What brake pads should I buy?
Are the best brake pads, organic, semi-metallic, or ceramic?
Friends always ask me if they should “upgrade” to ceramic pads
because “aren’t they the best pads you can buy?” Well, not necessary. The problem with recommending brake pads is that, while there are Federal standards for brake parts on new cars and trucks, there are NO standards for aftermarket part. And there are no standards for what qualifies as “ceramic.” I’ve seen ceramic pads for as low as $14 a set and as high as $65—all for the same vehicle. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that both sets are not the same quality. So here’s what you need to know about brake pads.
The goal of a brake pad is to convert motion into heat and then dissipate it as quickly as possible. Organic pads used to be standard equipment on most cars and trucks. They’re made with natural oils and resins bound onto a steel backing plate. They worked great when braking loads were lower. But when SUVs came along, they couldn’t handle the loads. So manufacturers developed semi-metallic pads. They altered the mix and dumped in copper strands and steel wool to help direct the heat away from the pad face and pull it towards the backing plate. Semi-metallic pads provide the best stopping power because they do the best job of pulling heat away from the rotor surface. But they do have their drawbacks. First, the metal fibers make noise, so semi-metallic pads are the noisiest of all three types. Next, the steel fibers rust and that dust settles on your aluminum wheels, making them look awful. Finally, semi-metallic pads are really hard on rotors. They wear them out the fastest.
So along comes ceramic. Manufacturers add clay or ceramic particles to the mix to dissipate heat. Ceramic pads operate much cleaner—little to no dust, and they don’t make noise. Plus, they’re much kinder to rotors. BUT, they wear faster than semi-metallics and don’t provide as much stopping power.
So it’s really a myth that ceramic pads are the best. For many applications its fine to trade stopping power for less dust, less rotor wear, and shorter pad life. But if you drive an SUV or pickup truck or haul heavy loads, then the tradeoffs aren’t so attractive.
Here’s the rule of thumb—stick with what the car maker installed. Or, use semi-metallic if you want the best stopping power but don’t care about dust and noise. Use ceramic if you don’t carry heavy loads, want less dust, and don’t mind replacing your brakes more often.
I’ve used ceramic pads from the top three brake manufacturers—Bendix, Raybestos, and Wagner. Their products are very good. But like I said earlier, you can also buy ceramic pads from “no-name” companies or private labeled for the auto parts store. If that’s the way you want to go, just make sure that you’re buying their top of the line ceramic product, not the cheapest.
© 2012 Rick Muscoplat
Posted on by Rick Muscoplat