Ford’s new wheels feature not just carbon fiber, but also ceramic coatings. These are not for your Windstar. Ford will be the first manufacturer to offer carbon fiber wheels as standard equipment on a production model. The new 2016 Shelby Mustang barely fits that description, but nonetheless, the new ultra-high performance Mustang Shelby GT350R will have non-metallic wheels. The reason automakers are interested in carbon-fiber wheels is that the material is lighter than the alloys commonly used.
The reduced weight has multiple advantages. First, the wheels reduce the weight of the car. Ford didn’t say how much the new wheel will weigh, but called said the new wheels offer “massive weigh savings.” The company also offered that the wheels might weigh 18 pounds, vs. 30 3 pounds for a metallic alloy wheel. So the new Ford wheels weigh about 15 pounds less each than alloy wheels. The 60 pounds total they save is helpful, but considering the car weights about 3500 pounds, not really that helpful. The reason the weight is so important is where it is saved. Wheels are “unsprung” weight. Automakers try very hard to reduce this because it changes how they design the shocks and suspension components. A lighter wheel can make those parts slightly lighter. Also, the lighter the wheel, the better the handling might be if the chassis and suspension are tuned carefully.
Then there is momentum. Although it can be registered as a passenger car, the Shelby Mustang is really a race car optimized for track use. Ford says the rotational inertia of the new wheels is 40 percent less than alloy wheels. That is a big deal when it comes to acceleration and deceleration of the wheels. In essence, it makes the cars faster. A little spoken of secret is that larger wheels, common on all vehicles now, make cars slower and harder to stop than do smaller diameter wheels.
Carbon fiber is a great material in terms of stiffness and strength. However, it degrades in sunlight, and regular paint won’t adhere well. Ford had to produce a proprietary coating to create the gloss black look. The backs of the wheels and inner spokes receive even more impressive coatings. They are sprayed with a liquid ceramic plasma multiple times. The ceramic coating was developed for gas turbine blades. That inner coating provides a thermal barrier to the heat from the brakes.
Ford is not the first automaker to offer this type of wheel, but it is the first to sell it as standard equipment. These are not wheels that would do well if “curbed” by a driver who parks by feel. However, on the track Ford needs every edge it can get to keep up with the Camaro Z/28 and other competitors. These new carbon fiber and ceramic wheels will do that, but at a very high financial cost.