Steel, Aluminum, and Carbon Fiber Driveshafts

Steel, Aluminum, and Carbon Fiber Driveshafts

Last Updated June 13, 2023 | Meghan Drummond

A driveshaft transfers power from the transmission to the differential of the car, and the differential then sends power to the rear wheels of your Mustang. A driveshaft is a simple round shaft, uncomplicated and easily ignored, but without a driveshaft, there’s no way for your car to efficiently transfer energy into motion. Upgrading your driveshaft isn’t a flashy performance upgrade, but it is one that you may need to consider based on your ideal build. Though most cars come with a steel driveshaft, at some point you may decide to replace the steel stock driveshaft with one made out of aluminum or carbon fiber. All three driveshaft materials have pros and cons that make them ideal for different types of drivers.

Diagram showing driveshaft connecting transmission to the differential

Steel Driveshafts

By far the most inexpensive option, steel driveshafts have the benefits of being durable and dampening noise and vibrations through your vehicle.

The downsides are that steel is obviously heavy and in addition to contributing unnecessary weight to your vehicle, a steel driveshaft also makes your engine work harder because it has to rotate the heavy driveshaft in order to move the vehicle.

A steel driveshaft

Typically, stock drivetrains will be made out of steel because they require the least maintenance and provide the most comfortable ride for the everyday driver. For many enthusiasts though, the steel drivetrain is one of many things that can be cut to easily save on weight, which makes a difference not only for drag racing but also for many autosports like drifting or autocross.

There are different types of steel driveshafts and they aren’t all the same. Chromoly steel tubes are heavy, but they’re also very strong and can survive high speeds. On the other hand, seam tube is usually what the stock driveshaft is made out of and though it’s inexpensive, it’s also pretty weak compared to other steel forms.

Aluminum Driveshafts

An aluminum driveshaft

Going from a steel to an aluminum driveshaft is one way to decrease the amount of excess weight your car is carrying around as well as to reduce the workload that is being passed along to your engine. Aluminum driveshafts are significantly lighter, and, depending on what year Mustang you have, you could be dropping anywhere from ten to twenty pounds simply by making the swap from steel to aluminum.

Dropping a driveshaft is particularly beneficial since it isn’t static weight you’d be dropping but rather rotating weight. This means that it’s the equivalent to dropping significantly more weight.

The downside to aluminum is that it’s much more fragile than steel, and when aluminum breaks, it shears, creating dangerous sharp edges that could harm your car or even yourself. Aluminum also is a much noisier drivetrain that doesn’t reduce vibrations in the same way that steel does. This makes it less comfortable for casual drivers. Aluminum is overall not a very strong metal, and it does poorly at high speeds.

In addition to being light though, Aluminum doesn’t respond to weather as negatively as steel does, and so many people in snowier areas are excited to upgrade to aluminum just because aluminum is immune to rust. It should be noted though that aluminum is easily corroded though, so it’s important to inspect your aluminum driveshaft regularly.

Carbon Fiber

Carbon Fiber driveshafts offer the greatest weight savings. Though aluminum driveshafts are impressively light, carbon fiber shaves a few additional pounds off. This isn’t the greatest advantage of carbon fiber though. Unlike steel or aluminum, carbon fiber doesn’t sheer when it breaks. Instead, if it breaks, carbon fiber comes apart in harmless splinters that are unlikely to damage your vehicle.

A carbon fiber driveshaft

Carbon fiber is stronger than steel even, and its vibrations are significantly less than aluminum.

In short, it’s the perfect material, except for a few small things. Carbon fiber is impossible to repair, it can only be replaced. Unlike steel or aluminum which can be soldered, with carbon fiber if a single strand is damaged than the structural integrity of the whole is irrevocably damaged. This would be tough enough if carbon fiber driveshafts were similarly priced to their steel and aluminum counterparts, but carbon fiber is a specialized material that is difficult to make, so they’re also substantially more expensive.

When To Replace Your DriveShaft

It’s Broken

Okay, that probably sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people accept a terrible ride as simply being the price of driving a vehicle with a few years on it. It doesn’t have to be! Signs of a bad driveshaft are typically a lot of noise and a lot of vibration. In particular, driveshafts are associated with a clunking sound that is fairly unique.

Horsepower Upgrades

More power is always awesome, right? Kind of. It depends on how useful all that extra power is, and that means having a driveshaft that’s capable of transferring all that horsepower effectively. There’s a reason the 2020 Shelby GT500 comes with a carbon fiber driveshaft right off the bat, and that’s because when you’re throwing down over 700 horsepower you need components that can keep up.

Suspension Upgrades

In general, if you’re doing some substantial upgrades on your suspension, then it’s a good time to look at your driveshaft and determine if it’s still a part of your ideal build. The driveshaft affects your ride as much as any other component of your suspension, and even though it’s easy to ignore, considering how inexpensive the upgrades are it really shouldn’t be.

Choosing a Driveshaft

Though it may be tempting to simply go for the best, a carbon fiber drivetrain isn’t the right choice for everyone. It’s the best choice for enthusiasts and people who require a high degree of performance, but will you notice the difference while cruising around the local grocery store parking lot looking for a free space? Most likely not, and in the meantime, you’ve got a valuable piece of equipment on your car. Aluminum can be a tempting middle ground, but it’s lack of durability rules it out for many.

    Steel Driveshafts

  • Inexpensive
  • Durable
  • Offer Noise and Vibration Reduction

    Aluminum Driveshafts

  • Lighter Than Steel
  • Rust-Proof
  • Inexpensive

    Carbon Fiber Driveshafts

  • Light and Durable
  • No Risk of Sheering
  • Expensive

Regardless of which driveshaft you decide is right for you, be sure to install a safety loop. While these devices aren’t required if you’re not competing, they’re a good idea, and it’s easy to install them at the same time.

SourcesWhy You Should Upgrade Driveshafts, Road and Track | What Is a Drive Shaft?, It Still Runs | Drive Shaft Basics, HotRod | Image Credit HotRod | Energy Education

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