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What Is Differential Fluid?

Jan 20, 2021 ·

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Turning corners without rattling, hopping or skipping is something that’s easy to take for granted. That’s all thanks to the differential (sometimes called the transaxle), which is a component that compensates for the difference in distance the inner and outer wheels travel as a car goes around corners.

The differential, which is part of the drivetrain, helps evenly distribute vehicle power to each wheel. The differential is what keeps you in control as you turn.

The differential relies on differential fluid to stay working in optimal condition. What is differential fluid? It’s the oil that lubricates the internal components of the differential, like the ring and pinion gear, so the differential doesn’t start to grind down and cause major problems.

Brian Murphy, Universal Technical Institute (UTI) Education & Development Program Manager, Curriculum, shares more about why differential fluid matters and why it’s important to maintain it.

What Does Differential Fluid Do?

Differential fluid ensures the differential stays working in peak condition for a long time. Differential oil is sometimes referred to as gear oil and is found in the axle housing. It’s designed to perform under high-pressure situations, rather than high temperatures like engine oil.

Differential fluid:

  • Lubricates clutch packs, gears and bearings
  • Lubricates the ring and pinion gears that move power to the wheel axles from the driveshaft
  • Cools and lubricates the differential

Without differential fluid, the differential would overheat due to metal-on-metal contact. That means it would burn itself out and possibly cause safety issues and require expensive repairs.

What Does Differential Fluid Look Like?

Differential fluid looks like engine oil but is thicker.

There are two types of differential fluid. One is mineral oil, which is a natural, crude oil-based fluid.

The other is synthetic differential fluid, which is created in a lab. As with all synthetic oils, synthetic differential fluid oils can be fine-tuned for optimal performance.

What Is Rear Differential Fluid?

Rear-wheel drive vehicles use a rear differential but no front differential. A front-wheel drive vehicle will use a transaxle, which is part of the transmission. Rear differential fluid is used for rear-wheel drive cars.

Trucks use the same fluid in both the inter-axle differential and the rear differential.

How Often Should Differential Fluid Be Changed?

The answer depends on the manufacturer. It’s always best to consult your owner’s manual for the proper service interval. In most cases, you will need to change differential fluid every 30,000 to 50,000 miles.

It's important to stay on top of changing differential fluid because metal-on-metal contact creates heat from friction. It also weakens gears and wears down surfaces. That can lead to differential failure, which is a costly problem.

What Happens When Differential Fluid Levels Are Low?

When differential fluid levels are low, the gears will begin to grind, which can cause differential failures.

Unlike motor oil, which works with an oil filter, differentials don’t have a filter. When a differential experiences unwanted friction, small metal shavings or pieces may appear and cause significant damage to the differential.

Learn About Differentials at UTI

Students in both the Automotive Technology and Diesel Technology programs at UTI learn about differentials and how they affect those vehicles. These are covered in a few different courses.

In the Diesel Truck Manual Transmissions course, one of the key takeaways is disassembly, inspection and reassembly of single and twin countershaft transmissions, differentials and driveshafts. Students learn about the function of rear differentials, as well as an inter-axle differential, and disassemble both components in a supportive learning environment.

In the Automotive Powertrains & Transmissions course, students learn how to assemble and disassemble rear differentials and drive shafts and learn how to understand drive-line angles.

“UTI gives its students the skills needed to start and rapidly advance as a diesel or automotive technician,” Brian says. “It provides students with the operational knowledge and the troubleshooting experience needed to succeed.”6

If you’re interested in a career as an automotive or diesel technician, contact UTI online or at 1-800-834-7308 for information.  

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1) UTI is an educational institution and cannot guarantee employment or salary.

2) For program outcome information and other disclosures, visit

6) UTI graduates’ achievements may vary. Individual circumstances and wages depend on personal credentials and economic factors. Work experience, industry certifications, the location of the employer and their compensation programs affect wages. UTI is an educational institution and cannot guarantee employment or salary.

Universal Technical Institute of Illinois, Inc. is approved by the Division of Private Business and Vocational Schools of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.


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