Brakes typically work fine…until they don’t. That is, your brakes’ performance is typically described based upon routine driving situations which includes minimal drama. Unfortunately, it’s in situations with dynamic and/or persistent loads that brakes actually show what they’re made of. With built 4x4s the demands on OEM brake systems can easily overload their capacity, whether due to increased vehicle mass, rotational advantage (i.e., larger tire diameters) or added payload, such as a trailer or floor-to-ceiling cargo.
(Lead Photo by Andrew McAllister Imaging)
Not surprisingly, many otherwise exceptional stock 4x4s were never designed for high speed, bumper-to-bumper highway braking, let alone the changes in physics when GVW climbs. Despite its 4-wheel disc brakes, many of Toyota’s best pickups and SUVs, including the 80 Series, fall squarely in this group. These models offer overlanding platforms, typically with box-on-frame construction and axles capable of schlepping big piles of gear and multiple passengers while leaving pavement in the rear view mirror. As a result, owners assume the OEM brakes are ready when facing a panic stop in rush hour traffic.
As our project Land Cruiser’s mass has climbed higher, and its tire diameters has done likewise, we’ve sought solutions to improve braking in the big 80 Series. Stateside manufacturers aren’t much help, so who is surprised that from Australia came the most dedicated off-road brakes for the Toyota badge?
DBA Brakes – Disk Brakes Australia – has been providing “stoppers” for Toyota and other 4x4s for nearly half a century. Unlike many popular brands, their roots lie in both street performance (think Holden and Subaru) and Outback treks (think Nissan Patrols on the Canning Stock Route). Having won more AAAA Gold Manufacturer Awards for its brakes than any Down Under company, DBA supplies stoppers for top competitors worldwide. While Travis Pastrana uses the throttle more than brakes, since 2017 his WRX STI for Subaru Rally Team USA has been equipped with DBA rotors.
To meet the particularities of off-road wheeling, DBA brakes created the “4×4 Survival Series” rotors. Designed for what we do to brakes on heavy laden off-road rigs, the 4×4 Survival Series is offered in two abuse…er, I mean performance levels. The T2 is DBA’s standard off-road model, while the T3 is for towing and other high demand applications.
Table of contents
Performance rotors have attracted attention for decades as 4×4 enthusiasts have tried to capitalize on road racing technology. Drilled, vented and slotted rotors are thus nothing new, and can be confusing to differentiate hype from useful designs. DBA uses a symmetrical slotted design, featuring 48 CNC-cut channels for relieving the rotor/pad interface of debris and gasses.
Like all vented rotors, DBA’s design includes structural columns to balance cooling with resistance to warpage. The company’s “Kangaroo Paw” design differs from the simple circular pillars used in most rotors. DBA claims its use of 144 diamond/tear-drop (paw-shaped?) columns optimize air flow while offering greater strength.
Similarly, the metallurgy that DBA rotors are based on is a formulation of high carbon cast iron, paired with the company’s (somewhat more complex) Thermal Stability Profiling. The latter is DBA’s method for resolving casting risks with iron, which can result in stresses as part of the manufacturing. Casting and braking are both, inherently, linked to heating and cooling, and so DBA’s strategies target resistance to warping (heat-induced loss of structural integrity) and wear (heat-propagated surface erosion).
DBA includes one other heat-related feature. T3 rotors are equipped with thermal-sensing indicator paint strips. Marketed as “Thermo-graphic Temperature Monitoring,” the paint strips change color – temporarily or permanently – based upon how close the rotor’s surface gets to cherry red. Because most of us don’t study our rotors on a regular basis (and may be prevented from doing so due to rim designs), this safety feature is more than fluff. It allows a safety check following a period of heavy braking, where concern for overheating (i.e., from smell, fading, smoke, or observed rotor color changes) has arisen.
When Pigs Fly...but Won’t Stop
What kind of challenge do brakes on your Toyota face? The key specifics of our 80 Series began with several changes that affect braking: a 6” Slee suspension lift, 35×12.50r17 tires, factory ABS, and a curb weight just north 3 tons dry. Included with the lift were Slee’s braided stainless steel hoses at all four corners. Later in testing the tires were again upsized, and have since been 37×12.50r17’s.
Even from the factory the tale of the tape is that braking improvements were needed. MotorTrend testers needed 146’ to bring a 1990 stock 80 Series to a standstill from 60mph. For comparison, more recent Cruisers have stock testing figures from 135’ to as low as 125’. FJ Cruisers and recent Tacoma’s fall into that same range.
