Here’s just how badly cheap brake pads perform

The braking system needs to be the most reliable system on your car. No ifs, and, or buts. That means keeping the system in tip-top shape and replacing parts as they wear out. Like many other systems, those repair parts come in various price ranges. There’s no question that maintenance is essential, but are the expensive parts are truly worth it? Engineering Explained recently showed us how brake pads are tested and how the affordable sorts stack up against the more pricey varieties.

This video is about testing the various “grades” of brake pads available at your local parts counter; if you’re curious about the brake pad construction process, we covered a similar video from ChrisFix earlier this year that will walk you through it.

Testing the finished pads involves some dull processes and other exciting, high-temp, standardized tests. While watching a brake rotor get red-hot is fascinating, it is the data collected by that machinery that host Jason Fenske spends his time talking about. With five versions of brake pads from the front disc brakes of one model car for comparison, the data can tell us a lot.

The tests reveal that the lower-priced options lack a couple key features that really make for a durable product. First, the friction material is held with adhesive but with no mechanical connection. In addition, the backing plates are not galvanized, merely painted. Those in states where the roads get salted like a margarita glass know that lack of protection leads to rapid rust buildup. Fenske found that, after a few heat cycles, the rust was able to work in behind the friction material in these cheaper options, which could potentially cause chunks of the pad to break away—leaving you with limited or no brakes. Yikes.

It is hard for us to not hammer home the point that brakes are not something to cheap out on; but, after watching these tests and Fenske’s take on the various products, we can see that those budget-minded brake pads can serve valiantly in the right application. For example, if I had a lightweight car in Arizona, I’d buy nothing but the cheap stuff, since the rust protection is not a concern. In northern Michigan? That’s a different story—the additional protection of the galvanized backing plate can really make a difference.

We won’t declare top-shelf pads the best and only option; however, after seeing the data, it is hard not to cough up the dollars for the mid-grade parts, which appeared to give a good margin of increased benefit through all the tests without breaking the bank.

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