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Brake replacement & upgrade options

What comes to mind when you hear the term "automotive performance?" Most people, auto enthusiast or not, will think of big crate engines, superchargers and turbos, flame throwing exhaust, and maybe even suspension components. But what about brakes? All of that extra "go" will be useless if you can't stop. Most of us will know it's time to replace our brakes when one of two things happen:
  • Your service mechanic tells you after completing an oil change, tire rotation, or similar job
  • As you approach a red light you hear that notorious squeal that announces to you and everyone in a 2 block radius that the time has come

But the term "brake job" can mean many things depending on your vehicle, driving style, and how often you maintain your brakes. And just like the vast selection of air intakes, tuners, and other performance parts, there is a large variety of replacement and performance brake components.

Replacement vs. Performance
The first thing to determine is what you need. Are you looking to repair a commuter car or replace brakes on a non-modified vehicle? If so replacement brake parts will be a lower cost compared to performance parts and just as effective for normal driving. If your vehicle has some engine modifications, you like to drive on winding mountain roads, or you do a lot of towing, then you should possibly consider upgrading your brakes. In either case, the two main components will be the same: pads and rotors.

Complete brake kit – Original Equipment

Complete brake kit - Performance

Brake Pads
Brake pads are arguably the most important part of your vehicle braking system. As you apply your brake pedal they compress and create friction, causing your vehicle to stop. Whether your vehicle's brakes are disc or drum style, you should purchase new pads each time you service your brakes.

Brake pads are categorized into 4 main groups:
  • Non-metallic - Generally the lowest cost option, these pads are quiet and have a "soft" feel when braking, but can wear quickly and create a lot of brake dust
  • Semi-metallic - Mid-range option as far as cost and durability. These pads will have a slightly harder feel and will be louder braking than the non-metallic, but will last longer and create less dust
  • Ceramic - These will be your upgrade or performance option for most passenger vehicles. Ceramic pads will provide more stopping power than the semi- and non-metallic while being extremely quiet with a "soft" feel. These pads do however have a higher cost and are more prone to overheating.
  • Fully metallic - Fully metallic brake pads are generally only used for race vehicles. They will have a "hard" feel, are loud, and will not be as effective in normal driving conditions as the others. These pads are made to withstand prolonged hard braking at high speeds. Vehicles used for daily driving or commuting should not use this style pad.

Also known as "Discs" are the flat circular surface that you can sometimes see through your wheel. Disc style brakes are factory equipment in most cars today. If your vehicle is equipped with disc brakes, you have a few options for replacements. * Note: There are some vehicles that do not have rotors, and therefore you would not need to replace. These drum style brake systems are sometimes found in older vehicles and the rear axle of small economy cars*
  • OEM/ Factory style - These rotors will generally be your lowest cost option and what most economy vehicles are equipped with from the factory. They are commonly made of iron with aluminum centers. OEM style rotors will have a flat surface and can either come solid or vented (they look like 2 solid rotors with a space in the center). Vented rotors are generally used in the front of vehicles as they help to dissipate heat.
  • Slotted - Slotted, or "grooved" rotors have shallow channels on the surface of the rotor. These channels help to dissipate heat, water, brake dust, and friction gases off of the braking surface while still maintaining their structural integrity and a quiet ride. This makes them a good upgrade options for 4X4s and towing vehicles. Slotted rotors do, however, cause more pad wear and will require pad replacements more often.
  • Drilled - Drilled rotors are built for performance driving. These rotors have holes drilled through both sides of the rotor, maximizing heat and debris dissipation. Because of the intricacy of these parts, they are generally higher cost than the slotted and factory style options. Drilled rotors are not as strong as slotted or solid rotors and therefore are not good for heavy vehicles or driving styles that require abrupt stopping such as drifting or stunt driving.
  • Ceramic - Similar to the ceramic pads, ceramic rotors are considered your high-end upgrade or performance option. These rotors are corrosion resistant and increased friction efficiency. Ceramic rotors will be more expensive than most iron based options.

Clockwise from top left: OEM/Factory style rotors; Slotted rotors; Drilled rotors; Ceramic rotors.

Selecting the correct pads and rotors based off of your driving style and vehicle will increase brake life as well as your safety. It is important to understand how each of these components work separately as well as in tandem with one another. If you have questions it's advised that you seek the advice of a professional prior to purchasing replacements.

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