Which Brakes Have Most Gripping Power?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jun 09, 2015

Dear Car Talk:

I need to know, of the different kinds of brake material -- ceramic, metallic and organic -- which has the most gripping power? I want the pad that is the best at gripping, under normal driving conditions. I do not care about noise or brake dust.

-- James

If all you're interested in is maximum stopping power, you probably want some performance street semi-metallic pads, James. And it's good that you don't care about noise or brake dust, because you'll get plenty of both. You'll also run through rotors pretty quickly.

Here's a brief history of the brake pad: Invented in the 1890s by Sir Francis Brakepad, the first pads were made of copper. They didn't last very long, and buying all that copper took lots of money. So disc brakes didn't catch on until more than half a century later.

By the time disc brakes came into wide use, pads were made largely out of asbestos. That was cheap, and soft enough to stop the car quietly. It also did a great job of dissipating heat -- which is important so the brakes don't overheat and boil your brake fluid. Unfortunately, all brakes create dust as they get used, and the dust thrown off by asbestos pads turned out to cause lung disease. So we dropped those.

Next came so-called organic brake pads. Those are the ones sold at Whole Foods, next to the kale.

Actually, organic brake pads are made these days with a variety of nonmetallic, nonasbestos materials, like synthetic fibers, glass and some unused Seattle Seahawks 2015 Super Bowl Champions T-shirts. Organic pads work pretty well, but they wear out quickly, and also make a mess of your wheels.

After that came semi-metallic brake pads. Those have flakes of bronze, iron and steel wool in them. They do particularly well at dissipating heat, and they last a long time. But they're noisy and dusty, and they're hard on the brake rotors.

So the current state of the art is ceramic. Pads made of ceramic compounds are quiet, they stop the car well, they're embedded with pieces of copper to help them dissipate heat, they last a long time, they're easy on the rotors and they produce a very-light-colored dust, which is much less noticeable.

Interestingly, the reason they're quiet is because the noise they make is beyond the range of human hearing. I guess that explains why all the neighborhood dogs used to come running whenever my brother showed up. I had always assumed it was just so they could see what food he was storing in his beard.

Anyway, ceramic pads are what we recommend to our customers. But if all you care about is stopping power, a semi-metallic performance street pad by StopTech or Hawk probably is what you want, James.

Just make sure you upgrade your stereo at the same time to help cover up the brake noise.

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