Serpentine Belt vs Drive Belt: What’s the Difference?

Serpentine Belt vs Drive Belt: What’s the Difference?

Serpentine belts are sometimes referred to as a drive belt but they’re not always the same thing. While the terminology can get confusing at times, serpentine belts are part of new engine systems that utilize one main drive belt to power all of the accessory belts.

On the other hand, drive belts that are part of v-belt systems have components that include individual belts. For example, the alternator and cooling fan will have two different separate belts.

There are benefits and drawbacks to each system but the benefits of modern serpentine belt designs usually outweigh the negatives. That said, understanding the key differences is essential if you need to replace your vehicle’s belts and don’t know what you’re looking at.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about these belts below.

What Is a Serpentine Belt?

Serpentine belts are made of durable, reinforced rubber and they’re located on the outside of a vehicle’s engine. Typically, they also include components like a tensioner belt to ensure that tension remains the same and an idler pulley to hold everything in place.

The main role of a serpentine belt is to provide power for accessories like the air conditioner, power steering pump, cooling fan, and alternator.

Ultimately, as long as it’s an accessory component the serpentine belt will power it.

What Does a Serpentine Belt Do?

Serpentine belts work by commenting on every pulley system in modern combustion engines. It’s a single belt that’s threaded through the entire engine, which allows it to connect every pulley system with just one belt. So, as long as the serpentine belt is spinning all of the accessories in your vehicle will have power.

While serpentine belts remove the need to have several v-belts, or drive belts, this comes with advantages and disadvantages.

What Are the Benefits of a Serpentine Belt?

The serpentine belt offers several advantages over traditional v-belts systems. After all, there is a reason that they’re used for most modern engine platforms. Learn about the advantages of a serpentine belt below.

Less Engine Space

One of the best benefits is that it snakes throughout the entire engine. Instead of needing several belts the one serpentine belt takes up less space under the hood. This gives automakers more room to install important components that enhance performance or fuel economy.

Another reason that one belt takes up less space is that you only need one belt tensioner. This frees up even more space and reduces the chance of needing to replace several tensioners when it fails.

More Tension

When you stretch one belt across many pulleys it’s hard for the belt to lose tension. This is because it’s stretched out longer than a V-belt that’s only wrapped around one pulley.

Tension is important for belts because it reduces the amount of slippage that can occur. When these belts lose tension they begin to slip and get damaged, which can damage all other components.

Additionally, more tension means that the engine doesn’t need to work as hard to spin the belt. This improves fuel economy and reduces engine load.

Easier Maintenance

Having one serpentine belt is easier to maintain than several v-belts. If you have a faulty belt you only have to replace the one when it breaks. This is better than needing to replace several v-belts across multiple pulleys.

These are the advantages of serpentine belts but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect.

What Are the Disadvantages of a Serpentine Belt?

The serpentine belt is a well-rounded component that beats out older designs 9/10 times. However, it does come with some drawbacks that are worth noting. The good news is that most of these drawbacks aren’t severe as long as you replace your serpentine belt when it breaks or before you notice any problems.

Loss of Critical Function

The serpentine belt is the only belt in a system that uses it. This means that the one belt is responsible for all of your vehicle’s accessories and some of these accessories will cause damage to your vehicle if they fail.

If the serpentine belt fails in one place, being knocked loose for example, all of the accessories that are connected to it will fail because they need the belt for power.

If you don’t address this, your cooling fan, alternator, and air conditioner can all fail. A cooling fan that fails can cause your car to overheat and a failing alternator can destroy your battery.

Loss of Accessory Function

Accessories are powered by the serpentine belt and many of these accessories are essential for engine performance. If one of these accessories begins to malfunction, you’ll run into problems along the entire belt.

For example, if the air conditioner begins to fail other components with pulleys may begin to fail. As long as it’s a component that’s connected to the serpentine belt, anything that breaks can be impacted.

