Actually, let's put it another way. How much would you pay for less weight? Better handling? Increased steering feel? Less road noise? Even, possibly, better fuel efficiency? That's what Carbon Revolution would rather you ask.
Carbon fiber wheels have existed for motorsport and motorcycle applications, but Carbon Revolution has built the world's first one-piece carbon fiber wheel for the aftermarket realm. For a 19-inch wheel, the CR9 weighs just 15 pounds. The CR9 can be lifted with just a few fingers. One could conceivably throw it like a Frisbee, though Carbon Revolution recommends not doing so as it might bounce off a Porsche fender.
And the well-heeled Porsche/Audi enthusiast is exactly the type Carbon Revolution wants to spend $15,000 on a set of their wheels: yes, three zeroes and everything, real American dollars. As with so much in the world of technology, the early-adopter bears a disproportionate share of the development cost.
Carbon Revolution will need these early adopters, as these wheels have been a long time in the making. Co-founder and engineering director Brett Gass helped launch the company about 10 years ago. Gass's team not only had to develop the wheels, it also had to patent an entirely new process to manufacture them outside Melbourne, Australia. It took them seven years and help from Deakin University's Australian Future Fibre Research and Innovation Centre.
Carbon Revolution invited us to drive sales manager Bill Koenig's 2010 Porsche 911 GT3 with CR9 wheels. Never turn down a chance to drive a GT3, our parents told us at birth. It's part track-day toy and part Carbon Revolution's demonstration car, a reflection of the amateur racing mindset of the Porsche owner who would buy carbon fiber wheels more expensive than a 944 Turbo. "I want people to know that I'm not just a sales guy," said Koening, "I also drive my Porsche the way they do."
We would drive the Porsche in conjunction with Targa Trophy's Invasion at Formula Drift. James Overell founded the road rally series, which puts on a few events per year and bills itself as "automotive lifestyle culture." Targa Trophy is nothing if not an event for a specific type of enthusiast, one that enjoys "high quality sports cars," said Overell. And also one whose love of money, it seems, is only matched by a love of flaunting it.
We babied Koenig's Porsche GT3 around Newport Beach while flocks of hi-po German iron descended past us, open exhausts blaring past our open windows. We didn't have a GT3 with stock wheels to compare. But the factory 18-inch wheels weigh somewhere around 24-32 lbs, front to rear. At 15 pounds per corner for the carbon fiber ones, that equates to a 60 lb reduction—all from critical unsprung weight. Corvette Le Mans racer Kelly Collins tested this very GT3 at Buttonwillow against Porsche's stock aluminum wheels: he found that between the stock and carbon fiber wheels, he was able to shave off 1.4 seconds—at least 6/10ths faster on average through the corners, without changing his braking zones.
When Gass installed carbon fiber wheels on a BMW M3, he found that the car was even quieter: "it had better NVH levels," he told us, "and we hadn't even thought about that." He told us from his office in Germany that Carbon Revolution wheels have passed European and SAE standards, including SAE 2530, JWL Japan Light Alloy Wheel standards, and German TÜV 2008 AK-LH standards. The SAE tests were performed at Independent Test Services in Canton, Michigan, which has certificates of completion on hand.
Yet there aren't any standards for carbon fiber wheels—especially not for the aftermarket, and especially not at this price point. So Gass, with his decade of composites experience, is helping write them in Germany; they should be finalized by June.
Feel free to express that nagging doubt about the perils of a self-regulating industry.
According to Koenig, Carbon Revolution has three distributors in car-crazy Southern California. By the end of the year, there will hopefully be 12 distributors across the country. Carbon Revolution plans to ramp up production in Australia to 4,000 sets per year around that time as well. These three distributors already have 100 sets preordered—price be damned.
Is $15,000 worth it for 1.4 seconds around a no-name circuit in San Joaquin Valley? Not in any sane realm, admittingly, when there are starving children in the world and orphaned 944s in dire need of a warm garage. But the wheels are an incredible proof of concept—and when the Great Proliferation of carbon fiber dawns, we may point to this (and Alfa Romeo’s sub-sub-$100k 4C sports car) as its Genesis.
According to the Fraunhofer Institute, by 2030, the automotive sector will use more carbon fiber than the aerospace industry. That's right—this could be the biggest shakeup in performance wheel technology since the mag wheel replaced wire knock-offs.
But for now, this crowd, the well-off Targa Trophy enthusiasts, is the pool in which Carbon Revolution splashes happiest. And there will always be those who will want the newest thing, and will want the semblance of racing performance—despite the irony that many racing series ban carbon-fiber wheels, something Gass is trying to rectify—whether they race like Koenig or merely race down the PCH. No matter how slim they number, it’s these early adopters that Gass is counting on to see him through. He can rest assured that someone, somewhere, possibly at the next Targa Trophy event, will spare no expense in looking newer and faster and more expensive than everyone else.
In fact, some would say that's called a "lifestyle."