When you’re driving a car, how do you get feedback from the road? If you’ve been in the GeorgeCo MINI and said “seat-of-the-pants” or “dental fillings” you get partial credit, but the answer I was looking for was “through the steering wheel.” If you’re like me and spend 3 or more hours a day commuting, you quickly find out that life is too short to have a bad steering wheel. I’ve driven many different cars over the past couple of years while instructing and have finally figured out what I want in a steering wheel. I want a small diameter wheel, thick padding, preferably covered in Alcantara and, for a street car, one that still retains the stock airbag. (Actually, you should click that link to Alcantara in the previous sentence. This is one of the strangest, and perhaps least informative website designs I’ve ever seen. If you still don’t know what Alcantara is, click this instead.)
There is such a wheel available for both the Porsche 996 and the MINI R53. Unfortunately, the Porsche wheel carries the usual Porsche tax, and runs about $1,600. If I ever find one on Craigslist I might consider it, but for now, let’s focus on the MINI. The MINI JCW Wheel seems like a bargain at less than a quarter of that cost. The old wheel should still have some value so once we sell it, our total costs should be about $300.
Every other time I’ve removed a wheel, it involved either a wheel puller, or a complicated mix of wrenching and counter-holding the wheel using whatever was available like a Club (remember those?) This swap was remarkable straight-forward, with only the risk of the airbag blowing up in your face to complicate things. Here’s how to swap it out yourself and save money. (Usual disclaimer: Use at your own risk. No wagering.) This job should take less than 30 minutes. Read the complete instructions a couple of times all of the way through before you begin.
Start with a stock leather MINI 3-spoke wheel (in this case, with a GeorgeCo sewn wheelskin cover to make it thicker….)
Ensure the wheels are straight, the steering wheel is level, and the steering column is locked before you begin. Disconnect the negative terminal from the battery and make sure it won’t make contact again until you finish (not shown.) Wait 15 minutes before working on the car. Now would be a good time to pick up the new steering wheel and make yourself familiar with it. On each side is a small indentation where the covering is actually slit. You are going to slip a screwdriver into this slot and press against a spring to release the airbag. Try using a small Torx screwdriver to get leverage on the spring (T-20).
Practice making contact with the arm of the spring and getting the spring to move before you try it on your old steering wheel. Insert a small torx screwdriver into the indentations on the side of the wheel and release the tension on the spring, one side at a time. In the photo below, the airbag has already been removed to show you how the spring works.
The airbag will move forward slightly once it has been released from the spring. Once both sides have released, gently pull the airbag free of the wheel but support it with one hand. You will need to disconnect two electrical connections on the backside of the airbag. (If you have a multi-function steering wheel, you will need to unplug those connections as well at this time.)
Once removed, place the airbag face up (MINI logo up) someplace where it won’t be disturbed (and explode….) Disconnect the black connector for the horn, but leave the wire attached to the wheel as the new wheel is pre-wired.
Use a 16mm socket with the appropriate extension to remove the bolt at the center of the wheel. Unlike other wheels, the MINI wheel will come off of the spindle with little effort. Take care to feed the airbag wires through the slot as the wheel comes off and ensure that the white plastic ring does not move out of center. (If it does move more than slightly, you will have to recenter it. The MINI wheel turns five turns lock-to-lock. Center the ring by turning it one way until it binds, then backing it out two and a half turns. The pin should be at the bottom.)
Installation is the reverse of removal. Carefully fit the peg of the white ring into the hole on the new wheel and feed the airbag wires through the slot at the top. Reattach the horn wire from the steering wheel. Install the 16mm bolt and hand tighten for now. Reconnect the horn connector. Check your Bentley manual and tighten to spec (my car was 46.5 lbs.)
Install new trim or remove trim pieces from old wheel and reuse. On the back-side of each each arm of the wheel is a torx screw that will need to be removed before removing the trim from the old wheel. Pull straight up on each trim piece to remove. (My wheel did not have the multifunction switches, but if yours does, now would be the time to move them over to the new wheel and plug them in as well.) Top Tip: It’s easier to install the trim before you put the wheel on the steering column.
Reinstall trim pieces and torx screws.
Carefully plug in the two plugs to the back of the airbag and press the airbag back into spring fittings. You will hear a click when it is fully connected.
Reconnect the battery and you’re all done. In this final photo, you can actually see three other DIY projects: Shift Light (although install instructions are for Porsche), Carbon Fiber Trim, and Gauge Pod. Use the contact form and we can help you source any or all of these parts.