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Think Pieces

Michael's thoughts on the auto industry, its products, and/or this website.

 

 

 

 

 

Leaky wheels?
Something I did not think of...

I've come across a potential reliability issue with chrome rims, and now wonder how common it is.

The right front tire of my wife's Chrysler PT Cruiser had been losing air for months. A couple months earlier, I nearly took the tire in to get patched, but could find no punctures. So I assumed that the valve stem was slowly leaking and let it slide.

But the rate at which the tire lost air continued to increase, a couple of other tires began to also lose pressure, and my wife didn't like having to put air in them every two to three days. So I finally took the car to Discount Tire, which patches tires free of charge.

Before I left, my wife mentioned that a friend of a co-worker had the same problem with the same exact car, and it turned out to be a problem with the wheels--they were leaking air. I shrugged this possibility off. I'd heard of wheels leaking air before, but assumed this was because hitting a pothole had bent the rim. The rim appeared to be in great shape.

Then Discount Tire told me that the problem was with the car's chrome rims. Apparently these can corrode--not on the outside but starting beneath the chrome finish in places you cannot see. And when they corrode the tire's bead and the valve stem cannot seal properly.

They did what they could to clean up the corrosion on the bead seat, but suggested I'd probably need new wheels before much longer. On a four-year-old car.

Two days later I noticed that the tire is completely flat. I put on the temporary spare and took the flat back to Discount Tire. They determined that the area around the valve stem seat was also badly corroded, and cleaned that.

I discussed the problem with chrome wheels more with the staff at Discount Tire this time. I said I'd never heard of this problem. They responded that they see it nearly every day, especially with Lexus and older Chryslers.

Manufacturers are starting to get away from true chrome wheels. In recent years Chrysler has often used "chrome clad" wheels instead of alloy wheels plated with chrome. With these, a "chrome" plastic cover is attached to a regular alloy wheel. (Oh, the irony that alloy wheels can now be purchased with wheel covers.) General Motors uses chrome clad wheels a little, but has been making heavier use of mirror-polished aluminum. Such wheels are just like standard alloys, but with a more highly polished finish. In both cases I thought the reason was to cut costs, but now wonder if reliability issues with chrome-plated rims might have been a major motivation.

Spring 2006 Wheel Corrosion Survey: Results

In May and June 2006, TrueDelta surveyed the entire panel to determine the prevalence of this issue among the 1996-2003 model year cars members own or once owned. Few people who live in areas where the roads are not salted reported having this problem. Of the 677 cars subjected to salty roads, about 8 percent had lost tire pressure because of wheel corrosion and 2 percent had had the wheels replaced to fix this problem.

This was for all types of alloy wheels on 1996-2003 cars. With 1996-1998 cars, the leakage rate grows to 14 percent, but the replacement rate is still 2 percent.

I did not ask people how they have avoided to replace leaking wheels. Tire shops can clean off the corrosion to restore the seal, and while not a permanent fix it can delay the need to buy new wheels.

Tire shops tell me this is predominately a problem with chrome wheels, but responses included too few chrome wheels (57) to reach a clear conclusion. Chrome rims have only become fairly common in the last few years.

Problem Rates Vary Greatly by Make

Tire shops told me that this is especially a problem with Chrysler and Lexus vehicles. The sample included too few of the latter. But of the 62 salt-subjected Chrysler and Dodge cars in the sample, 13 had leaky wheels--over 20 percent. Look only at older cars, and the percentage rises dramatically. Of the 29 1996-2000 Chryslers, 8 had this problem--28 percent. Among the oldest cars, about one-third have been affected.

Other brands suffer from this problem to a lesser extent. Of 69 salt-subjected Fords, nine have had leaky wheels--13 percent. For the 43 1996-2000 Fords, the percentage rises to 19. A few Nissans and Hyundais were reported to have had this problem, with a problem rate of about ten percent, but the sample size is too low for the results to be conclusive. For Hondas, four of 53 cars reported this problem.

In comparison, only one of 37 Chevrolets and two of 43 Toyotas were reported to have had leaky wheels. None of the 37 VWs was affected.

Our Personal Outcome

In our case, Chrysler has offered to pick up half the cost of replacement wheels. They see this as generous since the car is out of warranty, and perhaps it is. But I still find it more than a little odd that the original tires outlasted the original wheels.

Recommendations

Ideally, this analysis would have studied specific models and even specific wheels. But the sample is far too small for this. In a year or two, when the panel is larger and more aging cars are equipped with chrome rims, TrueDelta will probably repeat this survey.

For now, if you are considering a Chrysler, Ford, Nissan, or Hyundai product as a used car, and you live where the roads are salted, you should consider having a tire shop remove at least a couple of tires to inspect the rims for corrosion. Especially if the rims are chrome. Owners of these vehicles should also strongly consider buying a second set of steel rims for use in the winter.

Thanks for reading.

Michael Karesh, TrueDelta

First posted: February 27, 2006
Last updated: November 15, 2006