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What Is Vehicle Differential and Why Does It Matter?

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There’s a whole dictionary of technical vocabulary out there that pertain to the machine you drive on a daily basis—terms that most people hear but have no idea what they mean. One of these important yet overlooked terms is a car’s differential. Let’s get to the bottom of what this term refers to and how it works.

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Understanding the Function and Importance of Differential

According to Merriam-Webster, differential is defined as “a drivetrain gear assembly connecting two collinear shafts or axles (such as those of the rear wheels of an automobile) and permitting one shaft to revolve faster than the other.” In simpler words, that means differential is a device that takes the engine’s output and separates it to allow opposing wheels to spin at different speeds. Mechanically, a differential consists of the drive shaft input and two wheel outputs.

There are three main types of differentials:

  • Open differential: splits torque into different speed outputs (the most common type)
  • Locking differential: allows the wheels to spin at he same speed when locked (mostly in trucks)
  • Limited-slip differential: locks once a wheel slip occurs (in some sports cars)

The reason differential matters is because it’s essential to allowing your vehicle to turn: the outer wheels must spin faster than the inner wheels. The concept has been around for millennia, way before automobiles were invented, and can be seen in carriages and carts throughout time.

To make sure your vehicle’s differential operates properly, make sure the differential oil is changed every 30,000-50,000 miles.

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Sources: Car and Driver, Popular Mechanics