Polaris has been using the same basic Hilliard front differential design in all their Rangers and RZRs since 2003. They’ve only made small changes here and there to make it stronger, make it more reliable, or make it fit new models.
Sounds like they’re using some old technology then, right? Maybe it’s time to update?
Here’s the thing: they nailed the design back in 2003. It’s pretty close to perfect. Can-Am has made strides to catch up, but they can’t compete with the simple elegance of Polaris’ front diff.
The original purpose of the differential was to allow your left and right wheels to rotate at different speeds. Letting your outside wheel move faster than your inside wheel makes turning easier because your outside wheel travels a greater distance. If both wheels turned at the same speed, one tire would have to skid and lose traction, which is never good.
Modern front differentials have a lot more to worry about. They deliver power to the front wheels, make sure the wheels can roll at different rates, and lock those wheels together when needed. It’s no small task, and that’s why differentials today are complicated and so different from one another. Can-Am uses a design that is completely different from the Polaris front differential design, for example.
Polaris and Can-Am solve the same problems with their front differentials. The elegantly designed Polaris front differential, however, does precisely what you want, when you want it—without you having to give much input at all.
To understand what makes it special, we’ll have to break it down first.
Let’s follow the power as it comes into the diff.
First, your spinning prop shaft turns the pinion gear of your diff. The pinion gear then turns the ring gear that is wrapped around the sprague. This is also what your front axles are connected to (more on the sprague in a bit).
When your four-wheel drive is not engaged, the power transfer ends there. You hit the gas, the ring gear spins, the sprague spins, and the armature plate spins—but it doesn’t apply power to your hubs to turn your axles.
When you flip that switch on your dash, all you’re doing is turning on an electromagnet in your diff. That magnet makes it harder for the armature plate to spin, which makes it harder for the sprague to spin.
The inner surface of the ring gear has many peaks and valleys. Normally the sprague and its rollers spin along with the ring gear in those valleys, but when the magnet is turned on, the sprague gets pulled into one of those peaks. The rollers are pushed into the hub and grab it through pressure and friction.
With the rollers wedged, the ring gear then transfers power to the hubs, axles, and wheels, thus providing four-wheel drive.
So what? Getting four-wheel drive isn’t anything special, and Can-Am’s Visco-Lok does it just fine. The difference comes in how each of these differentials lock. Locking your differential is the key to success in sketchy situations or on insane terrain.
Most UTV manufacturers provide an on-demand locking mechanism. Flip a switch on your dash and the front diff locks, providing you with tons of extra traction. When you get through the rough spot, just flip it off and keep going. You don’t want it locked all the time because it makes cornering tough, you have less control, and it puts extra stress on your differential.
The other kind of front differential is the automatically locking differential. Polaris and Can-Am front diffs both fall into this category. These types of diffs lock automatically through a mechanical or electrical process. The trigger that causes these diffs to lock is slippage of a front wheel—these diffs are sometimes called limited slip differentials. But what sets Polaris apart from Can-Am is the way in which that slippage causes the lock to engage.
Can-Am’s Visco-Lok uses the slippage of a front axle to mechanically operate a pump. This pump adds pressure to a viscous fluid that compresses a clutch pack, which locks the differential via friction. This tends to be unreliable because the slipping front tire has to make one complete rotation or more before the diff locks.
Polaris’ diff is completely different. Remember, with 4WD engaged the ring gear uses the sprague and its rollers to turn both front axles.
The front diff is geared lower than the transmission, which means the front axles have more torque and turn slower than the rear axles. If you’re driving on dry, flat ground with four-wheel drive engaged, the ring gear turns slower than the front axles, which are rolling the same speed as the rear axles. The rollers don’t get wedged and no power is transferred to the axles, which means no 4WD.
When you hit a tricky section and your back wheels start rotating faster than your front wheels, the ring gear wedges those rollers and your front wheels start rotating with power from the engine. You have four-wheel drive and your front diff is locked. The time it takes for it to engage and lock is almost instantaneous—the ring gear has to rotate only about 5 degrees.
Here‘s the really cool part. This engaging action can operate on each axle independently. So if you’re turning hard, your outside wheel will be moving fast and won’t engage, while your inside wheel will engage. If you’re off camber in some crazy rock garden, a front tire hanging over open air will force the diff to lock instantly.
