Popularized by rap artists (Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, Nelly) and NBA stars (Latrell Sprewell, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant), custom wheels come in thousands of eye-catching shapes that resemble everything from the blade of a buzz saw to the barrel of a revolver. Specific models, sold under brand names like Bling Image and AutoCouture, can race in and out of fashion in as little as six months. "People want big chrome one week, silver the next," Don Sabino says of the 10,000 customers at his Rent-A-Wheel chain in the southwestern U.S. But in the oversexed world of auto enthusiasts, size seems to matter most. Five years ago, when 15-in. wheels were the norm for SUVs, custom-wheel makers started cranking out 20-inchers, which today are dwarfed by 22-, 24- and even 26-in. rims that stand a full 9 in. taller than the ones that are standard on a Hummer.
This phenomenon, referred to as "plus sizing" in boardrooms and "big balling" on the street, has pushed U.S. sales of custom wheels up to $3.2 billion last year, from $1.2 billion in 1991, and every company from Toyota to Mattel is trying to get in on the action. Two years after Mattel started licensing miniature rims for its Hot Wheels toy cars, the firm will unveil a line of wheels for real cars. Rimmakers are also expecting a boost from this summer's sequel to the 2001 surprise-hit movie The Fast and the Furious, which opens June 6. Amid all the over-the-top street-racing scenes, there's a dose of reality: one of the main characters (played by singer Tyrese), has spent a few years in the slammer for possessing "hot"--as in stolen wheels.
Outside Hollywood, wheel-related crimes include rim jacking and, on occasion, even homicide. This spring a college student was fatally shot in Sacramento when he tried to steal one of Dayton's gold-plated low-rider wheels from a machine shop. A police officer in Florida's Broward County was killed in April when he interrupted two men pinching designer rims off a new Cadillac Escalade. Five of these luxury SUVs were stolen in March from a dealer's lot in Laguna Niguel, Calif.; four were found the next day missing only their wheels and tires. The thieves had cherry-picked the Escalades that were decked out with 22-in. custom rims, including some chrome Momos that retail for $8,000 a set.
The lure of expensive wheels is one reason that auto theft is on the rise in the U.S. after declining for most of the past decade, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, based in Chicago. "For a professional crook, wheel locks are a very minor inconvenience," says Sergeant Joe Thrasher, who supervises California's Orange County auto-theft task force. So while a nice set of rims lends a certain amount of street credibility, it's best to avoid parking on the street.
Flashy wheels come with other downsides too. For an extra $8,000 or $10,000, a dealer will happily upgrade the standard 17-in. wheels on an SUV to 22- or even 24-in. rims, which often requires shaving off part of the wheel well. Plus-size rims have to be paired with thinner tires, which means the ride gets bumpier, the braking distance increases and the turning radius is diminished. "Instead of making a three-point turn, you might have to do a 16-point turn," says John Jarasa, editor of Dub, one of a handful of magazines that have sprung up in the past three years to showcase celebrities with big wheels.
Detroit automakers are jumping on the bandwagon, fitting concept cars like this year's Dodge Avenger with gargantuan 20-in. wheels. But carmakers know that if the wheels are too big, they can screw up the power steering or transmission. Hence the industry's slow shift to 17-in. rims. Over the past two years, shipments to automakers of 17-in. tires have risen 9%, while shipments of 15-inchers have fallen nearly 12%. Even BMW's pint-size Mini Cooper comes with optional 17-in. wheels.
"Wheels are tricky," says David Elshoff, spokesman at Mopar, DaimlerChrysler's mammoth parts division. "Bigger ones look better, but don't necessarily enhance the performance of the car. There's a small degree of liability there." Mopar sells a dizzying array of auto accessories from chrome grilles to rear spoilers but steers clear of supersize rims. Its parent company will go only 3 in. bigger than what comes standard, which is why the dealers that are starting to display tricked-out "Moparized" cars will probably outfit them with non-Mopar wheels.