Heavy steel wheels are relatively rare in showrooms these days -- it seems they are heading the way of bias-ply tires. Most new cars are delivered with cast aluminum wheels. While cast wheels weigh less than comparative steel wheels, they are still manufactured with thick castings and solid spokes (forged aluminum wheels, both lighter and stronger, are generally more expensive and as such, fitted largely to performance vehicles).

Alcoa Wheel & Transportation Products, one of the world's largest aluminum suppliers, is determined to reinvent the wheel in an effort to save fuel and lower emissions. The company is tackling this issue by designing wheels manufactured with higher strength aircraft-quality aluminum. The alloy is 20 percent stronger than the current wheel material, so wheels can be made thinner and with hollow spokes.

Alcoa recently displayed two 20-inch wheels for comparison: A Chrysler OEM aluminum wheel weighed 35.5 pounds, while the Alcoa alloy wheel weighed just 27.7 pounds. The benefits are obvious, and Alcoa is quick to point out that the weight savings are a simple bolt-on solution -- they don't require expensive engineering at the design level to seek weight-savings. Educating the public that lightweight wheels aren't just for high-performance vehicles, the aluminum manufacturer says that the reduced unsprung mass benefits hybrid and electric vehicles by extending their range and increasing their efficiency... and lest we forget, Alcoa is the OEM wheel supplier to the upcoming Chevrolet Volt.

[Source: Automotive News, subs. req'd]