If you’re a gearhead, you’ve probably heard about a not-so-recent fad — ceramic brake pads. Their price surely puts some people off, but they might be worth the investment. Anyway, you can decide that for yourself after hearing about their pros and cons.
Most people, car enthusiasts included, tend not to think too much about their car’s brakes. I’ve lost count of how many cars I’ve seen modded for extra power with totally stock brakes. People often forget that good brakes could mean a difference between life and death in extreme situations.
So, as part of the standard car maintenance, you should regularly change out your brake pads. Depending on the material and usage, brake pads can last anywhere from 20–100.000 miles.
Obviously, different pad materials have different properties. So I recommend you think about your driving style and conditions before picking your next set of brake pads.
Ceramic brake pads may be a good option for anyone. Still, you should understand how breaks work and be aware of all the options before actually making a decision.
How Brakes Work
Most modern cars use the so-called disc brakes. They consist of a disc-shaped rotor and a clamp around it. The disc spins with the wheel and the clamp squeezes it whenever you press the brake pedal. Then, the sandpaper-like pads in the clamp grind on the disc, slowing down the wheel.
On the other hand, most older cars and trucks use drum brakes. In this case, the rotor is drum-shaped, with the clamp on the inside. When you press the brake pedal, the clamp expands outward, pressing and grinding on the inner surface of the drum. However, drum brakes are almost never used today because of their tendency to overheat.
Different Brake Pad Materials
Let’s start with organic brake pads, particularly asbestos. At first glance, it appears as though asbestos would be a great brake pad material. It’s good at both dissipating and absorbing heat, and it doesn’t damage the rotors.
However, it was quickly discovered that inhaling asbestos can be dangerous to your health. Therefore, manufacturers started searching for other organic materials to use in brake pads. Nowadays, most organic brake pads contain glass fibers, Kevlar, and heat-resistant resin. This composite material proved to be a solid replacement for asbestos.
However, organic brake pads have a few downsides to them. For one, organic brake pads will wear out a lot quicker than metallic, not to mention ceramic brake pads. As a result, you get quite a lot of dust. What’s more, organic brake pads simply don’t have the stopping power of other materials.
Now, you’re probably wondering why people even use organic brake pads — they’re not as durable nor effective as metallic or ceramic ones.
Still, they actually work well enough on most lower-powered cars. In addition, they don’t produce as much noise as metallic brake pads. And most importantly, they’re the cheapest option available and that’s why a lot of manufacturers use them.
Metallic or semi-metallic brake pads are probably the most common brake pads in the world. They consist of 30–70% metal, with the rest being graphite and other trace materials. The metal (usually iron, copper, or steel) serves as the friction material, while the graphite is there to help with lubrication.
In some cases, I would advise you to choose metallic brake pads instead of ceramics, especially if you’re looking to improve the brakes on your track car. Since they can cool off much faster than ceramic pads, metallic brake pads are better for hard use. In addition, I recommend you use them if you live in a cold environment.
On the other hand, if you already have metallic pads, I advise you to check them regularly. They tend to wear the discs quicker than organic brake pads. In addition, they can make your brakes quite noisy.
And finally, the most recent type of brake pads on the market — ceramics. As their name suggests, they consist of mostly ceramic material, with embedded fibers to increase heat conductivity and performance. In most cases, manufacturers use copper fibers, but you can find some models with carbon fibers instead.
Due to their design and the materials used, ceramic brake pads can prove to be a smart investment, especially if you don’t plan on pushing your car too hard. In addition, if your car already has carbon-ceramic brake discs, I suggest you get ceramic pads as well.
Pros of Ceramic Brake Pads
Because of their high heat tolerance and density, ceramic brake pads can perform at 100% consistently without sacrificing their lifespan. Their consistency, even when they’re at the end of their lifespan, is what draws most people to them. If you have ceramic pads, you don’t ever have to worry about the weather conditions and you can break hard if you need to.
In addition, the braking performance remains smooth, no matter how hard you press the pedal. That way, you can predict how your car’s going to behave if you have to make an emergency stop.
On top of that, ceramic brake pads make virtually no noise, which makes them perfect for both long road trips and your daily commute.
Longevity and durability is why people choose ceramic brake pads in the first place. Unlike other brake pad materials, which typically have a 40,000-mile lifespan, ceramic pads can pull off 80–100,000 miles. On top of that, hard use doesn’t decrease their lifespan, which can’t be said for other materials.
In my opinion, the increase in brake lifespan you get with ceramic pads outweighs the price difference by a ton. Even if you dismiss all the other advantages, ceramic brake pads should pay off in the end.
Less Brake Dust
No matter what kind of brakes you have, you’ve probably washed your car wheels at least once in your life. If so, you must have noticed the river of black sludge running down each wheel as you washed down the collected black dust. Sometimes, it gets so stuck that you have to scrub it off by hand.
If you switch to ceramic pads, all of that will become ancient history. You see, ceramic brake pad dust is light and fine, and in most cases, it doesn’t even stick to the wheels. However, if it ever does stick, a quick wash-down with regular water should do the trick. If you like to keep your rims looking perfect, then I strongly suggest trying ceramic brake pads.
No Heat Soak
As I previously mentioned, ceramic brake pads work consistently well, no matter how hot they get. To clarify, you can safely continue driving after a hard stop if you have ceramic pads. Your braking performance won’t suffer due to heat generated from hard braking.
However, other components in your brake system might have a problem with the heat of the pads, but more on that later. As far as your pads are concerned, you can heat them up as much as you like, they’ll still work just as fine.
Cons of Ceramic Brake Pads
The biggest and the most obvious downside to carbon-ceramic brake pads is the price. Unfortunately, if you want to acquire them, you’ll probably have to pay double, even triple the cost of organic brake pads. Still, as I said, you’ll get more than twice the lifespan of organic pads, with a much more consistent performance.
Another thing I’d like to highlight is the existence of “fake” ceramic brake pads. Some manufacturers add just enough ceramic in their organic or metallic pads to be able to call them “ceramic” in their product title. However, they don’t perform as well as the real ceramic brake pads.
Brake Disc Erosion
Because of their hardness, ceramic brake pads will wear out your brake discs eventually. As you may know, metallic brake pads tend to wear discs out as well, but not as much as ceramics do. That happens because of the additional thermal stress on the discs, as ceramic pads retain heat for longer than metallic or organic pads.
Most people who have ceramic brake pads replace the pads and the discs simultaneously, killing two birds with one stone.
As I said, ceramic brake pads retain heat for longer than metallic or organic pads. Naturally, they also take longer to warm up. Because of this, I don’t recommend going with ceramic brakes if you live in a colder environment.
On the other hand, you can always have a set of ceramic pads for the summer and a set of metallics for the winter, just like you do with the tires.
I recommend ceramic brake pads to people willing to invest in performance and long-term reliability. With these brakes, you get the benefits of silent operation and dust-free wheels. Of course, there are a few drawbacks too, but I think that switching to ceramics should pay off in the end.