When it comes to aftermarket brake pads, the options for your vehicle are endless. Your local mechanic or brake shop will push their brand, auto parts stores will tell you about their brand, and popular aftermarket manufacturers have their own products. After that, you have OEM pads.
Brake Pads 101
Before we get into it, let’s cover some basics.
First, there are three main types of brake pads:
- Ceramic pads, which offer a good balance between noise, durability, and performance. Unfortunately, the good all-around performance of ceramic pads makes for a higher price.
- Organic pads, which come in too many configurations to list. In some applications, organic pads are the best or only choice. However, organic pads can be made very cheaply, which makes organic pads the favorite of low-cost (and low quality) brake pad manufacturers.
- Semi-metallic pads, which contain a fairly high amount of metal. The higher metallic content makes these pads effective for heavy-duty applications, racing, etc., but these types of pads usually aren't good for daily use on passenger vehicles.
Second, all brake systems are designed with a specific type of pad in mind. Most modern OEM brake systems, for example, are designed and tuned for ceramic pads. Top-tier performance brake systems are often designed to use semi-metallic pads. Etc.
Third, there are two ways to manufacture brake pads:
- A positive molding process where the brake pad compound is placed in a mold and then heated up. The brake compound is then pressured into a perfect mold and the shim is bonded to the back of the pad. This process minimizes noise by eliminating pad movement.
- A simpler method where pad material is cut from a slab and glued to a blank. By skipping the pressure molding and shim bonding process, costs are substantially lower. But the brakes are noisier and don't last nearly as long.
Finally, brake pad formulations vary considerably from one manufacturer to the next. An OEM ceramic brake pad will often have a completely different composition than a ceramic aftermarket replacement. Brake pad formulations are trade secrets, and many companies have their own special blend.
Brake Pads Are Not All The Same
Manufacturing a brake pad isn't as simple as slapping some mystery material on a steel backing plate. Brake pads are complex pieces of engineering. A good brake pad has the following responsibilities:
- Stop your vehicle, no matter how fast you're going, how much you're hauling, and no matter the weather
- Operate quietly, because no one likes noisy brake pads
- Last tens of thousands of miles, despite heavy daily use
- Operate without creating a lot of dust that makes your wheels look dirty
- And, most importantly, work with your existing system. Installing the wrong size brake pad is like trying to finagle a AAA battery where there should be a AA—it doesn’t fit, and you won’t get the performance or longevity you need.
Because brake pads have such a tough job to do, it's a mistake to buy cheap brake pads. Cheap pads inevitably make a compromise on one of the above responsibilities. The reason? There's a lot of engineering and testing that goes into a good brake pad. Engineering and testing isn't cheap.
What's more, every brake pad needs to be individually designed for each application. Different brake pads are needed for the minivan dropping kids off at school and the 4x4 Jeep hitting the trails every weekend. Brake pad manufacturers (at least the good ones) spend lots of time and money making sure their brake pads will work as promised. That makes the price of the pads a little higher.
Contrary To Popular Belief, OEM Brake Pads Aren't Expensive
If you compare the prices between OEM pads and generic after-market pads, the OEM pads are almost always more expensive. However, if you compare an OEM pad to a quality after-market brand, OEM pads are priced nearly the same. It's only the so-called "economy" pads that are much less expensive.
NOTE: We're talking about OEM brake pads you can buy online. Online pricing for OEM parts is much, MUCH better than over-the-counter pricing for OEM parts at your local dealership.
But the cost of a pad shouldn't be measured only in the up-front price. Consider two sets of brake pads, one OEM set that lasts 40k miles and one cheap "economy" set that lasts 20k miles. The cheap set is going to need to be replaced twice as often. Considering that labor costs for brake pad replacement range between $100-$200, a cheap set of brake pads is often considerably more expensive than an OEM set.
Finally, let's not forget that brake pads are often the only thing between your car and a collision. If your cheap aftermarket brake pads extend your braking distance an extra few feet, you might be looking at an insurance deductible and a rate increase.
OEM Brake Pads Perform Best (Most of the Time)
Brake pad performance is important to consider too. Here's how most people evaluate brake pad performance:
- Stopping distance
- Noise levels
- Dust levels
OEM pads are designed to stop your car as well as possible, assuming normal day-to-day driving. The reason? Automakers don't want to get sued. A sub-standard brake pad doesn't save an automaker enough money to justify the liability they might face in court. A couple of multi-million dollar lawsuit settlements are all it takes to justify the cost of using a premium brake pad in every vehicle.
OEM pads are also designed to last without making noise. This is because a noisy brake system is a problem for automakers who have to pay their dealers to inspect vehicles under warranty. Just like using a premium quality pad reduces liability, premium quality pads also save automakers money on needless warranty claims.
Last but not least, we have durability/longevity and dust levels. OEM pads perform well in these areas, mostly because they're premium quality pads. By definition, premium quality pads last a long time and don't make a lot of dust.
Summing up, OEM pads:
- Are usually the best pad you can buy, because automakers are trying to limit their liability
- Are quiet, because automakers don't want to have to pay for noisy brakes to get fixed under warranty
- Don't make a lot of dust and last a long time because the quality is so high
When Does it Make Sense to Buy Aftermarket Brake Pads?
Like all things, there are exceptions where the after-market brake pad option is best. For example, performance aftermarket pads work best when they're hot, and you probably won't reach those temperatures driving around your neighborhood. That makes them ideal for racing, hauling big loads, or when you've completely replaced the original factory setup with an after-market system.
NOTE: If might be tempting to buy performance pads for your commuter car, but doing so will actually cause a decrease in performance and might end in a fender bender. That's because performance pads usually need to "warm up" before they function correctly. For that reason, performance pads really only should be used in performance applications.
The Bottom Line
When it's all said and done, don't go with the cheap option with your brakes. Your safety is too important (not to mention the fact that cheap pads don't last very long, make noise, etc.).
For most people, OEM brake pads are the best value available. Provided you buy your OEM brake pads online, you'll find that prices are nearly the same for OEM pads as they are for a name-brand aftermarket part. While that's not as cheap as "economy" brake pads, OEM pads offer a lot of advantages.
Finally, don't take our word for which brake pads are best: Your vehicle owner's manual clearly recommends OEM replacement pads, because OEM pads are designed to work with your specific vehicle. Unless you're racing, OEM brake pads ares the smartest, safest choice.