Any time a front wheel gets caught or slows down at all, the diff is there to give it power. That means it always gives you power exactly when you need it and doesn’t give it when you don’t.
At its heart, the Polaris front differential is a simple mechanism. The parts work together in complex ways but if you need to replace something or service something, you don’t have to be a professional mechanic to figure it out.
Can-Am now has a competing differential on the market. It’s the Smart-Lok Differential. It solves a lot of the problems that the Visco-Lok has by using an electronically actuating diff locking mechanism. That’s nothing special on its own, but Smart-Lok uses a network of sensors on your machine to automatically lock and unlock the front differential.
It knows your steering angle, your speed, and your individual wheel speeds, along with your set ride preference. It then uses that information to lock and unlock the front diff on the fly. It’s cool, it’s innovative, and it works.
The main advantage that Smart-Lok has over Polaris’ diff is the same advantage that all on-demand locking diffs have over it: Polaris diffs don’t always do what you want them to on ice. If you’re sliding on a sheet of ice, your front diff will lock if you hit the gas at all, making it extremely difficult to gain control. Your best option is to turn off four-wheel drive entirely.
On-demand lockers like Smart-Lok let you keep your four-wheel drive without locking if you’re sliding on ice. That’s a much better setup to gain control in this instance.
Older Polaris machines tend to have some weaker parts in their diffs, which can lead to failure. Luckily there are lots of upgradable parts you can purchase for cheap (ahem) to get them up to snuff. These days, new Polaris diffs are pretty solid. The only real changes they’ve made over the years have been to make them stronger and more reliable.
The problem is that it’s a brute force answer to Polaris’ simpler front diff. That means that right now, you can only get them in Can-Am’s highest-end Maverick X3s. If you’re not willing to drop $30K for a UTV, you’re stuck with Visco-Lok.
All that for performance that is, at best, a small improvement over Polaris’ age-old design that comes with every machine—whether you get a used RZR for $4,000 or a brand-new Turbo S for $30,000.
So, does Polaris have the perfect diff? You be the judge.
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Why do all Polaris differential hubs wear out so quickly? And why aren’t there replacement parts?
Hey Tim, thanks for reading! This is a tough one. In our experience, we have found that some big lift kits are hardest on the Polaris diff hubs, causing premature wear. This can be caused by the axles always putting pressure on the hub due to the axle angles from the lift kit. We assume replacement parts aren’t sold because the process can be tedious removing the plug seals and getting them reinstalled.
Doe the Polaris differential contain an overrunning clutch built into the hub? Or does the sprauge and roller assembly act as an overrunning clutch in some way?
Hey Ben, thanks for reading! If you take a look at this article: https://www.superatv.com/offroad-atlas/swiftrac-front-differential/, you will see that our SwifTrac Front Diff works very similar to the Polaris diff. Feel free to give us a call at 855-743-3427 if you have anymore questions.
how do i select the gearing,i mean at what rpm the sprague rollers will shift…btw awesome article..
Hi, thanks for reading! It’s going to vary by machine, but we always recommend low gear unless you’re hitting high enough speeds to tac it out. I hope this helps. We appreciate the support!
My front CV joints are both loose on my 2015 RZR. My rear joints are solid. Is this an issue or something I should expect in this model?
Mike, it’s not completely uncommon for any model, and usually not a real big issue or something to be concerned about. You could disassemble and re-pack the joint with grease or replace the axle. We typically would replace it and hold on to that one as a spare to get off a trail if needed later. Thanks for tuning in!
First time reading about the Polaris front diff. I’m torn between a cfmoto zforce 1000 and the Polaris rzr 900s. Which front diff would be better for slow rock crawls? The automatically locking diff of the rzr or the selectable front diff lock on the zforce?
Hey Steve! The RZR is going to be much easier to get stronger and more reliable parts for due to the higher demand. The select-able locking front will typically perform better while climbing/crawling, but you do lose a lot of turning radius while locked in as well. The automatic locking diff from Polaris locks when needed, but you don’t lose as much turning radius. Thanks for tuning in!
