Your brake system is, next to tires, the most important thing to maintain on your vehicle. It’s the intricate labyrinth of hoses, clamps and large pieces of metal that stop your car from hitting things on the road.
When you apply the brakes and subsequently hear an ear-piercing screeching, it’s not a wild banshee that’s stuck inside of your wheel. It’s what happens when the stopping material, that is, the brake pad material that’s engineered to convert kinetic energy into heat, runs out and all that’s left is a thin slab of steel rubbing against your brake rotor.
For your purposes, whatever they may be, it’s important to know what that pad material is made of. For instance brake pads made for street driving are much different from those made for racing.
In the street you might want something quieter that lasts a long time, whereas if you’re on a race track you don’t care much about how loud your brakes are, you just want them to stop your car as quickly as possible.
If you go into a store like Autozone to buy basic brakes for your car, you are generally given a choice between a few different kinds of brake pad material, including metallic, ceramic and organic material.
Each material performs, costs, and effects the rest of your braking system, in different ways and whether or not one is better than the other depends entirely on your driving style, where you live (climate), and what your driving routine is like (commuting, weekend driving etc).
Of course longevity of how effective your brakes are depends entirely on how you drive, but you can rest assured that when it’s time to get new pads the horrific screeching will be your best and most definitive indicator.
Metallic brake pads are generally made from as much as 70% metal, which according to Bridgestone can be comprised of copper, steel, iron and other alloys. Toyota has an interesting breakdown of the various materials used in brake pads and how much of each material may be used.
Metallic brake pads are typically best used for high-speed and sudden hard braking scenarios like speed contests due to their high heat resistance. Metallic pads tend to be cheaper than other materials like ceramic pads, because the materials themselves are relatively inexpensive.
There are a few problems with metallic brake pads, including the noise level, the amount of dust they create and the enormous strain they put on the rest of your braking system. Again, if you’re racing (or act like it) all the time, then you’re not going to care much about noise or how dirty your car gets, as long as you can stop quickly.
They also aren’t as effective at lower temperatures, and often times metallic pads won’t be at their full potential until a few hard braking maneuvers have completed.
Organic material pads are found on the majority of street cars from the factory. They are made from several different non-metallic substances such as rubber, fiberglass and kevlar. They are cheaper than metallic or ceramic, but don’t go for very long thanks to how weak the materials are.
They also have low heat resistance, which means under heavy braking expect the pads to double over like they’ve been punched in the gut. However the low heat resistance also means organic pads heat up quickly, so they can provide some decent stopping power under light braking, which is ideal for more casual driving habits.
The short lifespan of organic pads makes them attractive to the driver who only uses their car to go down the street and get groceries, or across town to visit a friend. To the commuter, however, it means more trips to the auto parts store. Organic pads are cheaper, but frequent purchases render that particular feature essentially pointless.
Ceramic pads are often thought of as the best-constructed brake pad, thanks to low noise, minimal dust and impressive stopping power. The price reflects this as well, as ceramic pads tend to be the most expensive option. Ceramic pads are made from glass ceramic fibers and are extraordinarily dense compared to other ceramic materials.
The problem with ceramic pads besides the price is the fact that ceramics don’t absorb heat as much as other materials, and that heat from the rotor must go somewhere so it defers to the rest of the braking system.
For more common braking situations, the benefits of ceramic pads far outweigh the shortcomings. Ceramic brake pads are a safe choice of drivers who are calmer behind the wheel and do a lot of commuting.
Now that you know the basics of what each pad material is capable of, the next part is evaluating your driving style (be honest) and what kind of routine your style fits into. If it’s a sedentary driving routine that isn’t aggressive then organic pads might be the way to go. If you value performance and drive like a maniac, then metallic pads might be the best choice.
If you’re the calm, sensible everyday driver that prefers to drive on the side of caution, then ceramic pads might deliver what you’re after. It all depends on you. Remember that the brakes are one of, if not the most important system on your car, and should always be done at a shop by a certified mechanic who knows what they are doing.
Avid Formula 1 fan and motorcyclist, I enjoy chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream and long rides to the beach.