For much of the recent past, the average car came with steel wheels. However, for the last few years, car manufacturers have been fitting their higher-end vehicles with alloy wheels. Indeed, they have also become commonplace among a few compact cars. However, there are still advantages and disadvantages to consider for each type of wheel--whether you are buying a car, or thinking of replacing the current set of wheels on the one you have now.
Cost and Manufacture
Steel wheels have been popular because they are easier to manufacture (they primarily consist of a circular rim), they have lower material costs and they easily meet one's basic driving needs. Alloy wheels are more expensive, particularly the forged aluminium ones, which are made to be stronger than steel to optimally withstand the most strenuous of racing-car activities.
Weight and Performance
Alloy wheels tend to be lighter than steel wheels. The lighter the weight helps increase acceleration, improve handling and increase fuel efficiency. This is especially good for racing cars, which need as little wheel weight as possible to increase performance.
Alloy wheels are also better heat conductors than steel wheels. This translates into reducing the chance of brake failure, which is essential in more demanding driving situations.
Maintenance and Repair
Steel wheels are easier to repair. Since they bend, they can be beat back into shape. Also, steel wheels can be painted several times over when they begin to wear out.
Alloys, on the other hand, tend to break or crack rather than bend. They also require a high level of maintenance. When they sustain scratches and dents, they absorb a lot more work to refurbish than their steel counterparts. And they also are not as resilient in winter weather.
For the best maintenance of alloy wheels, make sure they have a substantial layering of car polish on the surface to stave off road salt and brake dust, and give them frequent washes using mildly soapy warm water.
Steel wheels have the benefit of being covered with wheel covers or hub caps. They make the wheels more aesthetically pleasing than if they were bare, and they also conceal any defects the wheels have. Alloy wheels, on the other hand, do not need hub caps. They come in different makes and designs and, generally speaking, alloy wheels are more attractive than steel wheels.
One or the Other
For a basic driver's needs, steel wheels are sufficient enough. However, for performance or sports-oriented vehicles, alloys are the premium choice.