Though the Polaris AWD design works great on flat or uphill loose surfaces it lacks any engine braking when descending steep loose trails that we have here in British Columbia Canada. A recent ride down a very steep power line trail with loose gravel and rocks resulted in several near roll covers which would result in serious injury or death if we left the trail. With engine braking on the rear tires only they tend to skid and of course a sliding rear end always wants to pass the front end. Polaris needs to get with the times and offer a mountain or crawler version of their trail RZR that has 4 wheel engine braking along with full time 4wd. I’ll be going back to a Yamaha when the 2021 models come out.
in the article it mention’s “Here‘s the really cool part, this engaging action can operate on each axle independently.”
sometimes when my front needs power (as my back spins) both wheels do get power (start spinning) yet if my passenger side gets resistance (lets say a rock) it douse still want to turn, and thus it grabs /digs.
the interesting part is, is that my driver side (when facing resistance) starts to clunk/crunch loudly…..
i had this happen several times, and tried to imitate what happens on the trail at home, so I lifted my RzR with all wheels free ….. I tied down the front passenger side, and it just wanted to pull hard on the strap I used…. the driver side made the clunking/crunching…..
so on the end, no one can tell me what is wrong ??? I had taken the entire differential apart, and all seems like new, no shavings, no wear on the armature plate, nothing out of the ordinary…. so now what ?
I could send your staff a video of it to show what is happening..
on the end, if the really cool part is that, this engaging action can operate on each axle independent what part is failing if it douse not do this ?
Hey Kevin, thanks for reading! It’s hard to pinpoint the problem without video, so if you give us a call at 855-743-3427, our customer service team should be able to help you out. Thanks for the support!
I have a 05 ranger and now a 17 ranger and the rear will slide when the front kicks in. Great utv but don’t do good in packed snow or ice . Went off the road 3 times because of this problem not being a true 4×4.My friend has a Yamaha and hand no problem once he lock it in . Now I have to chain up . They need true 4 wheel drive. If the snow is ice for get it .it will spin out every time.
Hello, wonderful post. I would like to know whether the engagement of this differential is only done by the driver with a simple switch. Can you give some examples of models working as said above. Thanks in advance
Hello, thanks for reading! Engagement is not done by a simple switch on any Polaris vehicle. The switch activates 4-wheel drive which only engages when needed. Some examples of UTVs that let you press a button or knob to unlock your diff are Wildcat XX, Yamaha YXZ, and Kawasaki Teryx. You can also get our pin locker differential for Can-Am vehicles to get on-demand locking.
I got a 2004 Polaris sportsman 500 HO what would make it kick in the forwheel drive without me turning it into forwheel drive
Hey Anthony, it sounds like an issue with the front diff. There could be a number of causes, so the best solution is to call into our tech team and hopefully with more details, we can troubleshoot the issue. Give us a call at 855-743-3427. Thanks for reading!
I just installed a bronze Sprague now the front diff will not engage all the time . the 4×4 shows engaged on the dash but the diff does not engage, it will engage sometimes but is not controllable , is was working fine with the stock plastic one but it broke
any idea would be great
Hey Johnny, it could be a number of things from a loose connection to the H clips for the rollers on the cage itself, or even a faulty armature plate. Give our tech support team a call and we should be able to help troubleshoot: 855-743-3427 Thanks for the support!
If the Hilliard Clutch is so perfect then why is it so dam scary to go down a steep hill. I live in snow and ice country and wish there was away to force it to engage when going down an icy road. You cannot believe how frightening it is when your back wheels start to slide because of EBS and since your front wheels are not engaged it is very difficult to maintain control. Seems like there would be an aftermarket fix for this that doesn’t include buying a different machine.
Hey Dave! While it’s an excellent setup for most off-roading conditions, it’s not in the ice/snow. When things get that slick, we typically just shift to neutral and use the brakes to control it as best as possible. Unfortunately, we do not have a fix. We appreciate you reaching out to us with your concern and will bring it up to our new product development team. Thank you for tuning in!
Besides the lack of engine braking down hill, the Polaris design also does not allow front diff lockup when in reverse (for the same reason – the sprague rollers). Overall poor reliability with belts and drivetrain parts, as well as the non full locking front diff have forced me to switch to Yamaha. Will never look back! Honda was a close choice as well though.
I replaced the bearings in my front dif (I have a 2020 polaris general 4 1000). I had to leave an axle out because the wrong one was sent. I put my front dif in and wanted to check the 4wd but I cant get it to spin the front tire (tested in sand) so I guess my question is, does the 4wd work with one axle out? Is there a way to check if it’s working before I put the whole thing together again? What could be wrong if I put everything together correctly and it’s still not working? The magnet? My 4wd worked before replacing the bearings
Hey there John. The 4WD should still engage, even with an axle out. The issue could be something as simple as a fuse or the magnet. Check to make sure you’re getting power to the magnet when you engage. And you can always give us a call at 855-743-3427 so we can help troubleshoot. Good luck, and thanks for reading!
