My Stock Brakes are Fine. ...But Is Fine Really Good Enough?

Annie at Hawk Performance

09/30/2020

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Let's be clear: Every vehicle that rolls new off the lot and every set of brake pads and rotors new out of the box provide standard, adequate stopping power. The important question every truck, Jeep, and SUV owner needs to ask themselves is if “adequate” is really good enough. Unless it’s strictly smooth sailing on quiet streets that never pose stop-and-go surprises, avoid hilly terrain, and there’s absolutely nothing in that truck bed, the answer is most likely no.

The ultimate goal of any brake system modification should be to safely, quickly, and consistently slow or stop a vehicle in a predictable, reliable, controlled manner. The first step in knowing if that modification is the right choice is evaluating and recognizing a need for greater stopping power.

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Outside Influences on Brake Systems

Extra weight. Power modifications. Heavy braking. Body work. Strenuous driving conditions. Each of these adds stress or weight to a vehicle, whether it’s hauling two tons of rock, or loading up the family and enough luggage for a two-week vacation, or road tripping through the Rockies. With today’s lightweight cars and trucks, any extra bulk can affect the way a vehicle handles and, more importantly, the brakes’ ability to perform well when they’re needed most.

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Not equipped with aggressive “beer truck brakes” like their commercial fleet counterparts, consumer trucks, vans, SUVs, and Jeeps are notorious for inadequate stopping power from the factory. There’s a reason every Driver Education class emphasizes increased following distances relative to vehicle size; new or old, regardless of make or model, they all seem to need extra stopping room as their weight grows.

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When To Consider High Performance Brake System Upgrades

The short answer to the question of when to upgrade to a high performance brake system components is “immediately.” The long answer includes, but is not limited to, those instances when the below considerations come into play:

Vehicle Type

  • Light, medium, and heavy duty trucks
  • SUVs, CUVs, minivans
  • Jeeps
  • Vans and other similar vehicles

Vehicle Modifications

  • Engine enhancements that result in more horsepower
  • Wheel system upgrades, including larger tires and lift kits
  • Miscellaneous body upgrades and add-ons (light bars, extra fuel tanks, etc.)
  • Replacements of existing parts (upgraded bumpers, lift gates, etc.)

New or Increased Towing and Hauling

  • Maximizing payloads
  • Towing trailers, campers, vehicle haulers

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Driving Conditions

  • Off-road, with or without vehicle modifications, including traversing mud and muck and rock climbing
  • Utility, farm, and ranch use
  • Regular and repeated incline or mountain driving
  • Slow and go erratic braking during long commutes
  • Punishing road conditions
  • Extreme weather with high heat or frigid cold

Improved Safety and Stopping Power Needed

  • Shorter stopping distances
  • Consistent performance, hot or cold
  • Increased brake pedal reaction
  • Reduced brake fade and more responsive brake pedal feel

Increased Brake System Life

  • Decreased brake pad and rotor wear
  • Up to 50% fewer trips to the mechanic

Racing

  • NOTE: Racing in all forms absolutely necessitates the additional safety of high performance brakes, and many options are available to meet the needs of the vehicle, track, and environment.

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How Do Towing and Hauling Affect Brakes?

A body in motion stays in motion. A heavy body stays in motion longer. Two heavy bodies stay in motion even longer, making stopping a very real hazard. A good rule of thumb is when increasing overall vehicle weight by even 10 pounds,know stopping efficiency can decrease by up to 1%. Fully loaded truck beds or the addition of trailers, campers, racecar haulers, and boats can result in exponentially larger decreases in braking performance.

Stock truck beds may be constructed to handle payload capacity, but that doesn’t mean stock brakes will provide the power needed to stop that full load. Heavy freight and towing at high speeds logically demand more stopping power than light loads at slow speeds, but the two scenarios can require just as much power if road, weather, and incline conditions are severe.

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Likewise, an engine tuned to give that extra torque for trailering dictates brake upgrades, and the installation of a larger hitch should be a sign that pads and rotors should get just as much attention. Towing a 30-foot ski boat adds more duress to the equation than hauling a jet ski, so the brake system should match the toy upgrades!

Critical evaluation is key when choosing a more aggressive pad and rotor combination, as these counteract the cumulative effects of modifications, towing, and hauling to most effectively restore optimal brake performance. If the coefficient of friction is too low, braking performance suffers, and brake fade in critical situations can occur. Conversely, if it is too high, the individual system components can inadvertently interfere with the ABS system, resulting in increased stopping distances. Best practices dictate that, regardless of what a vehicle requires for optimal stopping and handling, replacing the pads, rotors, and fluid at the same time is critical to avoiding underperformance or uneven wear and tear.

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Why Does Everyone Talk So Much About Weight and Heat?

