Today: What's the Deal With Worn Out Brakes?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jan 20, 2015

Dear Car Talk:

I have a 2010 Chrysler Town and Country minivan with 4-wheel disc brakes. It has 25,000 miles on it. It is not driven much and is babied a lot. I paid a visit to my local dealer for an oil change, and he said that I needed rear brakes. The pads were worn down to almost nothing and were rubbing on the rotors and making a mark. I asked them how the rear brakes could be worn lower than the front brakes, since I have always heard that the rear brakes last three times as long as the front (because the front brakes do most of the stopping). Their answer was that they do not know why, but it just happens that way. "It's the nature of the beast," they said. So, I took it to a tire center and asked for a second opinion. They also said that the rear brakes were worn down to almost nothing and were making a mark on the rotors. I asked them why, and they said that front and rear wear fairly evenly.

When I asked if they wear evenly, why are the front at 80 percent and the rear down to nothing, they said that the manufacturer chooses to put very thick pads on the front and relatively thin pads on the rear. Is this true? I was going to get a third opinion, but decided to write to you instead. This whole thing confuses me. Can you help shed some light on this? I would like your answer as soon as possible, because I am waiting to get the brakes done until I get your answer, and I don't want the rotors to get so damaged that I need to replace them as well.

-- Gary

You're not the only one complaining about the brakes on this vehicle, Gary.

But I wouldn't have advised waiting for an answer from Car Talk before fixing it. First of all, we're not very bright here. If you're a regular reader, you know that. But more importantly, if your pads are down to the metal and already scoring the rotors, you'll soon ruin the rotors, too. Then you'll need pads AND rotors.

You're right that the front brakes do most of the stopping. So most manufacturers do put smaller, thinner pads on the rear wheels. But something obviously went wrong in this case. My guess is that Chrysler just cheaped-out too much and grossly underdesigned the brakes on this car. They went too far in "de-contenting" (i.e., saving money).

I've heard that Chrysler has extended the warranty for the front brakes on this vehicle. But customers have complained that that "warranty" repair is not free, that dealers charge a "deductible," which varies according to your mileage. And apparently, in what seems to be a pretty clear admission of a design mistake, they beefed up the brakes in later years to slow the torrent of complaints.

They have not admitted to any problem with the rear brakes on these cars, but I've seen a number of reports of premature rear brake wear, too. So they may have been underdesigned as well.

It's also possible that there could be something else going on with your particular car. There could be something that's causing the brakes to "stay on" even when you're not using them. It could be a caliper issue, a faulty brake master cylinder, a bad power-brake booster or even a proportioning issue. But since there are so many complaints about the brakes, I'd lean toward the "underdesigned" theory.

So my advice would be to talk to your Chrysler dealer. Let him know you're aware that there were problems with the brakes on this car, and ask if your car can be retrofitted with the upgraded brakes that they switched to in later model years. And ask Chrysler to help you out with the cost of the repair and upgrade. If, in fact, it was an engineering mistake, the cost really should be borne by them.

If you can do the retrofit, that'd be my first choice. Otherwise, you're likely to keep having these problems, and you'll need to join the Pad of the Month Club.

If your car can't be retrofitted, then just go ahead and replace the pads. And do it right away, before you ruin the rotors, too.

If you're happy with the price and how they treat you at the dealership, do the pads there. If not, go to an independent shop.

And then be grateful that, so far, your front brakes are working well. Not every 2010 Town and Country owner is so lucky.

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