Advance Essentials: Brake Basics

Part 1: Brake Introduction

When contemplating brake pad replacement, there are several aspects to keep in mind. Shopping for quality brake pads can be a mind-boggling experience. But we can help. Once you locate your vehicle on our site, you may see several different brake pad choices, with prices ranging up to as much as $60. Chances are, you'll be wondering which brake pads to buy. Don't worry, we'll explain the differences in brake pad materials and offer up some sound shopping advice.

Let's start by examining the three most common types of quality brake pad friction materials:

NAO - Non-Asbestos Organic brake pads

NAO brake pads are made with organic fillers like carbon, rubber, and Kevlar. The fillers dissipate heat and dampen vibrations. NAO brake pads are still standard on many vehicles because they work well, are inexpensive, and are very quiet. But, there's one major downside: they're soft and generally don't last as long as other, more expensive formulations.

The bottom line:
NAO brake pad advantages: lower cost, low noise, longer rotor life
NAO brake pad disadvantages: shorter pad life

Semi-Metallic brake pads

Called “semi-mets” by the pros, semi-metallic brake pads are filled with metal fibers. The fibers pull heat away from the rotor and transfer it to the metal backing plate to reduce overheating and brake fade. That’s why semi-metallic brake pads provide the ultimate in stopping power. But, they’re not perfect. Since they’re the hardest of all pad materials, they tend to chew up rotors faster. They also make the most noise. In fact, semi-metallic brake pads are notorious for squealing during stops. And, they produce rusty, brown brake dust that’s guaranteed to dirty up your fancy, aluminum rims.

The bottom line:
Semi-metallic brake pad advantages: long pad life, best stopping power for trucks, vans or cars with heavy loads.
Semi-metallic brake pad disadvantages: noisy performance, increased dust, and shorter rotor life.

Ceramic brake pads

No one likes dusty, noisy brakes. Ceramic brake pads are designed to come as close as possible to the braking performance of semi-metallic brake pads, without the noise, dust, and worn, brake rotor issues. A large percentage of new cars come equipped with ceramic brake pads right from the factory. But shopping for ceramic brake pads can be difficult because every manufacturer uses a different formula.

Here's our shopping tip: since premium ceramic brake pad components always cost more than economy components, a higher-priced ceramic brake pad is an indication of its quality. In other words, don't replace a factory ceramic brake pad with an economy ceramic brake pad and expect to get the same braking performance.

Ceramic brake pad advantages: low noise, long life, minimal dust, and less brake rotor wear than with semi-metallic brake pads.
Ceramic brake pad disadvantages: less braking power than semi-metallic brake pads, and higher cost.

Read next:

Brake Pad Shopping Guide