Car repairs can be tricky and expensive. Depending on what part of your car breaks, you can be spending a long time at the mechanic and leave with an empty wallet.
That’s why today we’re talking about front differential repairs, the average prices and everything you need to know to avoid this expensive fix.
What the heck is a Differential?
The front differential (or transaxle) is the part of your vehicle that communicates between the engine and the wheels. It gets the torque from your engine and delivers it to the wheels. How it does so varies, so let’s take a minute and review.
Main types of Differentials
- Open – Most common type in cars. The wheels can rotate at different speeds when turning a corner.
- Locking – or “Lockers” keep both wheels spinning at the same speed. Whether you’re turning a corner or rock climbing, the wheels will always spin equal amounts. Common in off-road rigs.
- Limited-slip differential – A hybrid between Open and Locking diffs. The LS has ‘torque sensing’ technology that will send most of the power to the wheel with best traction, but not fully cut power to the wheel without traction. This is a widely used type and can be seen on many cars and trucks.
- Torque-vectoring – Basically an expensive Limited-Slip that luxury cars like BMW and Mercedes use.
Front and Rear Differential Repair Cost for Specific Vehicles
The price of a front differential repair can vary significantly depending on the car model and the replacement part’s availability. Most specialists would put the repair cost somewhere between $200 – $400 for fixing an oil seal, leaking differential gasket, or lashing, and between $1000 – $2,000 if differential housing work is needed (such or replacing the ring and pinion gears).
What about a replacement?
Differential replacement cost is going to run significantly more. I’ve seen people quoted $5,000 from dealerships for replacement!
That’s a bit on the higher end….
Now if you find a good mechanic, and get a used rear differential, your cost will be around $3,000 (estimating $500 for labor, $2500 rear differential and seals). Again, this will vary greatly, but is a safe “high end” estimate. You might as well get it re-geared to those 4.10’s you’d been eyeing while you’re at it!
We analyzed four specific models so you can more accurately compare and contrast the price with your car.
How Long Does it Take to Replace a Differential?
On average, a replacement takes 3-5 hours.
How long it takes to repair or replace a differential depends on the damage type and extent.
If it’s something as simple as changing the oil, the repair can take just thirty minutes from a skilled repairer.
However, if the damage is more extensive or a full replacement is required, it can take hours.
What Causes a Differential to go Bad?
The most common cause of differential failure is time. As a car accrues miles, the standard erosion can occur and lead to failure of the differential. However, if the differential is well maintained, then the lifespan can be just as long as the car itself.
Importance of Differential Oil
Another common cause of failure is the differential oil. While it is rare, water can get into a differential and lead to insufficient lubrication. Over time, the gears will wear down and fail.
Differential oil needs to be replaced every 30,000 to 60,000 miles depending on your use.
If you’re running groceries in your Kia Optima, that oil should be good for a while. But if you’re towing 15,000 pounds daily with your Dodge Ram 2500 Cummins, you may consider replacing your differential fluid with some quality SAE 75W-90 synthetic gear lube every 30k miles.
You may be interested in: How Often To Change Subaru Differential Fluid
Some notes on Towing
Towing and hauling will increase the wear and tear. The extra weight can put additional pressure on the surfaces within the differential gears and lead to some shaving that will get metal into your gear oil. Metal in gear oil also hurts lubrication and causes further damage.
Occasionally you should take a peak under the diff cover and check for differential fluid leak. If you’ve got a bad seal or your differential gasket is going bad, it’s best to catch it before your gears eat themselves.
Symptoms of a Failed Differential
There are two key signs that your differential is failing: leaks and noise. Please take a look below to see how they will indicate you need a front differential repair.
All differentials are filled with oil to lubricate their processes. If you see this oil leaking from the bottom of your car (in between the front wheels), then you probably need a repair. Gear oil, the oil used in differentials, is a light and thick brown liquid. If you see it under your car, you should go to a mechanic right away.
The oil inside differentials is there to let them run smoothly with no friction. If you hear a whirring or a gear grinding sound coming your car, then your differential is having trouble with its gear oil.
Common causes of gear oil trouble are water getting into the oil, metal grinding into it, or just not having the right amount. If the noise sounds like it’s coming from in between your front wheels, then you’re probably having differential troubles.
Can You Drive with a Bad Differential?
This is going to depend on if you have a rear wheel drive, front wheel, or 4×4. Since front wheel drive vehicles and rear wheel drive vehicles only have a single differential housing, you do not want to drive if you suspect it’s bad.
Now if you have a four wheel drive vehicle, you might be alright if your front diff fails. Since you have both front and rear differentials, you’d have to bypass the front so that only the rear wheel drive is engaged. Obviously you’d lose four wheel drive systems that you bought your truck for 🙂
If you notice a whining or clunking noise coming from the rear wheels, I’d highly suggest you start looking for a competent mechanic shop to start getting repairs.
How to Prevent Front and Rear Differential Failure
Regular maintenance is the best way to keep your differential working correctly. The only maintenance required for a differential is changing the gear oil. You can do this at home or at a mechanic. This way, you can guarantee ample lubrication, and the moving parts inside won’t be damaged.
If you want just a fluid change the price for most vehicles shouldn’t be more than $300 bucks.
Heck, I just put in 4.5 quarts of Valvoline SAE 75W-90 Full Synthetic Gear Oil in my 2001 Dodge Ram 2500 rear diff, and the total cost was $55 for the oil, $9 for ‘The Right Stuff’ gasket maker, and about 2 hours of my time. So if you’ve got some basic hand tools, this job is not too bad. Here’s a good ChrisFix video to get you started:
Fluid Service Schedule:
Check your service manual to be sure, but a good starting place is:
- Recommended: Every 30,000 miles
- Mandatory: Every 60,000 miles
Front differentials are a vital part of your car and proper maintenance can mean the difference between driving safely and unsafely. If you’re looking for a fair price on a repair, we recommend comparing a few different auto shops so you can secure the best deal. At the same time, choosing a trustworthy shop is a good move, and it might be worth the cost to choose a reputable dealership or repair shop.