Best Types of Car Differentials for Snow and Ice

All cars have a mechanical device called a differential. The main function of a differential is to enable the wheels to rotate at separate speeds.

Before automobiles were invented, the only mobile vehicles that existed were wagons, carriages, carts, and chariots. Although they didn’t have motorized engines, they still had differentials which allowed their wheels to rotate at different speeds.

Now, why is this important? It is important to have differentials when making turns or go around corners. If all your vehicle’s wheels rotate at the same speed as you go around corners, then you will experience a lot of dragging and slipping.

These conditions are even worse if you’re turning on snowy or icy roads. As a result, your wheels and axles would get damaged.

Differentials are the solution to this problem. Wherever the drive wheels are located, a differential is installed there. A front-wheel-drive vehicle has a differential in the front, and a rear-wheel-drive vehicle has a differential in the rear. An all-wheel-drive vehicle has a differential in the front and back.

Related: What’s the Best Type of Drivetrain?

Best Differentials for Snow and Ice

Which are the best types of differential for snow and ice condition? See comparison below:

Open vs Limited-Slip Differentials

limited slip differential pros and cons
Limited slip differential

Not all differentials are the same. There are at least four different types of differentials which are suitable for various kinds of driving conditions. A typical car has an open differential, allowing a wheel to continue spinning even after it slips.

Basically, the inside wheel rotates slower than the outside wheel. This is suitable if the road conditions are normal and don’t have any rain, gravel, ice, or snow. People who live in tropical climates will benefit from open differentials the most.

The limited-slip differential is also suitable for clear road conditions. It is like an open differential because engine torque gets transferred to each individual wheel. However, the big difference pertains to the slipping tire.

When you make hard turns and accelerate aggressively, the tire would normally slip if you were using an open differential. But a limited-slip differential reduces the level of torque that gets sent to the slipping tire. Once this happens, it is easier to make hard turns quickly. An open differential would struggle in this situation.

High-performance vehicles, such as race cars, usually have limited-slip differentials because they’re making fast turns on a clear track. Luxury vehicles have limited-slip differentials as well.

On normal roads, a police vehicle may have a limited-slip differential to make it easier to chase suspects around corners. But for roads with snow and ice, a limited-slip differential is not going to be much better than an open differential.

Locking vs Torque Vectoring Differentials

locking differential
Locking differential

Snow and icy conditions create rough roads to drive on. While you could get away with using a limited-slip differential on mildly snowy and icy roads, you may need a locking differential if the conditions are severe.

The main problem with driving on snowy and icy roads is the traction difficulty. If you’re trying to drive on roads covered with ice and snow, your tires can easily lose traction. In order to pull through the roughness of these roads, you need wheels to have the best traction possible.

Locking differentials utilize springs and clutches to ensure that all the wheels have an equal amount of torque, resulting in a fixed axle. You won’t have a situation where one wheel has less traction than another wheel. As long as you’re not driving too quickly, you’ll be able to maneuver over tough terrain and rough roads.

driving in the snow

See Also: Average Differential Fluid Change Cost

Torque vectoring differentials are the most sophisticated type of differentials. They contain several electronic sensors which retrieve information about your vehicle and its surrounding conditions, such as your steering system, throttle position, and road surface. Based on the information it receives, the differential will control an electronic controller and clutches.

A high-performance or all-wheel drive vehicle will usually have torque vectoring differentials. They may be good for slippery conditions too, but most people won’t have torque vectoring differentials in their vehicle because they’re rare and expensive.

In the end, locking differentials are the best type of differential for snow and ice.


2 thoughts on “Best Types of Car Differentials for Snow and Ice”

  1. Locking Diff’s for ice and snow? In a strait line, no doubt. Are they really the best for roads that have turns? I live in Northern Canada where we drive on ice covered roads at highway speeds. Lockers are great if you are stuck or going slow and strait. If you need to turn they will put you in the ditch very quickly. My first, lock right locker was down right scary unless you took it easy. So my commute become far slower with the locker. Limited slip with studded tires is far safer for regular ice covered roads, unless you never need to turn.

    • Some limited slip differentials act like open differentials in very slippery conditions. A Torsen, for example, has what’s called a Torque Bias Ratio (TBR) which determines how much torque can be transferred to the opposite side.

      Let’s say we have a two wheel drive vehicle that is equipped with a Torsen differential. If this Torsen diff has a TBR of 2:1, the tire with more grip would only be able to provide twice the amount of torque that is provided to the tire with less grip. If the slipping tire is sitting on a solid sheet of ice and you’re trying to drive up a hill, there might not be enough torque transferred to the other wheel to get the vehicle moving. In this condition, the tire with less traction would spin exactly like an open differential would.

      A locking diff on the other hand is not torque limited in this way; both wheels will always spin at the same speed, so the wheel with more traction isn’t limited by the wheel with less traction.

      As you’ve said, this will best serve you in a straight line to keep you from getting stuck, but is not well suited for taking corners since all driven wheels will spin at the exact same speed. The whole point of a differential is to allow wheels to spin at different speeds in a corner, after all.


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