But with off-road upgrades our big Toyota’s need for improved braking grew. Unfortunately, when optimal braking occurs is as important as absolute stopping power. With OEM brakes the improvement gains don’t begin until after the pads/rotors are heated up. Designed for durability, the Toyota brakes resist wear and fade, and hence need a few applications of the pedal to reach optimal operating temperatures.
My #1 beef with the Toyota brake system, in fact, was its sedate response to hard applications of the brakes when rotors and pads were in a cool state. What should have been routine stops would begin to raise my blood pressure as the big Cruiser took its sweet time to decelerate. The Cruiser’s setup already used Slee stainless steel brake lines and a quality DOT3 brake fluid. And yet, the truck’s stopping ability with 35” tires and armor had never been what anyone would call confidence-inspiring.
To gauge the effects of the DBA T3 rotors and EBC Greenstuff pads* (Supreme 7000 fronts; 6000 rears), repeated full panic stops were done. Baseline comparison data were compiled through a series of identical pre- and post-installation braking tests. That testing revealed a good deal about these different vehicle braking systems. And that is what they are: systems. The baseline for performance was OEM rotors and pads, which were also pushed by DOT3 fluid in Slee braided stainless lines with the OEM master cylinder (not the finest component Toyota has ever created).
[Note: At the time of this installation, DBA had not begun importing their own performance pads to N. America for our application. Since then, Land Cruiser and other Toyota applications have become available.]
The OEM rotor and pad setup was first run through a series of back-to-back 60-0mph panic stops along a 3% downhill fixed asphalt road course, in dry conditions. The slight downhill slope of the road somewhat exaggerated what might otherwise have been more abbreviated stopping distances. The vehicle was equally laden for all test runs (e.g., each successive test series was preceded by topping off the gas tank).
In mild 60F conditions, we began flogging the OEM-equipped Cruiser with pedal-slamming stops. With each successive run, which were spaced an average of 4min apart, the stopping distances from 60mph improved. This is concerning as it means that the OEM combo isn’t at its best when facing a surprise stop, such as when an unexpected roadway condition requires stop-on-a-dime gription. This concern can be significantly magnified when the weight of an off-road trailer is affixed to the hind-end of a vehicle.
Why this model of testing? The predominant problem with braking on overweight 4x4s is quite simply the ability to stop during an emergency situation. The initial gripping power of a brake system is the do-or-die litmus test.
Full stop panic braking from highway speeds is, thankfully, not a common action required in most 4x4s. In fact, many drivers, being aware of the modest braking capabilities of their rigs, will allow increased following distances, cover the brake pedal more assiduously, and be watching several vehicles ahead for early warning signs of brake lights. As a result, when a panic stop is required, the initial-use performance of one’s truck can be eye-opening. Our portly Land Cruiser has always called for added awareness, especially with additions to its overall mass, and the rotational leverage of larger tires. But there was something more, and that factor was not clear until we began to slam the brake pedal at the start of our test course.
Temperature, not surprisingly, is a key factor in brake performance. From road surface, to air temperature to pad/rotor temp’s, it all adds up. While pavement temperatures matter little with the type of brake performance that 4x4s are capable of, their rotors and pads have an optimal temperature range. Exceeding that range induces fade, that disconcerting (if not sickening) feeling of brakes losing adhesion despite your foot crushing the pedal. While remaining below that temperature range means there is less than ideal ‘bite’, as the “cold” brakes have not yet become grippy.
Unlike brakes intended for race track abuse, factory brakes are meant for less scorching conditions. They need to bite well initially, and continue doing so through a reasonable number of repetitions. Race brakes must hold up well under continuous massive control of g-forces where extremely high temperatures result. Brakes for trucks are different in another way. They need to exhibit strong braking in a sudden initial (i.e., cool state) application, and yet not fade excessively during continued steady applications (i.e., downhill descents, trailer towing).
It should have come as no surprise that in braking repeats with our OEM setup the stopping distances decreased with each subsequent test run, right down to the sixth and final repetition in each measured series. It was clear from this that the OEM system needed to warm up to fully exhibit its stopping capability. Were our brakes always hot from hard braking, or were we entirely in off-road situations, which only demand moderately firm pedal applications, this behavior would be fine. But in panic situations, this performance behavior can cause a jump in heart rate and an instinctive surge of adrenaline. Neither makes you happy with Mr. Toyota’s engineers (but may have you mentally reviewing your insurance deductibles).
