How and When Should I Replace My Brake Rotors?

Is your front end wobbling when you brake?

brake pad installation on a new rotor
Mike Bumbeck

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Brake rotors are one of the most integral parts of a modern vehicle. Without them, you’re hitting a tree, a mail carrier, or Timmy’s dog Spot. Too often do we overlook brake rotor wear, only to the detriment of others’ safety, our safety, and our bank accounts. Not today, Satan.

Plenty of people will happily forgo the maintenance of their brake rotors, or as the author recently found on his used Volvo XC90, they’ll slap on temporary “fixes” that do little in terms of actually fixing the rotors *shakes fist*. 

Don’t be one of those people.  Rotors, have shelf lives and can become warped in their daily use, so you will need to fix them at some point. 

To demystify the braking system, untangle replacement costs, and explain how long your brake rotors last, The Drive’s bloody-knuckled editors put together this brief guide. Enjoy. 

That, that is a brake rotor.
Depositphotos

That, that is a brake rotor. 

What Is a Brake Rotor?

A brake rotor is a steel or carbon-ceramic disc connected to your car’s axle. These rotors turn in conjunction with the wheels as the car moves. 

What Is a Brake Pad?

A brake pad is a small piece of friction material that slots into a brake caliper and, when braking pressure is applied, clamps down onto the brake rotor. 

How Do Brake Rotors Work?

How brake rotors work is pretty simple, let’s break it down. As you now know, the brake rotors turn in conjunction with the car’s wheels as they move. When braking pressure is applied to the brake pedal, the pressure mechanically or electronically forces the brake pads to clamp down onto the brake rotor. This friction then reduces the speed of the vehicle.

How Long Do Brake Rotors Last?

Conventional steel brake rotors are designed to last up to 70,000 miles, but depending on how you treat them, they could last for fewer or greater miles. Rotors made of carbon-ceramic are designed to last the entire lifetime of a car, although the driver can impact their long-lasting designs, too. 

A Porsche's slotted, cross-drilled rotor is exposed.
Depositphotos

A Porsche's slotted, cross-drilled rotor is exposed. 

Types of Brake Rotors

You should now be aware that not all rotors are the same. What’s fitted to your mom’s Honda Odyssey isn’t the same as what’s fitted to a Porsche Cayman GT4 or Ferrari’s F8 Tributo. 

Steel (Slotted, Cross-Drilled, Vented)

Most brake rotors are steel in construction, however, their forms may differ slightly depending on the application. Daily drivers often see all-steel construction to save on price, whereas sports cars and racecars may cross-drill, vent, and slot the rotor structure to increase cooling efficiency and reduce unsprung weight. This means the manufacturer cuts holes, slots, or other designs into the rotor. 

Carbon-Ceramic

Carbon-ceramic brake rotors were introduced after supercar manufacturers brought in their respective racing technology to street applications. This was partially due to the allure of having racecar technology, but mostly because increasingly speedy supercars needed the cooling efficiency and long-lasting lifespan of carbon-ceramic rotors.

What Can Cause a Brake Rotor to Go Bad? (Optional)

Rotor wear can be caused by a few variables, most notably usage. How you treat your braking system will affect your rotor’s life to great effect. Hard stops, resting your left foot on the brake pedal, extreme stops when the brake rotors are still cold, along with environmental factors such as road salt, can all impact your brake rotor’s health.

Just as you take care of the rest of your car, so too should you take care of your brake rotors. 

A big'ole brake rotor hiding behind a wheel.
Depositphotos

A big'ole brake rotor hiding behind a wheel. 

How to Replace Your Brake Rotors 

Here at The Drive, we’ve replaced brake rotors on just about every type of vehicle, excluding your fancy-schmancy supercars. We’re not er, affluent enough to try our hands there. That said, the basics of brake rotor replacement are the same whether you're swapping those out of a Ford Focus to a Bugatti Chiron. 

To give you a leg up, head on over to The Drive’s explainer of Why Does Your Car Shake When Braking to find our guide on how to replace your brake rotors. 

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FAQs

You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!

Q. How Much Do Brake Rotors Cost?

A. That’s a tough question to answer. As detailed above, brake rotors come in all shapes, sizes, materials, and compositions. And vary greatly depending on your vehicle. A more pedestrian car’s brake rotors can cost a couple hundred dollars to replace all four, while a Volvo XC90 may cost a thousand or more, and a supercar with carbon-ceramics can cost up to $10,000. 

Q. Can I Just Drive On Bad Rotors?

A. No, it’s just not safe. Just replace them. 

Q. Do You Need to Replace Brake Rotors Every Time You Replace Your Brake Pads?

A. Your brake pads will fade faster than your brake rotors, so no, you won’t have to replace them every time you replace your pads. When you replace your rotors, however, you should also replace your brake pads. Do a rotor inspection every time you replace your pads or rotate your tires.

Q. So, Can I Just Replace My Brake Pads, or Do I Have to Replace the Rotors Too?

A. The only time you’ll need to replace your brake pads and rotors is when the pads are worn and your rotors are warped, though that doesn’t happen often. Rotors are engineered to last about 50,000-80,000 miles for standard steel. Carbon-ceramic discs will last longer.

Q. Ok, Then What Happens If You Put New Brake Pads on Bad Rotors?

A. Were your brake pads bad?

Q. No.

A. Then there’s your answer. You aren’t going to solve your rotor issue by putting on new brake pads.