Additional weight and excessive heat go hand in hand as the two enemies of stopping effectiveness. Vehicles like trucks and Jeeps are heavy to start with, and their standard braking systems are designed to handle that, but not much more. Mass in motion generates kinetic energy, and friction converts that energy into heat. Any added weight from modifications or towing and hauling demands increase a vehicle’s kinetic energy, requiring increased braking force to slow the vehicle. If not properly dissipated from the entire wheel and brake system, the heat generated from the intensified friction of the components rubbing together reduces the efficacy and efficiency of the entire system.

Modifications to any of a vehicle’s systems that result in added power or mass add stress to, and reduce the effectiveness of, the braking system, as well as accelerate wear. In addition to engine, exhaust, and suspension upgrades, changing out stock tires to upsized, more aggressive or beefier wheels is a common modification which adds rotational mass to the vehicle. Size really does matter, and increases in wheel diameters can result in almost point for point decreases in stopping power. Wheels that are 10% larger could potentially equal a 10% decline in braking performance, as the system struggles to bring that modified mass to a halt.

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Why OE Might Not Be the Right Solution for You

Standard OE-quality brake materials and components do not offer enough stopping power to handle heavy loads and towing, or strenuous conditions. Make no mistake, OEM brakes are put through rigorous safety testing before auto manufacturers are allowed to install them on vehicles, and they are engineered to perform on standard vehicles in routine driving conditions. But they are also engineered to ensure components meet those same manufacturers’ strict cost-savings. These brake system will stop when required and often meet the needs of the average driver, but will not be up to the challenge when adding power, weight, or wheel size because they are, quite simply, not designed for the extra stress.

Not all friction materials are created equally either. The ideal brake system provides equal parts stopping power and dependability, and high performance aftermarket replacement pads, rotors, and fluid offer the option of addressing concerns before they arise. These components are specifically engineered to handle anything, confidently arming driver and vehicle, regardless of circumstances. Cheaper options open the potential for brake fade or poor pedal feel in driving situations where external forces like weather, slope, and the unexpected behaviors of other drivers require heavy, sudden, or constant braking.

The material, components, and composite ingredients of brake system parts and their manufacturing practices have incredible influence on performance. Those materials and the engineering of those components determine a parts ability to absorb and dissipate heat and resist fade.

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You Get What You Pay For

Personal vehicle and driving style will dictate the level of friction that’s best suited and, contrary to popular belief, it’s not necessary to break the bank when putting together a system upgrade. Full big brake kits can be enticing and exciting to rush into, but these are likely not the best solutions. A simple pad/rotor/fluid change is more often than not as effective as rebuilding the entire brake system from tip to toe.

Regardless of where it falls on the price spectrum, the best solution is one that provides the highest quality products for optimal stopping power. That being said, replacement part cost can often be an accurate and reliable indicator of quality.

When it comes to brake pads and rotors, low cost options may solve all immediate needs but, over time, they simply don’t match the lasting reliability and durability that higher performance parts bring to the table. Lower quality pads, constructed from coarser, larger particles are less able to withstand the flux of temperatures generated during braking. Added stress often leads OEM-level parts to overheat, resulting in excessive cracking or broken pads or rotors.

Budget rotors, designed and built from lower quality metals, are unable to effectively dispel heat and debris out and away from the active friction surfaces, leaving them prone to excessive or extreme cracking. These rotors also lack the applied coatings of their high performance peers, leading to excessive rust and flaking.

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It All Works Together

Better understanding the demands of a specific driving style and habits, getting to know a vehicle and how it handles in different scenarios, and respecting the demands of its given uses improves overall safety. Modifications significantly alter all of those known variables. When coupled with uncontrolled forces like more cars traveling at higher speeds than at any other time and the unforeseen behaviors of all those other drivers, it is more important than ever to employ every possible safety precaution.

Upgrading to better brake components ensures control is available when needed, increasing the margin of safety and decreasing the margin of error. High performance aftermarket pads, rotors, and fluid provides improved friction characteristics and constant heat capacity, giving drivers reliable and consistent stopping performance, improving functionality and safety over the lifetime of every vehicle.

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The Pros and Cons of High Performance Brake Upgrades

Pros

  • Increased stopping power, regardless of vehicle age or condition
  • Improved vehicle safety in all conditions
  • More reliable performance in all situations and contexts
  • High performance brake components are manufactured from materials engineered to withstand increased temperatures
  • These special formulations don’t compress, harden, or degrade from extended wear and use over time
  • Effective from first use to the last
  • Greater pedal sensitivity and improved modulation
  • Upgraded construction materials often equal appearance upgrades, too

Cons

  • Higher performance aftermarket parts have higher price tags than their standard OE counterparts
  • Performance brake pads and rotors often include reengineered designs that address weaknesses of OE, and can be heavier