Hubcaps vs Wheel Covers

Hubcaps vs Wheel Covers (differences & which to choose)

Most people think that hubcaps and wheel covers are the same thing. But what if I told you that these items are different things, serving different purposes? Today, I’m bringing you my complete hubcaps vs wheel covers guide. I’ll break down the core differences between hubcaps and wheel covers and if it is worth buying either of them.

Here’s an overview of this complete hubcap vs wheel cover guide.

  • Hubcaps vs Wheel Covers: What are the Differences
  • How to Tell the Difference Between Hubcaps and Wheel Covers
  • Does a Car Need Wheel Covers or Hubcaps?
  • Cost of Wheel Covers
    • Are Wheel Covers Worth It?
    • Do Wheel Covers and Hubcaps Look Cheap?
  • Do Wheel Covers Fall Off?
  • How to Keep Hubcaps on Wheels
  • How Long Do Wheel Covers Last?
  • Hubcaps vs Rims: What’s the Difference?
  • Hubcaps vs Wheel Covers: Choose Wheel Covers

Hubcaps vs Wheel Covers: What are the Differences?

At the most basic level, the clear difference between a hubcap and a wheel cover is how much of the wheel surface each covers. A hubcap covers the center of the wheel where the lug nuts are, and it helps with wheel stability. A wheel cover covers the whole diameter of the wheel.

How to Tell the Difference Between Hubcaps and Wheel Covers

Interestingly, hubcaps and wheel covers have morphed together to mean the same thing to many people.

That’s why you may hear people call wheel covers – the accessory that covers the whole wheel – a hubcap.

Car Tire Wheel Cover
A decorative plastic wheel cover over a steel tire rim.

However, a hubcap serves a more specific purpose when installed on a vehicle.


Hubcaps cover the center area of the wheel (the hub), providing basic protection only for the lug nuts. Also known as center caps, they’re specialist components that don’t protect the rest of wheel.

On the other hand, wheel covers offer protection to both the center and the remainder of the wheel.

Hubcaps are usually only seen on older cars. Automakers once used steel hubcaps to cover the center of the wheel and add extra stability.

During the 1980s, wheel covers made of ABS plastic became commonplace and vehicles shipped with them already installed.

Back in those days, hubcaps were made of steel and designed to take a thrashing. Installing them involved hitting them into place with a hammer.

In other words, the old-style hubcap took a beating throughout its life, and they tended to get rusty. They were rarely a pretty sight!

A hubcap

These days, it is extremely rare to buy a new vehicle that ships with an exposed hub and steel rim.

In fact, even plastic wheel covers are becoming less common as manufacturers increasingly switch to alloy wheels even for budget models.

As the standard is now sealed wheel assembly, traditional hubcaps are no longer part of the manufacturing process.

Wheel Covers Today

Wheel covers may still be necessary on some lower-end vehicles that ship with steel rims. Normally a new car that needs covers will come with a fairly bland set.

Luckily, there is a strong after-market scene with thousands of wheel cover designs available. If your car has steel rims, wheel covers are an excellent way to customize the look of your car without spending much.

While the classic hubcap has long gone –  replaced by alloy rims and wheel covers – the usage of the term (hubcaps) has not.

In other words, some people still use word “hubcap,” but they’re actually talking about ABS plastic wheel covers.

Does a Car Need Wheel Covers or Hubcaps?

Like the hubcap before it, a wheel cover protects your rims (especially the nuts and bolts) from corrosion and damage.

Additionally, a wheel cover protects the rest of the wheel and even the tires from debris from the road surface.

Cost of Wheel Covers

Their affordability is one of the reasons wheel covers are so popular amongst drivers who have vehicles with steep rims. You can buy factory-quality ABS plastic covers from anywhere between $20 and $100 for a set of four.

Of course, the higher into that price range you go, the better quality wheel cover you can get. At the mid-to-high price range, you’ll find wheel covers made from more durable plastics and with more dynamic designs.

Also, you’ll also be spoiled for choice thanks to a massive variety of available designs to pick from.

Certainly, if you’re willing to spend a little more for wheel covers, you can get sets that do a good job of replicating the look of alloy rims.

Are Wheel Covers Worth It?

