Buyers of full-electric and hybrid vehicles like low fuel costs, but they also like some bling — and that's a moneymaking opportunity for Detroit's Superior Industries International Inc., a leading Tier 1 supplier of aluminum wheels.
Superior plans to capitalize on a new generation of lightweight aluminum wheels that will give the small-wheel electric vehicle a more stylish look, says CEO Don Stebbins.
Stebbins told an investors conference last month in Santa Monica, Calif., that there's a perception in the industry that EV buyers wouldn't want bigger, heavier wheels that could compromise fuel economy.
But that's not the case, he said. EV buyers, especially for premium brands, want bigger, shinier, sportier-styled wheels, just like other premium buyers, Stebbins said.
"Aesthetics matter. The Tesla's a great-looking car, right?" he said, showing a slide featuring the Tesla Model S, which comes standard with 19-inch aluminum wheels. Tesla is a Superior Industries customer and poster child for the supplier's argument that even EVs can have stylish wheels.
But it's not just high-end electrified vehicles, he said. Lower-end EVs and hybrids also come equipped with relatively upscale, lightweight aluminum wheels, including the Toyota Prius and the Chevy Volt.
Nissan Leaf buyers now can opt for 17-inch aluminum wheels or 16-inch steel wheels with wheel covers standard, according to Superior.
Stebbins said there's a strong trend across the industry toward larger-diameter, highly styled aluminum wheels, regardless of vehicle powertrain. By 2020, the supplier expects U.S. market share for larger wheels, defined as 19 inches or greater in diameter, to roughly double to about 35 percent. Superior declined to pinpoint its own market share growth expectations but said it will mirror the industry's trend.
But he acknowledged that consumer demand for bigger wheels is in conflict with another industry trend: lightweighting. Regardless of engine type, automakers are shedding weight wherever possible to improve fuel economy and meet government mileage and emissions rules.
Next year, Superior plans to introduce what it calls AluLite wheels, designed in part to help offset the weight gain associated with bigger wheels.
AluLite, Stebbins said, "takes somewhere in the neighborhood of about 3 pounds per wheel out — so 12 pounds per vehicle," compared with comparably sized wheels. "Twelve pounds is a big deal. So I think that will sell very well."
Superior reduced wheel weight, but AluLite wheels are made with the same materials Superior already used, which saves cost, Parveen Kakar, senior vice president, corporate engineering and product development, told Automotive News.
The company informed shareholders last month that it had received a patent for the technology.
"By a creative design and manufacturing process, we are able to take 10 to 15 percent of the weight out of the wheel," Kakar said. "We're using the same alloys. For our customers, we didn't want to use a very exotic alloy."