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If you’re just getting into the world of off-road vehicle ownership then you’ve probably noticed there is a lot to learn. So many potential 4X4 mods and upgrades to consider and maintenance tips to digest. 

That’s why it’s best to take it slow and focus on each piece of the puzzle individually before understanding how it all fits together in the wonderful construct that is your 4X4 beast. Today, we’ll be focusing on locking differentials.

The basics

As standard, most vehicles will come equipped with a standard open differential, which works by sending power from the engine to the axle, with the wheels experiencing the least amount of traction receiving the most power. 

This is perfectly adequate for most two-wheel-drive vehicles, but we’re not talking about two-wheel-drive vehicles here.

What is a locking differential?

Essentially, these are differentials that let both wheels spin at the same speed and can be added to both front and rear axles.

Locking differentials are important for four-wheels drive vehicles because, while an open differential will send all of its power to the wheel feeling the least resistance, a locking differential sends equal power to all wheels. This means better traction and better performance.

Imagine you’re driving a rocky path and one wheel ends up dangling over a perch, with an open differential, all the power would be sent to the dangling wheel and the wheel on the ground wouldn’t move at all. This is, in a nutshell, why you don’t take a two-wheel drive car off-road. 

There are two kinds of locking differential – fully locking and limited-slip. The former provides a greater level of control whereas the latter is, as the name suggests, a differential that reduces the amount of slip by partially locking and is more commonly used on the road. 

Fully locking differentials allow the driver to switch between open and locked position on the fly. These lockers either work by using a compressor to lock the differential at the push of a button or via a cable system connected to an electromagnet within the locker. Also known as ‘manual’ lockers, this is the option to go for if you are serious about your off-roading.

There is an obvious benefit here in choosing fully locking differentials and they can be a game-changer in sticky situations. Whilst some manufacturers fit limited-slip diffs to 4WD vehicles, their benefit off-road is limited to insignificant when compared to ARB Air Lockers or Harrop E-Lockers.

The benefits

A locking differential has the following benefits:

  1. Even distribution of power to wheels leads to improved traction.
  2. Can be installed on the front axle, rear axle or both axles.
  3. Activated with the push of a button.
  4. There is an immediate and obvious benefit to the driver in off-road driving, allowing for safer and more confident travel with less risk of becoming stuck.
  5. Useful for various types of users – commercial, forestry, rescue, competition and even caravan owners, as they can become bogged down trying to tow across a wet or muddy campsite.

Generally speaking, for those who plan on doing some serious wheeling, there are no drawbacks to consider, particularly if you opt for a selectable electronic model such as the Harrop ELockers or the air compressor-based ARB Air Lockers. It’s an upgrade you’ll be kicking yourself for not investing in sooner and could truly unlock the potential of your 4X4.