However, the cost/value ratio of plastic hubcaps/wheel covers is not solely rooted in aesthetic appeal. As noted, durability is also important.

If you have steel rims on your vehicle, wheel covers are a good investment. They are a cost-effective way to protect your wheels from the hardships of day-to-day driving.

Do Wheel Covers and Hubcaps Look Cheap?

There is no doubt that plastic wheel covers can look cheap. Certainly, more affordable covers or those installed on some budget vehicles look very plasticky.

Sometimes, the exposed steel rim underneath doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. Still, even if your wheel covers don’t look good, I recommend keeping them to protect the wheel and slow down erosion.

Car With More Expensive Alloy Rims
Vehicle with more expensive alloy rims

As mentioned above, you can get wheel covers that don’t look cheap and may fool some people into thinking you have alloy rims on your vehicle.

But let’s be clear, an alloy wheel is still more attractive and much more durable.

And there’s a huge percentage of the population that simply doesn’t even notice if a car has alloy rims or a decorative wheel cover.

Do Wheel Covers Fall Off?

Many drivers with wheel covers will have a story to tell about them falling off. Maybe it was while you were driving down the road, or perhaps you came out of the supermarket and realized one of your wheel covers or hubcaps was missing.

Man Putting on a Wheel Cover

Either way, when you lose a wheel cover your only option is to buy a replacement. This is a problem because you will need to buy another set of four because hubcaps are sold as a group.

Potholes are a common reason why wheel covers and hubcaps fall off, so properly installing wheel covers is the best way to ensure you do not lose any.

How to Keep Hubcaps on Wheels

Here are two tips for keeping hubcaps on your wheels.

Clean the Wheels

Before installing the wheel covers, it is important to clean the rims, especially if there is lubricant on them. This not only stops erosion happening under the hubcaps, but cleaning also stops the covers from slipping off the wheel.


Proper installation is essential to keeping wheel covers on for as long as possible. Hubcap sets typically come with installation clips in the box.

However, it is easy to bend or crack clips, so ensure that you place the correct amount of tension when securing the clips in place.

How Long Do Wheel Covers Last?

In theory, a wheel cover will last for years and years. However, there are several factors that will play a part in its longevity, including damage taken, the quality of the product, and aesthetic decline.

You can expect to see some scratches and other damage from day-to-day driving as a plastic wheel cover ages. It’ll probably end up with cracks and other terminal damage eventually, too.

After several years, your hubcaps may start to look less appealing. If they are still intact, there is no real need to swap them aside from you just not liking how they look.

Still, regularly check wheel covers for chips around the edges that may cause damage to the tire sidewall.

Hubcaps vs Rims: What’s the Difference?

Hubcaps or wheel covers are different from rims. Every car has rims/wheels, which is what you mount the tires to.

Not every car has hubcaps or wheel covers and in reality, no car really needs them.

A wheel cover/hubcap is an accessory that fits to the rim and is not an essential component of the vehicle. However, it’ll often dress up the appearance of a car with steel rims which will rust over time.

Car With Rusty Steel Tire Rim
A rusty steel tire rim

All rims are made of metal, whether it is steel or alloy. Typically, you will only install a wheel cover on a rim made from steel.

Alloy wheels, which are more expensive and aesthetically pleasing, are more durable and don’t require the protection of a wheel cover or hubcap.

They won’t rust, so they should maintain their appearance for the life of your vehicle, but you’ll often have to buy rims separately from tires.

Wheel covers are used to cover up less-expensive steel rims and give the appearance of a more expensive alloy rim.

Car With Plastic Hubcap or Wheel Cover Over a Steel Tire Rim
Plastic wheel-cover hiding a steel rim

Final Thoughts On Hubcaps vs Wheel Covers

So, now you know: hubcaps and wheel covers are two different things.

A hubcap covers the center of the wheel to protect the lug nuts, while a wheel cover sits on top of the whole diameter of the wheel.

However, since hubcaps are rarely used on modern vehicles, people use the term wheel cover and hubcap interchangeably.

I fully recommend getting a set of wheel covers if you have steel rims on your car. They’re affordable accessories to make your steel tires look better and protect them from erosion and debris.

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