Upgrading to High-Performance Brakes

Updated on Apr 18, 2024

Undoubtedly, the automotive aftermarket’s most popular modifications and upgrades evoke excitement. Several of our top sellers on RealTruck® include aesthetic upgrades that bolster looks, suspension mods that improve off-road performance, and underhood enhancements that deepen exhaust notes and shorten 0-60 times. However, such modifications don’t only net positive results. 

Often, unexpected consequences occur—while a modification may improve performance in one department, it may reduce performance in another. Take, for instance, upgrades that increase weight and rotational mass, including heavy, fabricated steel bumpers and oversized wheels and tires. While these upgrades enhance aesthetics and boost performance on the trail, they also decrease the effectiveness of your vehicle’s brakes—arguably its most essential safety system.

Fortunately, you don’t have to settle for your vehicle’s stock stopping power. We offer several brake parts and accessories to restore lost performance and improve it beyond factory limitations. In this guide, we’re covering just how this process works—read on to learn the ins and outs of upgrading your ride’s factory brakes.

Benefits of High-Performance Brakes

So, why upgrade your vehicle’s brakes in the first place? 

As previously mentioned, several modifications can decrease your vehicle’s stopping performance, but why? It’s not like a lift kit or larger tire drastically changes your vehicle. 

Well, that’s not exactly correct. A stock vehicle has been methodically engineered to work within the limitations of all factory-installed components. 

When you modify one of these systems, other systems get thrown out of whack. One of the most common examples of this phenomenon is adding massive, oversized tires and heavy, aftermarket body armor to an otherwise stock vehicle. Factory brakes aren’t suited to handle the added rotational mass or weight, which translates to more kinetic energy. 

In real-world applications, more kinetic energy applied to the same factory brake components reduces stopping power and increases stopping distances. It's like hitching a 10,000-lb. trailer to your truck and expecting it to have the same stopping power as a truck free of cargo. 

High-performance brakes offset these shortcomings, restoring much-needed brake performance to your modified vehicle. Alternatively, they can enhance the brake performance of a stock vehicle, especially while engaging in spirited driving or towing heavy loads. In other words, high-performance brakes essentially offer only upsides.

Dissecting Your Rides Brake System

So, what does it take to upgrade your ride’s brakes? Is it as simple as swapping out brake pads or as complicated as replacing each component? For most, the perfect solution falls somewhere in the middle. In this section, we’re covering brake system components, each component’s role, and any notable variations. 

For the sake of simplicity, we’re only covering disk brakes, which have been standard on at least the front of nearly every vehicle since the 70s.

Brake Calipers

Brake calipers are the clamping force of a brake system. These components bolt to your vehicle’s steering knuckles and cradle the rotors. When you depress the brake pedal, hydraulic pressure actuates external pistons, which force the brake pads into the rotor’s surface. The friction created from this contact slows your vehicle.

When you upgrade your vehicle’s brake calipers, you’re increasing the brake system’s clamping force, which applies more friction and, thus, stops it quicker.

Design: Stock Replacement vs. Upgraded

When upgrading your vehicle’s calipers, you must consider which path is right for you. Typically, you’ll find three different caliper types—floating, sliding, and fixed. While floating and sliding calipers work similarly, with 1-2 pistons on one side of the caliper doing the heavy lifting, fixed calipers are performance-oriented, utilizing 2-4 pistons on each side of the caliper for up to eight total. 

Floating and sliding calipers are found on everyday vehicles, while fixed calipers are reserved for high-end, performance-oriented applications. When upgrading your brake calipers, you’ll have the option of installing new, factory-replacement-style calipers, like the Power Stop OE Replacement Caliper, or upgrading to fixed calipers, like the SSBC-USA Brawler Caliper Kit

While fixed calipers will net better performance gains, they’re also considerably more expensive. Plus, as with factory-style calipers, pads and hardware won’t be available at your local auto parts store.

Brake Rotors

Next, we have brake rotors. Rotors are one of two friction surfaces, along with brake pads. These components attach to your vehicle’s hubs and turn with the wheels. When you apply the brakes, the hydraulic pressure forces the brake pads into the rotors to create friction. As such, rotors must be highly durable and resistant to wear.

Design: Blank vs. Drilled and Slotted

Rotors come in several configurations, though the two most popular are blank and drilled/slotted. Blank rotors, like the EBC Premium OE line, come on most vehicles from the factory. Blank rotors are devoid of markings, millings, or holes—hence the title. Though durable and quiet, blank rotors can produce lots of heat and dust, which isn’t ideal for performance driving.

Alternatively, drilled/slotted rotors, like the Power Stop Drilled and Slotted line, utilize several precision-milled slots and chamfered holes to capture excess brake dust and dissipate heat. They’re also pretty stylish.

Brake Pads

Brake pads are another friction surface of your vehicle’s brake system. When subjected to force by the caliper’s pistons, brake pads press against rotors to generate friction and, thus, stopping power. 

Brake pads come in several compounds, each offering different characteristics, including noise level, dust production, stopping power, wear rate, and more.

Material: Semi-Metallic vs. Organic vs. Ceramic

So, what materials are best? The most common brake pad materials include semi-metallic, organic, and ceramic. 

Semi-metallic brake pads, like the Raybestos Element3 PG line, contain around 30 to 70 percent metal, including copper, iron, steel, and other alloys. Semi-metallic brake pads offer excellent performance due to the metal’s exceptional heat-dissipating qualities. They also provide the preferred brake feel for motorsports—however, there are some downsides. Semi-metallic pads produce more dust, noise, and wear than other compounds. 

