Why Computers Can't Beat Locking Differentials Off Road

Or, why we love the Mercedes G-Wagen and Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

Some modern trucks, like the Ford F-150 Raptor and Land Rover Discovery, use all sorts of computerized tech to push further off road. That stuff is all well and good, but when the going gets really rough, it can't beat an old-school locking differential. And that's why 4x4s like the Mercedes G-Wagen and Jeep Wrangler Rubicon soldier on with old-school tech.

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Engineering Explained's Jason Fenske breaks down the 4WD system of the Mercedes G-Wagen (pictured above in absurd G550 4x4² form), showing why it's still great today. And the reason why it works? Three locking differentials—one in each axle, and one in the four-wheel drive transfer case.

By locking every differential, each wheel gets an equal portion of torque at all times. Because of this, there's a much lower likelihood you'll get stuck in a truck equipped with such a four-wheel drive system. As long as one wheel has sufficient grip, you should be good.

It's important to note the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon doesn't have a center differential like the Mercedes. When its transfer case is in four-wheel drive, it sends equal torque to the front and rear axle. With no differential, it's by definition locked, and it behaves similarly to the G-Wagen with its center differential locked.

Modern computer-controlled systems are great, but they're not foolproof like a locking differential. When a diff is locked, it doesn't get confused, it just stays locked.

So even in 2018, there's still a place for old-school off roaders. You just can't beat their simplicity.

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