No Redundancy

When you have one belt you need it for everything to work. V-belt systems that have multiple drive belts can still function if one belt fails. For example, if the air conditioning belt falls off the cooling belt can still work. This makes serpentine belts less adaptive to problems.

These are the main drawbacks of a serpentine belt. Still, they’re used in most modern vehicle applications for a reason.

What Is a Drive Belt?

Drive belts, or v-belts are individual belts that spin to provide power to an engine’s accessories. These accessories include the alternator, cooling fan, air conditioner, and power steering belt. For this reason, drive belts may also be referred to as the following:

  • Fan belt
  • V-belt
  • Air conditioner belt
  • Power steering belt
  • Alternator belt

It’s important to note that these belts all have similar designs and they’re only found in older vehicles because the design is outdated. In fact, most people are referring to the serpentine belt when discussing drive belts.

What Does a Drive Belt Do?

Drive belts spin pulleys that provide power to components like the cooling fan, alternator, and power steering pump. Without these belts, these systems have no way of getting power from alternators or crankshafts. Drive belts in vehicles with v-belt systems spin individually.

What Are the Advantages of a V-Belt System?

V-belt systems have a handful of advantages over serpentine belts. These advantages have to do with maintenance, noise, and flexibility. The advantages don’t outweigh those of a serpentine belt, though. Learn more about the advantages of v-belt drive belts below.

More Flexibility

When you have one serpentine belt that spans the entire engine its applications are more limited. It has to spin at the same rate across all components, so there isn’t a flexibility factor when it comes to power. This means that individual drive belts can maintain different speeds across different engine accessories.

Less Noise

Serpentine belts that span the entire engine are loud because of their size. You’ll quickly notice that individual drive belts produce less overall noise. If you don’t like noise you’ll prefer an individual drive belt system.

Easy to Maintain

When you have individual drive belts, maintenance is a breeze. While you’ll have to replace more of them, you only have to replace one at a time if an accessory fails. Plus, replacing them takes time because they can only be installed in one configuration.


A multiple v-belt system is more dependable than a serpentine belt system. This is because if one belt fails the other drive belts won’t be impacted. Therefore, if the air conditioner drive belt fails, the cooling fan belt can still spin. For these reasons, it’s a more adaptable system to have more than one drive belt.

These are some of the advantages of a V-belt system that comprises multiple drive belts.

What Are the Disadvantages of a V-Belt System?

There’s a reason that modern engines usually only have one serpentine belt that snakes through the entire engine. Learn about the disadvantages of v-belt systems that have multiple drive belts below.

More Belts to Replace and More Space

When you have more than one drive belt, you have to replace more than one drive belt. This can be expensive and time-consuming if all of the belts fail at once. Additionally, more belt and pulley systems mean that these v-belt systems take up more space under the hood.

Prone to Slippage

Individual drive belts have less tension because they’re only wrapped around one pulley. This means that your drive belts can slip more often and cause components to fail. Unfortunately, you’ll have to replace them once they slip because the belt will sustain damage.

Increased Engine Load

Engine load is increased when you have more than one belt to power. This can impact engine performance, reduce fuel economy, and cause overheating. The increased load may also pull more power from the alternator or battery and reduce the efficiency of accessories like the air conditioner.

These are only a handful of the disadvantages of individual drive belt systems.

Wrapping Up

The main takeaways are that serpentine belts are part of systems that use one belt to connect the fan, alternator, A/C, and power steering system. Drive belts belong to systems that use individual v-belts for each accessory.

It’s also important to note that serpentine belts may be referred to as fan belts or drive belts depending on who’s discussing them. However, there are some key differences between the individual serpentine belt and the v-belts of old.

The good news is that you usually don’t have to drive too deep into these differences because almost all modern vehicles use serpentine belt systems. You’ll only run into v-belts if you’re working on an older motor, and even if you do, at least they’re easy to replace because you don’t have to thread them through the entire engine.