When you put 12v to magnet can you test just by spinning with hand? Or does it need to be in bike to tell? When I try it gets harder to turn but doesn’t spin the axle hubs.
Hey Scott! As long as the differential is fully assembled with all the bolts tightened to spec, the hubs should spin when you energize the magnet and turn the pinion gear by hand. The fact that it gets harder to turn tells me that your issue is not with the magnet or the way you’re powering it. A warped armature plate, bent armature plate teeth, or a damaged sprague are the most likely culprits. Sometimes the damage can be subtle. Check for grooves where the armature plate mates with the sprague.
The good news is that replacing one or both of those parts is easy and relatively inexpensive.
Thanks for tuning in and good luck with your diff!
I have a 2019 Polaris Ranger Northstar Crew and I have issues with the front differential not disengaging when switched out of 4WD. My dealer replaced it and it worked for a short while but now back to same issue. I change the oil very often and it is always clean and not much metal on magnetic plug and no plastic debri that would indicate broken internal ring. I follow the procedure in the manual to disengage by running in reverse a few feet, but doesn’t disengage. Not only is it harder to steer but it also puts excessive wear on the front tires.
Has anyone experienced this problem and what is the remedy? Thanks, Herb
Hey, Herb. It definitely sounds like you’ve got something wrong going on. If it’s not mechanically inside the diff, it’s more than likely electrical. You shouldn’t have to go into reverse to disengage 4WD. I wish I could be of more help to you, but this isn’t something we’ve heard a lot about. Hopefully one of our readers will have a similar experience and can help. Thanks for reaching out!
2017 highlifter 1000xp and i got stuck in the mud and had to leave it for a few hours in negative temps. Came back with it partially frozen and chipped it out and jacked it up. Once pulled out by other machine, tried to use 4wd on way home and would not engage but light came on in the switch and on the display but front wheels will not turn. Front axles seem a little lose (but nothing to compare to) and wheel are locked to drive shaft. Drive shaft also turns almost 1/8 revolution in rear case. is this most likely in front diff or rear trans on connection to drive shaft? I havent been able to get in garage and jack up to try and diagnose as it is hours away and no heated space to work on it. Going to bring it home but was hoping i could have someone with machine diagnose and order parts before making the long trip to pick up and bring home to take it apart in interest of time.
In rear already have SuperATV high clearance radius rods and trailing arms and rhino axles. Thinking about upgrading front to Rhino axles and high clearance a-arms anyways. Other suggestions to make drivetrain more bellet proof is appreciated along with thoughts on fixing front, plus other upgrades to rear if something else i didnt do yet (without costing crazy more money).
Thanks for the read, Great article.
Hey, Cory! We appreciate you reaching out to us and for the kind feedback! It’s more than likely an issue with your front differential itself, not the transmission or driveline connecting them. The front axles feeling loose or sloppy coming from the front diff is completely normal, and usually not something to be overly concerned with. As for beefing up the entire driveline, I would recommend going with the Rhino Driveline C-Series with the billet carrier. Check it out here: https://www.superatv.com/polaris-rzr-xp-1000-rhino-driveline-prop-shafts?sku=PRP01-002F-1 Thanks for the support!
Why does the Super ATV Polaris RZR Complete Differential not fit the 2008-2010 RZR
Good question, Shaun! The 2008-2010 RZR 800 models use different gearing than the rest of them. Developing new gears is the most challenging part of a product like this, and we didn’t think the demand matched the R&D required to get it made. That being said, I’ll let them know that you’re interested.
I couldn’t understand why when the front wheels are faster than the crown there is no attempt to send torque to the front axle. Isn’t there a loss of power in this resistance caused by the magnet?
Hey Ennzo, if your prop shaft is turning and you’ve flipped the 4WD switch on your dash, then you’ve definitely got a problem in your front diff. It could be that the magnet failed, but you could have a broken sprague. You’ll have to take it apart to see what happened. Whatever it is, we’ve probably got what you need to fix it: https://www.superatv.com/categories/differentials.