Counterfeit wheels purchased online, and fitted in Australia, are often dangerously unsafe and fail to meet legal requirements, according to the movers behind a new industry campaign called ‘Genuine is Best’.
The campaign is backed by the automotive industry’s peak body, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI), in collaboration with the country’s leading car brands — spearheaded in this instance by Holden and Mercedes-Benz.
The Genuine is Best campaign today held a media conference in Melbourne, where it hosted advocates from across the Australian new car industry, and its ambassador, famed touring car racer Mark Skaife. It is the first of what the FCAI says will be many, involving different fake parts.
Acting as the centrepiece was a video (see above) filmed at Holden’s Lang Lang Australian proving ground in regional Victoria.
The test saw a set of knockoff alloy wheels that look identical to official Mercedes-Benz wheels, purchased online and fitted locally, put over a gruelling pothole test repeatedly, and in back-to-back succession with the set of the genuine wheels on the same tyre type.
The fake wheels — which cost around a quarter of the price of the real ones, so you can see why some might see the appeal — shattered on the very first test, and broke again on the second crack at it with a different impact point tested.
A sharp shard of the wheel was flung away after the pothole was hit, and here’s the kicker — the speed being travelled was just 50km/h. The argument is — is it worth the sizeable cost saving (a $1000 set of knockoffs compares to a $4000 set of genuine units in this case) if they’re so unsafe?
The only marked differences of the fake wheels versus the genuine ones, cosmetically, are found on the back of them, with the markings changed and metal shaped differently.
This is why such wheels are a multi-million dollar industry here, with buyers often purchasing them if they can’t get genuine ones at the price they want, or in the style they want. Or, potentially, if repairers fit them.
Naturally, the billions spent of R&D by car brands makes the engineering of their units more durable than the fakes, as the video shows beyond a whole lot of doubt.
Mercedes-Benz Australia senior engineer for Engineering, Certification and Testing, Timothy Clarke, said the low speed at which disintegration occurred was concerning.
“Travelling at 50km/h is a real-world speed and you can easily see people encountering this situation. A piece of rim breaking away is not only dangerous for the people in the car but also for those on the side of the road considering how far the piece flew. Based on those sorts of results I wouldn’t want to put those rims on my car,” he said.
As a result of the test, and the frankly damning footage, the FCAI’s chief Tony Weber said such counterfeit parts were a “danger to all road users”. Wheels were targeted because they’re a common retro-fit, particularly among young customers.
“We are all competitors here,” said Mercedes-Benz Australia Pacific communications senior manager David McCarthy, referring to the various brands gathered (including Holden, Ford and Nissan), “but here we’re on the same page”.
“This is not a handbag or hat. This is an item you’re placing you and your passenger’s lives on,” McCarthy added, stating flippantly to us later that the wheels’ construction may explain where all the plastic takeaway Chinese food containers went after their use.
The campaign has called on tighter controls over the importation of these vehicles, for fitters and repairers to steer clear, and for consumers to be aware and, if they’re in doubt, to talk to their dealer about it. Same goes for a used car with potentially dodgy wheels.
Mercedes-Benz says it will target dodgy suppliers and go after them in court.
The issue is wider than wheels, with Toyota recently enacting a recall surrounding the fitment of fake airbag components, and announcing its intention to chase those aftermarket repairs who fit them. Fake bonnets, windscreens, oil filters, brakes… you name it, they’re out there.
Mercedes-Benz has previously said insurers paying for the fitment of counterfeit crash repair parts that perform less effectively in safety tests have “blood on their hands”.
The obvious question of whether car brands have a financial interest in getting people to buy their parts, and not those of a third party, was met emphatically by Mercedes-Benz, which said it had the safety of its buyers at the forefront here.
The goal of this test was to compare the performance of genuine versus non-genuine rims in a controlled test environment simulating typical Australian road conditions.
The fake wheel size was 19×8-inch with a 5x112mm stud pattern — the same as the genuine CLA 45 AMG wheel. While the fake wheel’s 43mm offset was 5mm less than that of the genuine CLA 45 AMG wheel, engineers from Mercedes-Benz and Holden agreed this difference would not affect test results.
Initial analysis of the wheels indicated that they were cast from a mould of a previous generation C63 AMG wheel, complete with Mercedes-Benz identification codes.
Weighing 12.77kg the fake wheels were 0.46kg heavier than the genuine C63 AMG wheel they were likely cast off and 0.35kg lighter than the genuine CLA 45 AMG multispoke wheel.
The fake wheels were found to be only slightly unbalanced.
Genuine and non-genuine wheels were fitted with a control tyre for the test. This was the same tyre Mercedes-Benz fits as standard to its Mercedes-AMG wheels — in this case a Continental ContisportContact in 235/35 ZR 19 size.
Four sets of the fake wheels were purchased through an Australian-based online store. The wheels were advertised for sale as new and suitable for a CLA 45 AMG.
Mercedes-Benz provided a CLA 45 AMG Shooting Brake vehicle for the test. The driver was the only occupant in the vehicle for each run of the test. Apart from the driver the vehicle was unladen. The vehicle was fitted with calibrated GPS measuring equipment to accurately determine and record the vehicle’s speed.
Overseeing the test was Holden’s Lang Lang Proving Ground Vehicle Safety Manager who was assisted by the proving ground and test lab’s engineering manager and a specialist engineer.
From Mercedes-Benz Australia there was a senior engineer for engineering, certification and testing and a technical support manager.
Behind the wheel of the vehicle was a Holden test driver.
General Motors Holden’s Proving Ground at Lang Lang was used for the test. The proving ground’s Pothole No.3 is a specially calibrated steel well with a gentle sloping entry and steep exit slope to replicate a pothole a driver could encounter in real-world Australian road conditions. In the test only the wheels on the right-hand side of the vehicle ran over the pothole.
The pothole test clearly demonstrated that the fake wheels were unable to match the stress tolerances of the genuine wheels at 50km/h.
At just 50km/h the fake wheels broke on impact while the genuine wheels remained visibly undamaged.
“It should be noted that the vehicle impact speed in the pothole testing was 50km/h and the vehicle was almost at its lowest possible mass. In many real-world driving situations the vehicle could be travelling at both a higher speed and loaded to a higher mass. In these higher energy scenarios the structural performance of the fake wheel would be expected to be even lower than that observed in our testing,” said GM Holden Vehicle Safety Manager.