The Difference Between Ceramic and Semi-Metallic Brake Pads

Source | William Clifford/Flickr

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.

Going organic

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.

Strengths:

  • Organic pads are inexpensive. Everyone likes saving money.
  • Silence. The compounds are soft, translating to a quiet contact with the rotor.
  • Fine for everyday driving.

Weaknesses:

  • Again, organic pads are soft, so they are quick to wear out. While they’re inexpensive, you will have to replace them more often, so organics might not actually save you money.
  • Soft compound translates to a squishy pedal feel.
  • Easily overheated, so these aren’t 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 Toyota Corolla, organic pads will work.

Heavy metal

Wearever 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.

Strengths:

  • Semi-metallic pads offer improved brake performance compared to organics.
  • The harder material gives firmer pedal feel.
  • A wider operating range means a more heat tolerant pad that can stand up to heavy-duty work.

Weaknesses:

  • Semi-metallic pads need a proper break-in process for best performance.
  • They are more expensive than organic pads.
  • The metal-on-metal contact means some unavoidable brake dust, and more noise versus organic.

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.

Definitely not fine china

Wearever 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.

Strengths:

  • Ceramic pads are the longest-lasting pads you can buy.
  • They’re quieter than semi-metallic pads and offer better heat rejection.
  • Less brake dust than semi-metallic or organic, and the dust doesn’t stick to wheels.

Weaknesses:

  • The most expensive pad.
  • Some noise when cold, not the best choice for cold climates.
  • Not as heavy duty as semi-metallic, so not the choice for racing or towing.

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.

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.

When replacing organic pads, feel free to upgrade to either semi-metallic or ceramic, as they are both noticeable improvements in every measurable way.

Have a favorite type of brake pad? Let us know what stops you in your tracks in the comments below.

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