Dear Tom and Ray:
I recently needed to replace my brakes, and the shop sold me on ceramic brake pads. The pads have a lifetime warranty, which is very appealing. I also was told that ceramic pads will generally prevent rotors from warping, eliminating the pulsating affect that one feels when braking with warped rotors. After making the purchase, I've been told by several people that ceramic pads wear the rotors more evenly, preventing warping, but they also wear the rotors far more quickly. In your experience, did I save money by going with ceramic pads? Or am I actually spending more money, both up front (on the pads) and down the road (on additional rotors)? — Jared
Ray: Here's the brief, sordid history of brake pads, Jared. The first pads were made out of shoe bottoms. My brother remembers sticking his foot out the door and dragging his shoe on the road until the car either stopped or hit something.
Tom: Yeah. That was last week, in my '78 Fiat!
Ray: Brake pads in recent years have been made out of asbestos, other organic materials, semi-metallic materials like steel wool and iron and, most recently, ceramic compounds mixed with copper strands.
Tom: Each of these materials had its advantages and disadvantages. For example, asbestos brake pads were nice and quiet, but they caused lung cancer. Non-asbestos, organic pads were safe for humans but didn't always stop the car very well. Semi-metallic pads performed well but made obnoxious brake noises and left black brake dust all over people's wheels.
Ray: So the current state of the art is the ceramic pad, which seems to balance all of the criteria of brake pads pretty well. It lasts a good long time, stops the car well, dissipates heat quickly, absorbs noise better than metallic pads and leaves a nice, light-colored brake dust that's a lot less visible and bothersome than the black stuff.
Tom: So, you got the right pads, Jared. That's what we use on our customers' cars these days, mostly to eliminate complaints about noise and dust.
Ray: When ceramic brakes first came out, I remember that the suppliers warned us against using them with cheap rotors, because they are harder than the older, metallic pads -- that's what makes them longer-lasting. But rotor makers have caught up, and we haven't had any problems in recent years. So as long as you're not buying your rotors from a guy in a trench coat who says, "Psssst!" I don't think you'll have to worry about excessive rotor wear.
Tom: As far as we know, however, ceramic pads do not prevent warping. If you misuse or overheat your brakes, rotors will still warp. It's possible that the improved heat-dissipation qualities of the ceramic pads may help prevent warping to some degree, but you're not going to be immune from warped rotors.
Ray: You will be immune from black brake dust and ear-splitting brake squeal, though. So congratulations on a wise purchase, Jared.
(Car Talk is a nationally syndicated column by automotive experts (and brothers) Tom and Ray Magliozzi. Write to them at the Car Talk website.)