Two immediate impressions came from the switch to the DBA rotors and Greenstuff pads. First, the feel of the brake system – which had required no change of the DOT3 fluid, only a topping off of its level – became noticeably “softer”. The firmness I was accustomed to did not return with time, and made me initially concerned about air in the lines. In contrast, it was soon apparent that braking distances had also been impacted. Despite very soft braking efforts during initial bed-in, I consistently found that the big Toyota was slowing well short of the stop signs and vehicles I was braking for. This was a very odd experience. Basically, I was pressing less hard on the brakes, and still finding myself having to ease up, or else I found myself over-braking.
In contrast, I had become so accustomed to hard and early preventative braking to compensate for the Land Cruiser’s anemic stopping power that it was second nature to plan early so I could avoid panic stops. While I’d never rear-ended another vehicle I had, unfortunately, needed to use an interstate shoulder to avoid such a collision. As a result, the notion of being able to stop within reasonable distances and without stomping the pedal (let alone with only needing minimal pedal effort) went against my well-trained instincts.
The other odd phenomenon that was immediately clear was a progressive increase in stopping power after initial pedal application. Whereas I was used to the OEM brakes responding with a steady, slow deceleration, the DBA rotors and new pads clearly become more effective – in effect, slowing the vehicle proportionately faster – over the course of each brake application. This too was very odd, unexpected, and yet apparent with each successive time I would apply the brakes for a full stop. In effect, an increase in grip was perceptible as the truck slowed and stopping power became even greater.
From a safety standpoint, this is a positive phenomenon. It means stopping efficiency actually gets better in the milliseconds after pedal application, and thus perceived stopping distance may be shorter than a driver senses.
The ability of the T3 rotors to dissipate heat is also obvious. Though the marketing name – Kangaroo Paw – sounds goofy to North American ears, the functionality of the design is serious. Cooling gains with structural stability is the focus of improvement with this design, and DBA claims it’s as much as 20% greater than traditional rotors. This critical design feature is basically hidden to the consumer’s eye. The cutaway image shown above reveals what lies under the rotor’s exterior. Resistance to warpage, especially with a heavily laden 4×4, is important, particularly in this age of off-road trailers.
The more evident feature of the T3 4000 rotors is their “Longlife Slotted” design. Slotted rotors are widely held to be more effective for off-road usage, as opposed to cross-drilled rotors. The arcing slots used by DBA help especially with one bane of 4×4 braking performance, which is rotor surface contamination. This specifically relates to water and dirt/mud, all of which are scoured off via those slots. In all conditions, outgassing from very hot pads can also be relieved through the slotted designs. In other words, the T3’s slots provide an escape route for all manner of contaminants, including brake dust, that otherwise create micro separations in pad/rotor contact.
So how do they stop with truly hard braking?
The initial DBA-equipped 60-0 mph stop caught my attention right out of the cab, as I jumped down to record the point on the fixed 250’ measuring tape positioned along the test road. The DBA/EBC combo showed its capabilities by cutting 27’ off the average OEM setup’s initial braking distance. That’s the equivalent of a full car length shorter, and explained why my normal braking impressions had been that the new system was hauling the Land Cruiser down much better.
The subsequent repetitions of the test were equally intriguing. While still only 4min apart, the series of runs saw the total distance grow with each iteration. On average, each additional run added 8’ before the truck came to a halt. This was clearly the opposite of what had been seen with the OEM combination (which registered 7’ shorter distances on average with each run), and raises some important questions.
First and foremost, what is the most important performance you need in your braking system? For some driving styles, continuous performance evidenced by fade resistance following repeated applications under load is essential. Towing through twisty hairpin routes is an example.
Conversely, some drivers demand maximum performance at the first hard application of the brakes. Think panic stops on the interstate in stop-n-go Friday evening traffic en route to the trailhead. In those cases, the rotor/pad pairing needs to grab right now to prevent your winch from ending up in that sedan’s trunk. The price for this aggressive first use performance is typically a pad that sacrifices resistance to fade if subsequent aggressive applications of the brakes occur shortly thereafter.
For a heavily laden explorer like our 80 Series we’ve come to prioritize improvements in that first, critical application of the brakes. Knowing that the fourth or fifth use of the brakes will have them at optimum stopping power does me no good when I just crumpled the shiny black BMW I was following on my way to the desert. The upgrade to DBA’s top rotor gave us the ability to let pad selection determine when optimum performance is achieved. DBA T3 rotors allow this by providing resistance to dusting, gassing and overheating/warpage regardless of the pad.
