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Tire Alloy wheel Automotive tire Wheel Rim

by Bob Harper, 20 Nov 2018

Nothing sets a car off as well as a set of spotless alloy wheels, but how do you get them clean and keep them that way?

Cleaning your car’s wheels can be a tricky and laborious task, so a good grime-busting formula is vital. Here we explore some of the key questions around wheel cleaning and choosing the best wheel cleaning and protection products. We’ve even tested some of the best alloy wheel cleaners on the market to give you a head start.

Thousands of components combine to make a car, but your wheels are exposed the harshest conditions of them all. The second you start moving, dirt, grease and brake dust all begin to make friends with the surfaces of your wheels. Cleaning them in the right way, using the right products is crucial to getting the perfect finish on your car.

Why do wheels get so filthy?

Because they pick up grime, tar and other contaminants from the road, plus tiny particulates of iron from the brake discs and shavings from the brake pads. The heat from the brakes then bakes all of this onto the surface of the wheel.

What sort of cleaner should I use?

There are several different types on the market — acid wheel cleaners, pH-balanced cleaners, iron contaminant removers — and each type can be effective if you follow the product instructions.

Are acid-based cleaners safe to use?

Yes, with some provisos. Acid wheel cleaners can be very effective but need to be used with caution. Some wheel finishes — particularly ones with anodised or chromed coatings or those that are diamond cut — should not be treated with acid cleaners. It’s also advisable to stick to the higher end of the market if using an acid cleaner and even then don’t leave it on the wheel for too long.

What are iron contaminant removers?

For extremely dirty wheels an iron contaminant remover is useful for cleaning away brake dust and iron filings (from the brake discs) that have become welded to the wheel. Unlike acid cleaners, contaminant removers are left on the wheel a little longer to work their magic, during which time they often change colour to show they’re working. Always follow the manufacturer’s directions for use, though.

What’s the best wheel cleaning process?

For the best results removing the wheels will pay dividends. It might seem like a lot of faff, but this will allow you to get into all the nooks and crannies and will also make cleaning the rear of the wheel much easier. Whether you remove the wheels or not, they must be cool before you work on them, otherwise the cleaning agents will evaporate, leaving deposits on the alloys.

Start by removing general muck and dirt with a hose or pressure washer and then apply your cleaning agent of choice. The type of cleaner will dictate how long you leave it in contact with the wheel, but some detailing brushes will help to agitate the cleaning solution. For really tough deposits, repeated applications may be necessary.

What’s next?

Rinse off with clean water, preferably from a pressure washer, and if there are any tar spots these can now be shifted with some tar remover.

Now they’re clean, how do I keep my wheels looking good?

Applying wheel protectant will help stop brake dust and dirt from clinging to them and should make the next clean a far less time-consuming process. Be sure to use a protectant designed for wheels, as a normal wax or polish isn’t suitable for the temperatures to which wheels are exposed from the car’s brakes.

The best wheel cleaning products on the market

Wheel cleaning products help to break down the baked-on grime, making endless scrubbing a thing of the past. A quick pass with a pressure washer and final detail with a cloth should have your wheels looking as good as new in minutes.
To help you choose the right product for your wheels, we tested a range of products to determine which is best. Each product was allowed to work as long as the instructions required on a long-neglected wheel trim before gentle rinsing. We then used a lightly weighted brush and assessed progress.

Product Water Plastic bottle Wash bottle Automotive cleaning

1. Bilt Hamber auto-wheel
Price: Around £13
Size: 1,000ml
Rating: 5.0

‘Bilt Hamber auto-wheel’ takes the top spot with a 5-star rating. The company was at the forefront of the red revolution, being one of the first products to use a formula that changes colour as it reacts with grime on your wheel. Although rivals have developed their own formulas, it remains at the top.

Tire Automotive tire Household cleaning supply Cleaner Automotive cleaning

2. Turtle Wax Redline Wheel Cleaner
Price: £7
Size: 500ml
Rating: 4.5

Coming in second place is Turtle Wax’s Redline Wheel Cleaner, a pH-neutral cleaner good for all surfaces, and it goes on in a thick gel that clings well.

Product Tire Liquid Material property Spray

3. Wonder Wheels Colour Active Super Wheel Cleaner
Price: Around £7
Size: 600ml
Rating: 4.5

Previous versions of this product could only be used on certain surfaces, but the introduction of the Colour Active version allows it to work on all wheel types. It changes colour as it works, has to be left a few minutes and it’s effective, working best when it’s brushed.

Product Violet Purple Bottle Liqueur

4. Auto Curators Flawless Cleanser
Price: £26
Size: 1,000ml
Rating: 4.0

Flawless Cleaner needs to be just sprayed on and left for only one or two minutes before being rinsed away, or agitated if there’s heavy soiling. Why only four stars? Despite the big bottle, we don’t think it’s worth the £26 price tag.

Tire Automotive tire Product Automotive wheel system Automotive cleaning

5. E-TECH Pro Class Wheel Cleaner
Price: Around £11
Size: 500ml
Rating: 4.0

The E-TECH’s acid formula means it’s no good for anodised surfaces or rims with no or damaged lacquer. It’s effective though, and matched our winner across the tests, however poor value and those restrictions lose it a star.

Green Cleaner

6. Turtle Wax All Wheel Cleaner
Price: Around £8
Size: 500ml
Rating: 4.0

This is another product that turns red as it works and like most, it needs to be left for five minutes to work. The spray is on the narrow side but the cleaner relatively thick, and clings well. It was a top performer, but a higher price counts against it.

Product Tire Spray Automotive wheel system Automotive tire

7. Black Diamond Iron Out
Price: Around £7
Size: 500ml
Rating: 4.0

Black Diamond is one of the latest to produce a pH-neutral cleaner. The Iron Out cleaner works quicker and smells better than rivals, too, requiring just two minutes to shift the worst of the grime. It was a step ahead of the rest of the samples.

Product Tire Automotive wheel system Automotive tire Automotive cleaning

8. Xpert-60 Wheel Cleaner
Price: Around £7
Size: 500ml
Rating: 3.0

This wheel cleaner doesn’t follow the current trend, being an orange formula that goes on in a foamy spray. It needs agitating before being left to work and didn’t suit our test overly well. It did make progress though, and was a close match for Iron Remover.

Product Wash bottle Material property Spray Solvent

9. Poorboy’s World Iron Remover
Price: Around £13
Size: 473ml

Rating: 3.0

It might be unfair to put this product in our list, as it’s design for almost any surface. It made progress in the test, but not as well as the test winner auto-wheel. If you want to decontaminate bodywork this is the one to go for but it needs more work as a wheel cleaner. It’s also not the cheapest.
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