While most people grasp the basic details of how an engine works, they may emit a blank stare when the conversation turns to the differential. There are various different types of differential available and knowing what type you have and how it works could help you become a better and more capable driver. What do you need to know?
What Does a Differential Do?
Essentially, the differential helps your vehicle to turn corners efficiently. When a car goes around the corner the wheel on the outside travels further than the one on the inside. Without a differential to adjust the speed that each wheel moves then one would be forced to slide along the ground, as the engine is simply providing an equal amount of revolutions. This causes the vehicle to lose traction, which is rarely a good thing.
Locked or Spool
The original type of differential was more akin to a go-cart. Essentially this was more like a solid axle and while it is still in existence in certain types of race car today, you're very unlikely to come across this.
The more conventional type of differential is called "open." You may notice the inside tyre slipping as you accelerate away from a corner and may often have to wait to gain a lot of traction until this tyre comes off the curve. This type of differential requires steady driving and an even transfer of weight, although you can help with performance by fitting harder springs and a small antiroll bar.
If you have a car with a bit more performance then it's likely you have a limited slip differential. This is significantly different as it has a clutch pack which is fixed to each axle. It's a very technical set up but basically the amount of load on each of the clutch plates determines the degree that that particular axle is locked or allowed to rotate. When driving this type of car, you can apply power a little earlier in any corner, knowing that both wheels will cope with the dynamic angles and be able to proceed through the corner more efficiently. This is the type of differential that is commonly found on race and rally cars today.
If you have a more expensive car, then it is likely that it has an electronic differential fitted. These largely take driver input out of the equation as the internal ECU will take into account the speed of the car, the angle of the steering and position of the throttle and finely tune all those details to provide the "perfect" driving experience. With this type of differential it doesn't really matter what you do, as the engineers and designers have figured it out all for you first!