ceramic vs semi metallic brake pads

Ceramic Vs Semi-metallic Brake Pads (What’s the difference?)

When it's time for me to change the brake pads on one of my cars, I always spend way too much time looking at all of the available options. 

Do I go with original factory spec? Or do I upgrade to a better performance pad? The options are endless.

The most obvious option is whether to choose ceramic or semi-metallic brake pads

The difference between ceramic and semi-metallic brake pads is in the braking material used. Ceramic pads use a ceramic compound whereas semi-metallic brake pads use metals such as copper, iron and steel mixed with graphite.

Up until recently, most road cars are shipped from the factory with semi-metallic brake pads. This is because they offer the best blend of performance, longevity and affordability.

However, ceramic brake pads are growing in popularity due to their hard wearing longevity, and the fact that they are now as affordable as standard brake pads.

In this article I'll show you the different types of brake pads available and the pros and cons of using ceramic vs metallic brake pads. 

What is the difference between ceramic and semi-metallic brake pads?

When it comes to choosing the best brake pads for your vehicle, there are literally thousands of options on the market. Apart from choosing a brand, you can also choose between different brake pad materials. 

Most of the time, I recommend staying with OEM or manufacturer approved after market brake pads. Vehicle makers spend millions or dollars developing their cars and their brake systems. They know what works best and what brake pads are best suited to work with the rest of the brake components.

However, there are a growing number of vehicles being shipped with ceramic brake pads as standard. There is also a growing aftermarket range of ceramic pads available for consumers to choose from.

If you are thinking of changing over to ceramic pads then it's worth noting the differences between ceramic pads and semi-metallic (standard) pads.

Semi-Metallic Brake Pads

  1. 1
    Braking surface made from a metal/graphite alloy
  2. 2
    Semi hard wearing
  3. 3
    Well matched to OEM braking components such as rotors and calipers
  4. 4
    Excellent heat conductors
  5. 5
    Can produce a lot of brake dust
  6. 6
    Are noisy and can squeal if not fitted correctly
  7. 7
    Excellent braking performance in a wide range of weather/driving conditions
  8. 8
    Suitable for high performance racing usage

Ceramic Brake Pads

  1. 1
    Braking surface made from a clay /porcelain/copper compound 
  2. 2
    Very hard wearing
  3. 3
    They can cause accelerated wearing of standard brake rotors 
  4. 4
    Poor heat conductors
  5. 5
    Produce less brake dust
  6. 6
    Quiet
  7. 7
    Good braking performance in normal driving conditions
  8. 8
    Not as well suited to racing or high performance braking

What are Ceramic brake pads?

These are not your typical brake pads that you will find factory fitted on most cars. First developed around 30 years ago, they are a very hard wearing, clean and quiet alternative to organic and metallic brake pads.

What are Ceramic brake pads made from?

Their surface brake material is made from a clay and porcelain compound with copper flakes added to enhance the thermal conductivity. Most cars won't have them fitted as standard, and because of their unique properties they may not be suitable for all braking systems.

Ceramic brake pads are very hard wearing, and should last much longer than standard brake pads. They are also very quiet and produce a finer, lighter dust as they wear. On the downside, they chemical nature of the ceramic compound is not as good a conductor of heat as metallic pads.

 ceramic brake pads

Typical ceramic brake pads. They look very similar to standard pads.

So, whilst they produce less brake dust, they also take longer to heat up and they tend to push heat back against the rotors and brake calipers. This makes them less suitable for extreme braking conditions such as track cars. It will also cause the premature wear of other brake components such as rotors, and nearby suspension bushings.

Ceramic Brake Pad Cost

In the past, ceramic brake pads were generally more expensive than their semi-metallic alternatives. This is not the case any longer. As an example, a standard set of genuine Toyota front brake pads for a Toyota Camry will cost you around $65 (check them out here on Amazon). Whereas a set of Bosch QuietCast Premium Ceramic Brake Pads cost around half that at $35 (available on Amazon here).

Pros and Cons of Ceramic Brake Pads

Pros

  1. 1
    Hard wearing and last longer than standard brake pads
  2. 2
    Produce less brake dust than other types of brake pads
  3. 3
    Very quiet in operation due to their hardness 

Cons

  1. 1
    Can cause premature wear of other brake components
  2. 2
    Are not as good thermal conductors as other brake pads and they can take a while to warm up
  3. 3
    Not suitable for all brake systems
  4. 4
    They don't work as well in all driving conditions, especially in very cold weather

What Are Semi-Metallic Brake Pads?

These brake pads are the standard factory fitted brake pads you will find on most cars when new. They are not the perfect option when it comes to brake pads, but they are the most popular.

Semi-metallic pads are usually made from a metal/ graphite alloy. They usually are composed of 40-60% metal, such as copper and iron. The rest is a graphite compound that helps to bind the brake pad together and enhances the thermal conductivity and performance of the pad.

semi-metallic brake pads

Worn semi-metallic brake pads with a softer brake pad surface

Depending on the pad, the composition and percentage of metal can vary. Racing and track pads generally have more metal to help them to last longer and dissipate heat from the rotors (There are also fully metallic pads that are only suitable for racing vehicles).

Overall, this type of brake pad offers the best performance for daily drivers as they produce a fair amount of brake 'bite' from cold, and are great at channeling heat away from the rotors when necessary.

On the downside, they can produce a lot of brake dust, depending on the chosen brand and quality of the pad. They can also be noisy if they wear unevenly or over time if they get clogged up with brake dust.

Pros And Cons Of Semi-Metallic Brake Pads

Pros

  1. 1
    Are widely available for all vehicle types
  2. 2
    Offer better all round braking performance from cold
  3. 3
    Available in a range of hardness for daily use to racing standard
  4. 4
    They are good conductors of heat and won't put excessive wear on rotors

Cons

  1. 1
    Can be loud and can squeal as they wear out or get clogged with dust
  2. 2
    Generate more dust than other pad types
  3. 3
    Don't last as long as fully metallic or ceramic brake pads.
  4. 4
    They are not always the cheapest available type of brake pad

What type of brake pad Is Best (Ceramic or Semi-Metallic)?

In my opinion, semi-metallic brake pads are still the best option for most daily drivers. That's not to say ceramic pads are not a good option. When it comes to the brakes on a standard car I prefer to stick with OEM specification.

This is because standard brake pads offer the best all round braking performance in all climates and in most driving conditions. They may not last as long as ceramic pads, but they will give a slightly better braking experience from cold. 

It's also worth noting that most cars are still designed to use standard brake pads. You need to take into account the other brake components such as rotors, heat shields, calipers and brake lines when choosing a brake pad.

If you do decide to change over to ceramic pads here are a few recommendations:

1. Always fit new rotors when fitting ceramic brake pads.

If your car has older rotors they may not be perfectly smooth and will probably have a slight lip around the edge where they have started to wear. New standard pads will 'bed in' and take the shape of any slight imperfections on the rotor, ceramic pads won't. This can lead to noisy brakes and a decrease in brake performance.

2. Only fit OEM or good quality ceramic brake pads

If you are going to move away from OEM semi-metallic brake pads, be sure to fit pads that meet all the safety specifications that standard pads meet. Check to see if there are OEM ceramic pads available for your vehicle, your local dealer should be able to help you out. If not, choose a known brand such as Bosch, ATE or Brembo.