Wheel spacers are a divisive topic. Some will tell you they’re not only safe but practical and useful. Others will warn you against them like the plague.
So, what’s the truth of the matter?
The bottom line up front? Wheel spacers are likely to be much more hassle than they’re worth.
Despite the insistence of wheel spacer manufacturers and enthusiasts, spacers alter the forces on a wheel. This leads to faster component and tire wear.
If you have the work done by an engineer, you might be able to get around this. It’s probably more trouble (and money) than you want, though.
This guide will explain what wheel spacers are and walk you through the impacts of getting them fitted.
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What Are Wheel Spacers On A Car?
Wheel spacers are an extension to the mounting flange/wheel bearing.
By installing spacers, the wheel sits further out from the car’s center. It extends to (and sometimes beyond) the wheel arch.
With a wheel spacer, the tire can be wider. Wide tires are great for grip and appearance (but not so good for fuel economy and drivetrain wear prevention).
Wheel spacers come in a variety of thicknesses and specifications. Different versions are designed to accommodate all sorts of manufacturers and models.
You can either get:
- Hub-centric spacers have a central bore that fits precisely over the mounting flange. They’re produced explicitly for different cars. These have a firmer, more stable connection and are therefore safer.
- Lug-centric spacers connect to the flange through the lug nuts. The central bore is a generic size. These aren’t as strong as hub-centric spacers.
Almost any driver can find wheel spacers to fit their particular vehicle. The exception might be people who drive rarer or imported cars.
You often also need to purchase aftermarket lug nuts/bolts threaded to match the spacer. Without these, you can’t attach a wheel. Your old ones are likely to be the wrong size.
Pros Of Wheel Spacers
Here are the main reasons people choose to add wheel spacers.
Sure, many will talk about the performance impacts of wheel spacers (see below).
But, in reality, most people get wheel spacers because they look good. A wider stance and thick tires give the car a more aggressive appearance.
Many choose to install lift or lowering kits along with spacers.
Wheel spacers also might allow you to fit aftermarket alloys.
Increased Grip/Performance (With Wider Tires Also Fitted)
The wider a tire is, the more grip your car has. That makes sense, right? There’s more contact with the road and, therefore, more traction.
Adding wheel spacers allows you to attach even wider tires than stock. In theory, this leads to more grip.
Note: in reality, a heavier wheel takes more torque to turn. Yes, you’ll have more grip, but the engine needs to work harder. This often cancels out all your performance gains. The steering is also affected, as mentioned in the next section.
Cons Of Wheel Spacers
There are a significant number of drawbacks to wheel spacers. Here are a few.
Faster Suspension Wear
Wheel spacers change the forces applied to the wheels. It might not sound like much on paper, but you’ll find the suspension components wearing out far sooner.
These can be costly repairs when multiple things go wrong.
Find more on this in the next section.
Attaching new wheels will likely impact how the forces transfer through them to the road.
The wheel itself might be appropriately balanced on a tire balancer. However, it’s not sitting where the car expects.
Because of this, the forces are entirely different. It results in vibrating and increased tire wear.
Changes To The Steering
Spacers mean the wheels sit further away from the center of the car.
Turning the steering wheel will have the same effect on the wheels. But the steering won’t be so efficient because the distance between them is now greater. This distance is known as the track length (not wheelbase).
This will also increase tire wear (see below).
Fender/Wheel Arch Interference
The wheel spacers essentially push the outside of your wheel further away from the car. This means it’s closer to the fender/wheel arch.
You might find that the tire rubs on the arch or fender bodywork. It might be particularly bad when driving over rough ground, as the suspension works hard.
The tires will wear much faster as a result.
You could get around this by installing bump stops or a lift kit. This isn’t recommended, though. These simply cause more problems elsewhere.
How Safe Are Wheel Spacers?
Wheel spacers rarely result in your wheel falling off. Such horror stories are few and far between and probably stem from cheap, low-quality parts and poor workmanship.
But – and it’s a big but – wheel spacers are undeniably bad for your car. Sure, they cause lowered fuel economy and a less comfortable drive, as above, but these aren’t the main issue.
The big problem is suspension wear (including tire wear).
Wheel Spacer Safety: Suspension Wear
When you install spacers, the wheel sits further away from the bearing. As a result, it puts more twisting force (torque) on it.
Adding heavier, wider wheels only makes this effect worse.
This has a detrimental effect on all the suspension components, including the following:
- Wheel bearing
- Wheel hub
- Suspension arms (upper and lower control arms/wishbone)
- Ball joints
- CV axle and joints (or traditional solid axle)
- Sway bar link
- Sway bar
- Shock absorber (damper)
Consider a see-saw if you want to better grasp this concept.
The further away from the middle, or pivot point, you sit, the greater the downward force. You aren’t any heavier, and gravity isn’t any stronger, so the only difference is that you move marginally further away.
That’s what’s happening with wheel spacers. Under normal circumstances (without spacers), the mounting flange/hub is the pivot point. The wheel sits on it. The manufacturer will have balanced the forces in the suspension, axle, and bearing to hold it safely.
By attaching a weight (the spacer and wheel) further away than designed for, you change this careful setup. It might not look like much, but remember that the force is made up of the distance multiplied by the weight.
Even a few millimeters can have a considerable impact. That’s why you get vibrating wheels and an uncomfortable ride with wheel spacers.
Wheel Spacer Safety: Tire Wear
There are two significant reasons for increased tire wear.
- As mentioned in “Suspension Wear,” it’s complicated to get the wheels to balance. As such, you get vibrations while driving (you’ll feel this through the steering wheel). This is the tire bouncing from outside to inside as you drive, and it gets worse the faster you’re going. It’s uncomfortable and will wear your tires much quicker (especially the fronts).
- By adding wheel spacers and installing wider tires, you change the way the steering works. Steering is actually pretty complicated. It takes precise mathematics to get a car to turn without understeering or wearing out its tires. Changing the setup means the steering will feel different and wear the rubber sooner. Not so good.
If a car’s tires are wearing quicker than they should, it makes them more likely to blow out. That’s a dangerous situation, made even more perilous by the spacer-induced steering adjustments.
At best, you’ll be paying way more money than you should to replace tires regularly.
Are Wheel Spacers Safe On Trucks?
You often see wheel spacers on trucks. They’re the most obvious and most prominent applications. Drivers often pair spacers with bigger, wider wheels and a lift kit.
The modification culture in the States is ingrained into most people. It’s seen everywhere: hot rods, sleepers, drift cars, drag-racing mods… the lot. Modified trucks are one of the more common sights.
Unless they’re modified carefully by an engineer, though, you should avoid putting spacers (or anything else) on trucks. Many would disagree with that statement, but it’s grounded in fact.
The most significant risk with wheel spacers is how they put additional force on the suspension and tires.
A typical pickup truck is bigger and heavier than the average car. That means the forces acting on the wheels are also more intense. And that means any imbalanced modifications will have an even more significant negative impact.
Again, provided wheel spacers are installed to specification, you’re unlikely to see your wheel fall off. But you’ll almost certainly see increased wear and poorer handling. Both of these contribute to a vehicle’s overall “safety.”
Rounding Up: Are Wheel Spacers Worth It?
Of course, the final decision is yours. However, from a practical and financial perspective, wheel spacers aren’t worth it.
Your car will look great, sure. But its performance will actually be inhibited, and you’ll end up with far more problems.
It’s best to leave these things alone unless you’ve carefully calculated the impact.
In some (rare) cases, wheel spacers might be worth it. Overall, if you want a car with thicker tires or a wider stance, it’s better to buy one built like that.