he he potentially lethal embrace of low-cost alternatives? Plus, it’s not as if some big name brands such as Campagnolo and Rota haven’t been associated with structural failures in the past. Many manufacturers use Chinese factories for their OE-fit alloy wheels so it’s unfair to tar a whole country with the same brush.

The test prompted a spirited response from The Australian Automotive Aftermarket Association (AAAA) declaring the “fake wheel test” a self-serving stunt designed to scare the public into buying so-called ‘genuine parts’ at inflated margins.

“These wheels shouldn’t have been imported – they do not meet Australian Standards and would never have been sold by any reputable Australian wheel retailer,” said Stuart Charity, AAAA Executive Director.

“A more appropriate message would’ve been to educate consumers to buy products that meets Australian Standards and is ‘fit for purpose’. Another important consumer message is ‘don’t buy safety critical car parts online from unknown vendors’. Products purchased through reputable auto parts retailers – and that meet Australian Standards – are of the same quality, if not better, than manufacturer-branded product,” explained Charity.

So what’s the answer? Buy wheels from the dealership you bought your new car from and you won’t go far wrong, but if you do want to save, look for a well-regarded brand and source it through a reputable dealer. Those tempting-looking replicas on eBay? Steer well clear.