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Do aftermarket wheel spacers really improve handling on sports cars?

Dec 21, 2023Dec 21, 2023

A wheel spacer is a small round disc that is placed between a vehicle's brake rotor and the mounting hub of its wheel.Lou Trottier/The Globe and Mail

All too often, a car is towed into my place of business after experiencing a wheel separation due to the use of aftermarket wheel spacers. A wheel spacer is a small round disc that is placed between a vehicle's brake rotor and the mounting hub of its wheel. Why would anyone install these items, you ask? Well, the most common reason is to widen the track of the vehicle for cosmetic purposes, in order to give it an exaggerated, wider and outboard-wheel look. The effect is most pronounced on larger, four-wheel-drive pickup trucks and Jeep Wranglers where one can clearly see the wheels extending out past the fenders.

There is a popular misconception that wheel spacers improve handling characteristics on sports cars because of this wider track. While there might be a slight cornering advantage due to the change in suspension geometry, the negatives far outweigh any benefits. That is why both Ontario and Quebec have deemed them as illegal for road use. In fact, most retailers of these items clearly mark their products as off-road use only. However, that doesn't seem to discourage enthusiasts, as most users will blame improper installation when discussing someone else's wheel falling off.

The problems are plentiful, with the most dramatic issue being the extra load placed on the wheel studs or bolts, and wheel bearings. By staggering the wheel outwards, the stud or bolts must be lengthened to accommodate the distance taken up by the spacer.

I am not an engineer, but here is how it was explained to me when I was in trade school. For example, when you are attempting to change your flat tire, one uses a tire iron. If the bolts are stuck, the time-tested technique is to lengthen the tire iron to improve mechanical advantage, thereby multiplying force. On wheel-spacer-equipped vehicles, the effective lengthening or staggering outward of the wheel also generates elevated mechanical forces like the lengthened tire iron. These elevated forces are directly applied to the wheel studs/bolts and wheel bearing, and indirectly to the remainder of the suspension components, thereby shortening their life span.

Vehicle manufacturers design in component safety margins, but shoddy products, improper installation and prolonged misuse from rough off-roading or aggressive street and racetrack driving will eventually catch up. The result is wheel studs that break or threads in the wheel hubs that get stripped or pulled out. Either of these situations will lead to a wheel separation, hence why they are outlawed throughout most of the United States.

Wheel spacers are not to be confused with wheel adapters. The primary difference being that the wheel adapter is directly bolted to the hub and comes equipped with a second set of studs for installation of the wheel. The mechanical forces are still elevated causing increased suspension component wear, but because longer bolts or studs are not used like with a spacer, wheel separation is not as common. While no manufacturer recommends the use of either a spacer or adapter, only the spacer has been deemed illegal.

As I have mentioned before here, insurance companies will refuse claims when vehicles with illegal modifications are involved in accidents. If this is you, or junior's car, consider yourself warned. Also, wheels that stick out past the vehicle's fenders are prohibited throughout much of Canada, but that's a discussion for another day.

We have a 2010 Sebring convertible purchased in the fall of 2010 with 22,000 kilometres; now with 88,000 trouble free kilometres. Maintenance has been regular oil changes plus new tires and a new battery in 2017. Everything works fine and we love the car. We also own a 2020 Forester and have had a new SUV every three to four years as our primary vehicle.

We’re starting to worry about potential failures in the Sebring. We passed the age of 70 some years back and don't want to be either stranded or face an in-motion emergency due to operating failure. We are thinking of taking the Sebring either to a Chrysler dealer or a garage and are seeking advice as to what we should ask them to do and what kind of costs we should expect to incur.

Our Plan B would be to trade the Sebring in and buy a 2020 or 2021 convertible priced somewhere around $60,000 to $70,000.

Thank you,

Bob and Wendy

If the Sebring was your primary vehicle, I might have a different opinion. However, if the car has been trouble-free to this point, there is no reason to assume it will suddenly become unreliable. You’ve already got the right idea, take the car in for a thorough inspection by either a dealer or a trusted repair shop. Place an emphasis on aggressively inspecting any rubber hoses, belts, fluids and whatever else the technician might suggest. If they advise it's time to replace the vehicle, ask for detailed reasons why and heed their advice if you feel confident in their analysis. If they see no reason to replace the vehicle at that time, then make sure you have a decent roadside assistance and enjoy your top-down motoring. Nothing is in life guaranteed, including a breakdown occurring in a brand-new car.

Hi Lou,

I have a 2013 MX 5 with 80,000 kilometres and next spring it will need brakes on all corners. I also have a 2019 Hyundai Veloster turbo tech with 47,000 kilometres on it and my dealer is telling me that my brakes are at 50 per cent and need to be replaced. Both cars are six speed standards, and I drive the Mazda much more aggressively than the Veloster. My question is, have you noticed similar brake wear on Hyundai vehicles? I’m considering having a local garage put upgraded non-OEM brake parts on the Veloster, does this make sense to you?


Rod G

Replacing the brakes at 50 per cent doesn't make sense. Is it possible that you are missing part of their analysis? Without knowing the answer, I will assume that excessive corrosion is present on the brake rotors. Most contemporary vehicles use inferior metal to construct brake rotors and they have very little resistance to corrosion. Therefore, you may still have 50 per cent remaining on the brake pads but have a rotor surface that is so scored and pitted that little of it is usable. The pandemic has caused vehicles to sit unused for extended periods, which is the prime reason for quicker than expected deterioration of the brake rotor.

There is nothing wrong with seeking a second opinion. If I am right and the rotors are heavily corroded, then you will unfortunately have to have them replaced. If they are fine and the dealer is being too aggressive with their recommendation of brake replacement, then it's time to find another service facility.

Upgraded brake parts or not, corrosion will still be an issue if the car is sitting for extended periods.

Lou Trottier is owner-operator of All About Imports in Mississauga. Have a question about maintenance and repair? E-mail [email protected], placing "Lou's Garage" in the subject line.

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