I'd like to start this month's dispatch from our ongoing C4 saga with a simple statement of fact: Your late-model street Corvette does not need a brake upgrade. Now, before you aspirate your Hubba Bubba over what might at first sound like rank apostasy coming from a performance-themed magazine, consider the three critical qualifiers contained in the foregoing declaration—"late-model," "street," and "need." Let's examine them one at a time.
Since the introduction of the antilock braking system (ABS) in 1986, every Corvette has been more than capable of quickly and safely hauling itself down from speed on a wide variety of road surfaces. The car's braking hardware further improved in 1988, with the introduction of dual-piston front calipers, and again in 1995, when the ZR-1's excellent J55 binders (with 13-inch front and 12-inch rear rotors) were made standard across the entire lineup. Since then, incremental improvements have kept the Vette at the forefront of braking technology, a process that culminated in 2011 with the debut of the latest ZR1 and its fantastic (and fantastically expensive) carbon-ceramic Brembos.
In typical street driving, where repeated heavy use is rare and brake components have plenty of time to cool between uses, you'd be hard pressed to discern a difference between properly functioning factory hardware and a pricey "big brake" kit. In fact, if simply reducing your C4, C5, or C6 Corvette's 60-0 stopping distance is the goal, installing a set of wider and/or stickier tires is likely a better option. The same can't, however, be said of road-course driving, where back-to-back heavy deceleration can push the stock pads and rotors past their design limits in a hurry. (The Nürburgring-conquering ZR1 is a notable exception.) It's in this arena that the benefits of a purpose-built, high-performance brake kit can truly be appreciated.
Finally, as is the case with all aftermarket modifications, it's important to distinguish between alterations that make a quantifiable difference in the car's objective performance and nominal "upgrades" that serve other, more esoteric functions. No, a quartet of mega-pot calipers and cross-drilled rotors won't endow your street car with the stopping power of a C6.R. But if, like many Corvette owners, you find the race-inspired appearance of such hardware to be worth the extra investment, you shouldn't let something so piffling as a lopsided cost-benefit equation stand in your way.
We certainly didn't. Sure, when the time came to change out the stock pads and calipers on our '96 coupe, our initial impulse was to simply replace them with fresh factory parts. It didn't take long, though, to realize that our C4's brake breakdown had furnished us with a unique opportunity—specifically, to determine whether it was possible to install a sharp-looking, track-ready set of aftermarket binders on the car without doing grievous injury to our bank balance.
Our first step was to contact Stainless Steel Brakes Corporation, located just outside Buffalo, New York. SSBC has been building performance braking systems for Corvettes, muscle cars, and trucks since the 1970s, and over the years has built a reputation for offering quality products at palatable prices.
Company president Mike Jonas recommended SSBC's Tri-Power front upgrade kit (PN A113-12), which, as its name suggests, employs a trio of 38mm pistons to dole out significantly more clamping power than the two-pot stockers. The kit comes complete with application-specific performance pads, braided stainless steel lines, and all necessary installation hardware.
A pair of 13-inch slotted rotors are standard with this setup, but ours arrived with SSBC's optional drilled-and-slotted Big Bite rotors, which are said to offer superior heat-dissipating characteristics and resistance to fade. While those traits won't pay dividends in day-to-day driving, they could make a real difference if we ever decide to enter the car in an autocross or track day.
Since the front brakes do most of the work in a front-engine street car, our stock rear calipers were deemed sufficient for our purposes. SSBC did kick in a pair of 12-inch Big Bite rotors to replace our well-worn factory pieces, along with a complementary brace of fresh pads.
The Tri-Power front kit costs $1,395 with the standard rotors, a bit more with the optional Big Bite units. Tack on another $331 for the Big Bite rears, and the total cost of our upgrade came in at just over $1,700. That's more than you'll pay for stock replacement pieces, but far less than most competitive big-brake systems. And if your snazzy new braking hardware happens to elicit a few envious glances from fellow motorists from time to time, well, that alone is probably worth the price of admission.