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Choosing a Tow Vehicle

With so many choices, which is better?

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April 2008 author photo


Picking out the right tow vehicle - especially one that's agreeable as a standalone driver, too - can be a very difficult decision. Most dealers wouldn't allow you to actually hook up your trailer and actually test it out. Much of what you have to go by has to depend on the vehicle's specs, its towing capacity, and your on-road impressions. But even once you think you've chosen a model, there are likely a lot of choices to be made about the engine and transmission, the suspension, comfort and luxury features, and whether you want two- or four-wheel drove. Here's some background information, and a brief rundown of some of these important choices:

Know the weight of your trailer. Look for the trailer's gross weight rating. If you can't find it, or if you always have a particular payload (like a particular boat or jet skis), and you have access to a tow vehicle, bring it to a truck stop and weigh the trailer section.

Consider the weight to be carried in your vehicle. Every vehicle has a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR). This is the maximum permissible weight of everything onboard your vehicle, including the vehicle itself plus passengers, cargo, and fuel. Estimate the weight of all your vacation gear, passengers, and luggage that's going to be in the vehicle, then add the weight. If you'll be carrying close to the maximum GVWR while towing near the maximum towing weight, you should forget about that particular vehicle and go to something with more load and towing capacity.

Sedan, wagon, minivan, SUV, or pickup? For no-nonsense hauling, heavy-duty pickups with towing packages and big diesel engines can't be beat. But for towing a small boat or a pop-up camping trailer on the weekends, or occasionally bringing a flatbed trailer of trash to the dump, you don't necessarily need a truck. You might be able to get by with a passenger vehicle - maybe even a compact - if the load to be towed is less than 1000 pounds. Check with the vehicle's tow rating. Beware, though, that seemingly similar vehicles (in power, size, and weight) can have quite different towing capacities, and some vehicles don't allow towing at all.

Are unit-body SUVs okay for heavy hauling? Full-frame vehicles and traditional trucks are still a better choice for hauling very heavy loads, but for lighter trailers, modern unit-body vehicles are just fine. The tow hitch can be attached directly to the frame with pickups and full-frame SUVs, sparing the rest of the body from strain - but it's just attached to the body or bumper in a unit-body vehicle. If you tow heavy loads regularly in a unit-body vehicle, you're likely to find more creaks, rattles, and body integrity issues. If you just tow occasionally on weekends, it's nothing to worry about.

Front-, rear-, all-, or four-wheel-drive? The undisputed choice for serious towing is rear-wheel drive. It offers better traction and stability compared to front-wheel drive. Truck-style four-wheel drive is not advised, as it should never be used while towing, and it just adds weight. All-wheel-drive systems are a mixed bag: some aid in towing, while others have a reduced towing capacity and are vulnerable to added wear or damage from towing. If you're thinking about the all-wheel-drive model, check that the trailer capacity for the all-wheel-drive model is similar to the two-wheel-drive version. Some of the more sophisticated all-wheel-drive systems will change the proportion of torque going to the front and rear to compensate for any change in stability due to the trailer - these systems are typically available on the car-like SUVs that are otherwise front-wheel drive.

Automatic or manual? Automatic transmission is usually the best choice for towing. A manual is okay only for experienced, careful shifters. With automatic, just remember a few precautions: make sure your vehicle has a transmission cooler, keep a gently throttle foot when possible, and remember to always disable overdrive to prevent excessive wear.

Choose an engine with plenty of low-rpm torque. Think torque - rather than horsepower - for towing. If the terrain permits, see how confident the vehicle can accelerate from a stop up a steep hill. Diesels really excel in towing, and they're a good choice when available due to their better mileage and long-term durability. Finally, beware that if you choose a smaller engine for economy, it might be so strained that it actually uses more fuel than the larger engine, not to mention all the extra engine wear.

Option up to the heavy-duty hardware. Make sure you get a vehicle with the special towing package if it's available. It should include an oil cooler, transmission fluid cooler, heavy-duty alternator and battery, higher-capacity rear springs, and possibly a stabilizer bar (or larger one than standard). Trucks might also get a lower final drive ratio (a higher number means lower gearing - desirable for towing) and heavy-duty differential. Don't get a stripped-down version of the vehicle you want thinking to add all of these things as needed. It will likely void your warranty.

Be sure you get the right hitch installed. Tow-capable vehicles come with three different types of hitches: Class 1 (up to 2000 pounds), Class II (up to 3500 lb), and Class III (up to 10,000 lb).

If it's not obvious by now, choosing a tow vehicle usually involves compromises. Almost certainly, the best tow vehicle won't be the quietest, the most comfortable, or the best-performing on the road, but it'll get you and your trailer's cargo reliably and safely to your destination.

©2007 by The Car Connection™ All Rights Reserved - The Car Connection is a Trademark of DA Acquisition
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Choosing a Tow Vehicle - Autotrader