What is a Differential on a Vehicle?

Invented in the third century, a differential is a key part of any vehicle. It’s something that you may need to replace in your UTV or car after a certain time period in order to ensure your vehicle is operating to its maximum potential. Keep reading as we discover what a differential is, and why SxS owners should consider upgrading their stock differentials in order to get the most out of their UTV.


What is a Differential?

The differential is a gear train which has three drive shafts. The rotational speed of one of these shafts is the average of the speeds of all of the others, which is why they are commonly used in any type of motor vehicle. They help the wheels to rotate at various speeds when you are going around corners, which is why they are a critical part to keep you safe on the road.


Who Invented It?

Believe it or not, the differential was first invented in the third century in China. The gear that we know today was documented back in 1810 and invented by Rudolph Ackermann to improve carriage steering. Just a little while later in 1827, the modern automotive differential was first patented in France, which was invented for steam-powered machines. From there, we saw the road vehicle, one patented in England by Richard Roberts in 1832. With a long and interesting history, this part has been instrumental to the effectiveness and safety of vehicles around the world since this time.


Types of Differentials in Vehicles

There are four different types of differentials in vehicles. An open differential is typically the most common type, which can be found in sedans or economy cars. It splits the engine torque into two parts, helping the wheels to rotate at different speeds. Locking differentials or welded differentials connect your wheels so they can travel at the same speed and are usually found in full-sized trucks.

In sports cars, you are more likely to find a limited-slip differential. This type of differential is similar to an open differential, but when a wheel loses traction on the surface, it will offer you more control when driving. Finally, a torque-vectoring differential has extra gear trains, which can improve the amount of torque that each wheel has delivered.


Why Are Differentials Important on UTVs and Side-by-Side (SxS) Vehicles?

On UTVs and side-by-side vehicles, the differential will help to ensure the outside wheel will rotate faster than your inside wheel. No matter what type of surface you are driving on, differentials will ensure the turn you make is easier and smoother, allowing you to enjoy driving on a variety of surfaces safely.


How Often Should Differential Fluid Be Changed in a UTV?

In order to keep a differential in top condition, you’ll want to make sure that you change the oil every 200 hours or 4,000 miles. Keep in mind this figure is the recommended suggestion for normal driving conditions, so if you are taking part in more intense journeys, then you may need to complete this task more often.


What Happens When a Differential in a Vehicle Fails?

While it’s quite rare for a differential to fail in a stock application, mechanical failures do happen from time to time when a part or vehicle is not maintained well (ex: the fluid isn’t changed regularly). The issue will usually take time to develop, but if it does happen, then you’ll find that you won’t enjoy as much control when going around corners. It won’t be able to offer you the same benefits as when working properly, which may make it unsafe on some surfaces to turn suddenly.


Can a Differential Fail Suddenly?

Usually, issues with differentials happen over time due to lack of maintenance and care However, it is more common with vehicle modifications such as bigger tires, added horse power, and added weight.  These types of modifications can significantly increase the stresses imposed on the differential components. If you plan to do any of these modifications you should consider upgrading the stock differential as well.


Can You Drive With A Broken Differential?

Although it is possible to drive with a broken differential, we don’t recommend ever doing this for your safety. If you delay having this part repaired, then you may do more damage to the other parts in your car. This additional damage can make the repair process far more difficult and expensive, which is something any budget-minded driver will want to avoid.


How Long Does It Take To Fix Or Replace a Differential in a UTV?

To completely replace a differential you’ll find that it will take a professional between three and five hours. Some UTV owners elect to proactively replace / upgrade the stock rear or front differential in a Can-Am or Polaris with a stronger differential, such as the Halo Locker. The Halo Locker is a selectable, locking differential that is designed to lock both wheels on the axle together on the driver’s command. In short, the Halo Locker provides UTV drivers with a fast traction fix as it takes on almost any obstacle.


How Much Does It Cost To Replace A Differential in a UTV?

The cost of this replacement will depend on the model of your UTV and the severity of the damage. Expect to pay between $800 and $4,000 for labor depending on who you go to. Of course, you could try to DIY this work if you feel confident, which can save you money. Generally, the higher quality / stronger differentials cost more than lower quality differentials that are often made in developing countries with weaker materials.


UTVs Most Likely To Have Differential Problems

Any UTV could have issues with their differential, but there are some brands and models we hear have far more issues. Polaris vehicles often have issues with this part, which can lead to costly replacements. The RZR is a vehicle that has experienced many issues in this area in the past, so be sure to keep an eye on maintaining your differential well to avoid expensive repairs.


YouTube Video References

If you are looking to learn more about what a differential is and how the part works, we recommend checking out this video or this video for a visual guide to differentials.

A differential is a key part in any vehicle and offers many benefits to drivers. When maintained well, it can last for many years to come and keep you safe on the roads. Make sure you always oil it regularly to avoid damage and enjoy years of use from this crucial UTV part.


Purchase a Differential Made in the USA with Halo Performance

Halo Lockers is the UTV subsidiary of OX Off-Road, which is based in Odessa, FL. Our U.S. based manufacturing company produces selectable lockers and off-road-related parts for side by side vehicles, such as the Can-Am and Polaris. Incredible product strength and durability distinguish our UTV aftermarket parts from the competition. Please call 727-230-7803 with any product questions or for assistance with the online ordering process. Allow us to help you prepare your SxS for your next UTV race or simply upgrade your side-by-side vehicle(s) for personal use to a new level of performance and fun.