Similar to the open differential, the limited-slip differential uses an integrated clutch to lock the left and right sides of the axle together to prevent loss of traction. This allows the output shafts to rotate at different speeds, but limits the maximum difference between the wheels. In this regard, limited-slip differentials represent a compromise, addressing the limitations of the open differential while offering some of the benefits of the locking differential.
There are different types of limited-slip differentials, including mechanical and electronic. The most common type uses a series of clutches or friction plates to transfer torque between the two output shafts. When the wheels are rotating at the same speed, the clutches are disengaged and the limited-slip differential behaves like an open differential. When one wheel starts to slip, the clutches engage and transfer torque to the other wheel, preventing the slipping wheel from spinning too fast and improving performance and handling in slippery conditions or over uneven terrain.
Limited-slip differentials are commonly found in high-performance vehicles, such as sports cars and muscle cars, as well as off-road vehicles and those with four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive.
Limited-Slip Differential Pros and Cons
Benefits of limited-slip differentials include reduced wheel spin, better traction and stability in slippery conditions, and improved acceleration and handling, especially when cornering. Like the open differential, they’re suitable for a wide range of driving conditions, including everyday road use and off-roading. Compared to a locking differential, limited-slip differentials are gentler on tires because they allow some differentiation in wheel speed.
Having said that, limited-slip differentials tend to be costlier and more complex. They can still cause increased wear and tear on the drivetrain components, and drivers are likely to notice reduced fuel economy.