Organic brake pads, like the EBC GreenStuff line, are used on most new vehicles. They feature a combination of organic compounds, including rubber, glass, carbon, and fiberglass—all bound by resin. These pads are inexpensive, quiet, and cause less wear to other brake components. However, they also lack performance in high-stress driving conditions. Organic brake pads are typically reserved for passenger cars and commuters. 

Lastly, ceramic brake pads, like the Power Stop Z36 line, fall somewhere between organic and semi-metallic regarding performance. Ceramic brake pads feature a dense, durable construction from ceramic—similar to ceramic pots and dishware. This material produces little dust, little noise, and moderate performance. While not as performance-oriented as semi-metallic pads, they’re an excellent choice for primarily street driving with occasional spirited driving and towing.

Brake Hoses and Lines

Brake hoses transfer brake fluid from your vehicle’s master cylinder to the brake calipers. This hydraulic pressure actuates the calipers’ pistons, which force the brake pads into the rotors. 

Brake hoses are manufactured from various materials, directly impacting brake performance.

Material: Rubber vs. Braided Alloy

Most factory brake hoses feature durable nitrile rubber construction—a synthetic, petroleum-based material offering exceptional chemical resistance and strength. This material is highly durable, though it offers some flex and give. While these qualities may result in a comfortable, gradual brake feel, they can also decrease overall braking performance, as the pressure that should be applied to the brake calipers gets absorbed by swelling brake hoses. 

Alternatively, braided alloy brake hoses, like Superlift Bullet Proof Brake Hoses, feature robust alloy construction. This braided cable is far more rigid than conventional rubber brake hoses, resulting in less swelling and, thus, more performance.

Caliper Covers

Lastly, let’s talk about caliper covers. While you may think these accessories are purely aesthetic, they offer several benefits to a vehicle’s brake system, above drastically enhancing looks. 

Before getting into performance benefits, let’s talk aesthetics. Unless your vehicle sports sleek, performance-oriented fixed brake calipers, the factory components aren't doing it any favors in the looks department. Most sliding and floating calipers feature iron construction, which, while durable, is highly prone to unsightly rust and corrosion. They also feature rough, raw cast finishes and visible hardware, significantly detracting from your vehicle’s wheels. 

Products like MGP Caliper Covers help to cover unsightly factory brakes for a sleek, premium appearance. Their smooth design, glossy powder coat finish, and precision-milled accents perfectly complement factory brakes, giving your ride the illusion of a multi-thousand-dollar fixed brake upgrade. 

Regarding performance, caliper covers also have a few tricks up their sleeve. Caliper covers help to redirect brake dust away from your wheels, keeping them cleaner for longer. Reduced dust also prevents glazing of the rotors, improving performance. Aluminum caliper covers, like MGP products, can also dissipate heat from the braking system, preventing brake fade during spirited driving. 

Caliper covers are a must-have, whether equipped as an additional performance upgrade or a cherry on top of your brake system.

Determining Which Brake Upgrades Are Right for You

So, what’s the ideal brake upgrade for your vehicle? Should you invest thousands in a comprehensive fixed caliper kit or perform a budget-minded pad and rotor upgrade? To aid in your decision, let’s cover our top considerations when choosing brake upgrades.

What Style of Driving Do You Do?

Firstly, and most importantly, what style of driving do you do? If spirited driving is the name of the game, or you’re rolling on 40-in. tall tires, consider performing a comprehensive brake upgrade with aftermarket fixed calipers. 

Alternatively, if you pilot a lightly modified daily driver, we’d recommend a more conservative option, like the Power Stop Z36 Truck and Tow Brake Kit. With powder-coated factory-style calipers, drilled/slotted rotors, and premium Z36 carbon-ceramic brake pads, the Power Stop Z36 kit offers exceptional performance and solid looks at a budget-minded price point.

What Are Your Current/Planned Modifications?

So, what mods have you done? We recommend basing brake upgrades on your current or planned modifications. For instance, if your only planned mods include a leveling kit and 33-in. tires, we’d opt for a simple drop-in pad upgrade to restore performance. 

However, if your ride runs a 6-inch lift and 37-in. tires, we'd opt for a more comprehensive upgrade. At RealTruck, we subscribe to the “buy once, cry once” adage. If you suspect you’ll invest in raucous performance mods or massive, oversized tires in the future, jump right into a brake setup that’ll complement your planned modifications. You won’t ever regret the added performance and safety.

What’s Your Budget?

Of course, you’ll also need to consider your budget. Performance-oriented brake upgrades range dramatically in price, with simple drop-in brake pads costing as little as 50 dollars or comprehensive fixed caliper kits costing multiple thousands. 

Brakes and other safety systems aren’t something we recommend cutting corners on, so even if you can’t afford upgrades now, start saving for the setup that best suits your build. And if possible, refrain from installing other upgrades, like performance adders, lifts, and oversized tires, until you have the braking performance to match.

High-Performance Brake FAQs

Q: Which brake pad material best suits regular towing? 

A: Towing puts considerable strain on your vehicle’s braking system, resulting in excessive heat production. As such, we’d recommend a brake pad that effectively dissipates heat, like a semi-metallic. For light or infrequent towing, we’d recommend ceramic brake pads, offering moderate performance yet mild brake wear. 

Q: How do I know when my brake pads need replacing?

A: Most brake pads feature integrated wear indicators—essentially small pieces of metal that make contact with the rotors once the brake pad reaches a certain level of wear. When your brakes begin squealing, that’s your sign to replace the pads. 

Q: How do I know when my brake rotors need replacing? 

A: Brake rotors, like pads, are wear components. Each new set of pads should only be bed against a fresh rotor surface, whether new rotors or recently turned (refinished) rotors. We recommend having your rotors refinished before installing new pads. During this time, the shop can also determine if there’s enough rotor material to turn or if the rotors are warped. If rotors are either too thin or warped, it’s time for a replacement.

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