Brake pads are the unsung hero of modern motoring, able to stop your heavy vehicle by converting kinetic (motion) energy into heat. It’s simple, yet brilliant technology. The pads contact the brake rotor and create enough friction to slow down even a Dodge Demon.
Back in the 1950s, when discs started to replace drums, brake pads were made out of asbestos. The material was cheap, quiet, and worked well at dissipating heat, but the brake dust was linked to lung cancer. Fortunately for us all, there are now a lot of excellent affordable brakes that don’t have health implications. Here’s how to narrow down your options when shopping for new brake pads.
Organic brake pads
Organic pads were the first to replace asbestos. Made of various organic compounds like carbon, glass, rubber, and even Kevlar, organic pads are quiet even when cold and quickly heat up to their ideal operating temperature. Still, they have several shortcomings (see below) and have been largely replaced.
- Suited for everyday driving
- Quick to wear out
- Squishy pedal feel
- Easily overheat
- Not recommended for performance driving or towing
With all the drawbacks, you might be wondering why organic pads are still made. The truth is, they are similar to why we have brake drums on modern cars. Organic pads and brake drums are totally outclassed and a bit rare these days, but they still work well enough. The tooling was paid for long ago, making them incredibly cheap to manufacture and sell, with pad sets often priced under $20. If you need basic brakes for your commute in your compact sedan, organic pads will work just fine.
Semi-metallic brake pads
While organics will generally stop a car, their weaknesses are serious enough that engineers keep looking for better brakes. Semi-metallic pads were the answer, first appearing with the larger and more powerful cars of the ’60s. With iron, steel, copper, and graphite in the friction material, semi-metallic pads have more bite and can stand up to a wide range of temperatures.
- Improved brake performance compared to organics
- Firmer pedal feel
- More heat tolerant for a range of climates
- Better for heavy-duty work
- Middle-of-the-road price point
- Need a break-in period
- More brake dust
Semi-metallic pads are a great all-around choice if you live in the mountains, regularly tow, see any kind of racing, or just want a solid pad for everyday driving. Yes, there is a very slight price increase over organics, but “you get what you pay for” certainly applies here.
Ceramic brake pads
Just because these pads are ceramic, don’t assume they are like your aunt’s delicate tea sets. First appearing in the 1980s, these pads are more of a hardcore ceramic, like the heat shields on the space shuttles. The inorganic, earthen elements offer some improvements over the semi-metallic design, but they aren’t for everyone.
- Long lasting
- Better heat rejection
- Less brake dust (and the dust doesn’t stick to wheels)
- Some noise when cold
Ceramic pads have become the standard OEM pad for modern cars, and it’s easy to see why. While they are typically the most expensive pad, drivers like the long life and lack of brake dust. We wouldn't recommend them for drivers in very cold climates or those who are racing or towing.
When shopping for ceramic brake pads, 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 model and expect to get the same braking performance.
What to buy
When choosing between semi-metallic or ceramic, it’s best to stick with what the manufacturer put in the caliper. If it was semi-metallic in your Ford F-250, go with that option again. If your Honda Accord had ceramics from the factory, buy new ceramic pads.
If you haul heavy loads or brake with a heavy foot, use semi-metallic brake pads. Don't second-guess the manufacturer and upgrade to ceramic brake pads without doing some further research. If you're set on using ceramic brake pads, replace your brake pads with the highest quality you can find.
No matter what, make sure you're getting the brake pad that's right for the place you live, your driving style, and hobbies.
Have a favorite type of brake pad? Let us know what stops you in your tracks in the comments below.