by Nick Jenkins
It’s not easy to improve on the looks of a Miata, but one way to try is by replacing the stock Mazda wheels with something a little more flashy. A quick tally at any Miata gathering will show you that a lot of people have this idea. But wheels don’t only affect the appearance of the car, they also affect the ride and handling. After paying several hundred dollars for a set of wheels, you don’t want to also pay by having a car that’s not as much fun to drive.
Things you need to keep in mind when choosing wheels, besides appearance, are size, offset, and most importantly weight. The Miata is a very light car, and even a small increase in unsprung weight has a significant impact on how the car handles. A friend of mine recently bought new high-quality 17” wheels for his NA, and no matter what air pressures he used or how many times he brought them back for rebalancing, he couldn’t get the car to ride well. He finally replaced them with 16” wheels in the same style, and the car rode fine.
How heavy is too heavy? Generally, you should try to stay below 18-20 lbs, which eliminates a majority of
Kosei K1s—at 13.5 pounds, these wheels are a track favorite
aftermarket wheels, especially in the larger sizes. As you’d expect, Mazda engineers did a pretty good job sizing the Miata’s wheels. Except for early “steelies” and the 16” SE wheels, which weigh a whopping 18 lbs. each, Miata wheels range from under 11 lbs. for the 14” BBS and semi-hollow spokes, to 15.5 lbs. for 16” wheels on later NBs. If heavy wheels are bad, then it follows that lighter wheels would be good, and this is true to a degree. You can buy wheels in the 15-18 lb. range and you’ll be fine, or you can look in the 10-11 lb. range for that extra edge in ride and handling.
What size wheels should you get? Stock 14” wheels on NAs (1990-1998) are starting to look a little dated, but 17” wheels seem out of place on early Miatas. In just about every respect but looks, smaller is usually better, but if you find a set of 16” wheels that you just have to have, and they’re under the 20 lb. weight limit, go for it. Maybe because of their newer styling, NB Miatas (1999-2005) seem to look good with 16” and even 17” wheels.
More important than diameter is width and offset. Wider wheels enhance performance, and that’s mostly all good. Stock wheels are in the 6”-6.5” range, and you can certainly go up to 7” without any issues. Much wider, and you start to run into clearance problems.
Offset, sometimes called backspacing, is a measure of how far the wheel sticks out from the fenders. It’s a little counter-intuitive, but less offset means the wheels stick out more, and more offset means they stick out less. The stock offset
on Miatas ranges from 40 mm for 14” wheels to 45 mm on the bigger wheels. A few millimeters more or less won’t be a problem, but anything very far outside that range and you’ll run into fender clearance issues, especially in the larger diameters. If you don’t know the offset of a wheel, you can measure it. Set the wheel flat on the floor, hub down, mounting surface up. Lay a straightedge across the wheel (it’s okay if a tire is mounted), and measure the distance from the straightedge to the floor and straightedge to the mounting surface. The offset is the distance to the mounting surface minus half the distance to the floor. For example, if the distance to the floor is 180 mm and the distance to the mounting surface is 130 mm, the offset is 40 mm (130 - 180/2).
What aftermarket wheels are the most popular for Miatas? Although looks are subjective, there must be something happening for a wheel that outsells all the others. The Kosei K1 and König Helium are two wheels in this category. They’re both very light and relatively inexpensive. Also popular is the Enkei RP-F1, but they are more expensive (although if $200-$225 per wheel sounds like a lot, try pricing factory 14” wheels for a ’95 Miata from your Mazda dealer).
Once you’ve decided on the style and size of wheel you want, shop around. Most dealers will negotiate, especially if you can show them a Tire Rack price that’s less than theirs. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Wheel Works in this regard, but no doubt some other dealers will do the same. Don’t let the dealer decide for you. You’ve done the research and know what you want, but the dealer may want to sell you some-thing else. Be firm, or go somewhere else. You can also try shopping online. Tire Rack has a good reputation and they ship amazingly fast, but they’re not Miata-centric and have a lot of wheels that just won’t work. Goodwin Racing in San Diego specializes in Miatas, has a great selection of wheels, and good prices, although they’re in California so expect to pay the 8.5% surcharge for Arnold’s coffers. If you need new tires at the same time, buying online can be a great deal because they’ll usually mount and balance the tires at no extra charge.
Whatever you decide, keep your wheels light.