Braking performance is affected by many factors, including surface conditions and payload. But few factors are as significant as towing. With the proliferation of off-road/overland trailers on the market, more and more 4x4s are towing on and roads and trails. Safety considerations are important any time you pull a trailer, and effective braking in all conditions is critical. When upgrading the Land Cruiser’s brakes we decided to follow suit with our Dinoot J Series trailer.
Originally tipping the scales at a modest 700lb, and equipped without electric brakes, the fully outfitted trailer, including gear, water and fuel cans, will now kit out at 2500lb. From both a legal and safety standpoint it needed brakes. When we upgraded to the Timbren Axle-less HD Suspension it was time to add brakes. Drum brakes themselves are the go-to solution, and perform well in the overwhelming majority of applications. What’s more critical is the brake controller that you pair with them. Rather than using a controller designed for highway use, we went with the leader in high performance off-road applications: REDARC.
Another Australian brand with 40 years in the business, REDARC Electronics produces systems ranging from solar power to charging to braking. Its Tow-Pro Elite is a sophisticated, multi-modal unit that is small in physical presence, but highly adaptable in use. For anyone wanting to avoid the space-consuming traditional controller box the Tow-Pro Elite is a revelation. Its control module lies hidden, installed under the dash, and all that is seen is the illuminated control knob.
Each of the three Tow-Pro models features this same installation/interface. The clean, space saving design leaves driver controls uncluttered, yet with several more control options than traditional systems. While simple in appearance, the control knob provides full access to REDARC’s programmed options. It mounts easily using factory accessory pop-outs, either by drilling a panel or fitting one of the switch insert options.
The Tow-Pro Elite V2 has two mode options: Proportional Mode and User-controlled Mode. Regardless of the mode you operate in, the Tow-Pro Elite allows you to fine tune the braking force by simply turning the control knob. [For a more detailed description, see my recent REDARC review here.]
Australia brings many innovative and high performance products to the U.S. off-road market, and REDARC’s Tow-Pro Elite ranks right up there. Offering incredible flexibility in a compact, easy to use product, they’ve redefined the term “control” when it comes to trailer brake controllers. If you tow off-road, there simply is no product that competes with the little button from REDARC. This is THE brake controller to own.
Our Final Verdict
The choice to upgrade from factory rotors to the T3 is an easy decision for anyone wanting to regain braking capacity lost to increased mass or plus sized tires. DBA’s line of rotors and pads fit a broad range of 4x4s, and help improve safety in emergency situations as well as normal on or off road driving conditions. Competitively priced and proven over decades of trail use in Australia’s Outback, the DBA 4000 Series brake rotors are engineered for the way off-road adventurers use their trucks.
Our DBA T3 rotors have done very well in 2+ years of usage in mud, snow/ice and desert dust and sand. They provide braking gains in off-road and pavement usage, exhibiting excellent surface clearing via their slotting pattern. In hard braking, including routine trailer towing, they enhance cooling to limit fade through their internal cooling fins. These features, along with the structural integrity of the rotors, have prevented any warpage from our years of hard brake.
But the rotors themselves are only half of the story. The pads you choose round out the vehicle braking system. In our case, we chose the EBC Greenstuff pads for their intended use on heavy trucks and SUVs. The results of our post-upgrade panic stops was stark. Having first put in a thousand miles of normal driving (i.e., daily commutes along with canyon country/desert trips), the brakes were well bedded. As a consequence, we’ve had no noise, pulsing or vibrations out of the system. Surprisingly, the EBC pads have also produced only modest dust.
If your 4×4 frequently has a trailer behind it, you owe it to yourself and others – passengers and other motorists – to invest in quality vehicle brakes, but also trailer brakes and a quality controller. After using the Australia-made REDARC Tow-Pro Elite, I would never install one of the bulky, basic functioning controllers that are so common. The performance and feature-rich design, coupled with its almost invisible presence in the cab, are well worth the REDARC’s additional price.
Used together, the combination of Australia’s leading vehicle rotors with the country’s revolutionary trailer brake controller is a potent system for adding safety to your 4×4’s stopping abilities.
About the Gear Doctor: Dr. Sean Michael has been designing, abusing and testing outdoor gear since the 1980’s, and began reviewing products for Off-road.com in 2000. Today, he is Professor of Outdoor Product Design & Development at Utah State University, a product consultant, and a frequent Instructor at Overland Expo. Follow his trips and gear (ab)use @thegeardoctor on Instagram.
We are committed to finding, researching, and recommending the best products. We earn commissions from purchases you make using the retail links in our product reviews. Learn more about how this works.