What you need in a tow vehicle

When it comes to hauling your caravan or boat, having the right car is super important.

No matter whether you’re transporting much-loved horses, heading off on the ultimate fishing trip or holidaying with a caravan, having the right car for your towing needs is critical.

The first step in selecting a vehicle for towing is to understand how much weight you’ll be hauling.  This goes beyond power and fuel efficiency issues.

Some state/territory motoring authorities impose fines if you’re caught with a vehicle that doesn’t have sufficient capacity for the trailer you’re towing, and in the worst case scenario, you could be ordered to uncouple the trailer and leave it on the roadside until a vehicle with more grunt can be located.

Matching needs with towing capacity

The unladen weight of a trailer is its “Tare Weight”, while the maximum weight with a payload is referred to as its “Aggregate Trailer Mass” (ATM).

The ATM is the key figure to look for. A horse float for example can have a tare weight of 2,000 kilograms but load up a large horse, and your car could easily be towing over 2,500 kilograms. Even with say, a caravan, adding a 9 kilogram gas cylinder to the van can add an extra 18 kilograms by the time you allow for fittings.

Once you know the weight you’ll be towing, compare this to the car’s towing capacity, which is normally based on the ATM.  You can find details of the ATM in the car handbook, or in the marketing brochures for new vehicles. Be sure your car has at least sufficient towing capacity for your needs, and ideally aim for towing capacity that exceeds your needs to reduce engine wear and tear.

One final note on weight. Be sure to have a tow ball fitted with the appropriate load specification (this will also be in your car’s handbook). Insufficient tow ball load can impact the trailer’s stability, while too much load capacity can affect the car’s handling and braking.

Note your speed capacity

Take note of any speed restrictions when towing that may be mentioned in your car’s handbook. Legal towing speeds vary between states.  In NSW for instance, drivers can tow at the acceptable speed stated by the car manufacturer (within signposted speed limits of course), though  a maximum speed limit of 100 kilometres per hour applies if the car and trailer combination has a total weight of more than 4,500 kilograms. Importantly, towing instantly changes the dynamics of the vehicle and it pays to drive to the conditions.

Diesel or petrol?

Back in the day when diesel was cheaper than petrol, it was almost a no-brainer to choose a diesel engine for towing. These days however the choice isn’t as clear cut.

On one hand, diesel engines can be more fuel efficient. But the days when diesel was always cheaper than petrol are behind us, and Queensland’s motoring association, the RACQ advises, “Unless you drive big distances every year or use lots of fuel, it may take many years to recoup the increased cost of the diesel engine option from the fuel savings alone”1.

Similarly, the RACQ notes that diesel engines can be more expensive to service.

On the plus side, diesel cars provide greater torque and horsepower at lower revs, something that is extremely useful if you’re towing in hilly areas – unless you’re happy to have a conga line of frustrated motorists behind you.

The optimum transmission for towing

Shifting market demand means a growing number of manufacturers no longer offer manual transmissions, and there’s no doubt an automatic transmission can reduce driver fatigue especially in cars with a larger engine capacity. The potential for wear and tear on the clutch is also reduced with an automatic transmission – especially when performing hill starts or maneuvering when towing.

In theory, by eliminating the need to change gears, automatic transmissions give the driver more control in high risk situations such as rough terrain or bad weather. That said, the choice of manual versus automatic can be highly personal, and many drivers simply prefer the personal control over a vehicle that a manual transmission provides, something that can be extremely important when towing. If you’re unsure, speaking with other drivers about their experience with a particular transmission type when towing.

2WD, 4WD or AWD?

One thing is certain, if you plan to tow a lot, haul particularly heavy loads or tow over long distances, it makes sense to opt for an all-wheel (AWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD) vehicle.

As mentioned earlier, towing has a big impact on a car’s dynamics, and 4WDs and AWDs offer much better traction on slippery and uneven surfaces than 2-wheel drive (2WD) cars. Similarly, they generally cope more readily with uneven weight distribution – something that can easily occur even with the best of planning.

The bottom line is to look for a towing vehicle that offers:

  • Towing capacity greater than the weight you plan to tow
  • Adequate tow ball load capacity for your rig
  • All-wheel or four wheel drive
  • Automatic transmission – though this can come down to personal choice.

If your current car doesn’t come up to scratch or you’re looking to buy a new car that better suits your towing needs, contact your local Mortgage Choice brokers today about financing a car that takes the hard work out of hauling.

You might also be interested in:

1 Choosing a tow vehicle, RACQ, https://www.racq.com.au/cars-and-driving/driving/towing/choosing-a-tow-vehicle

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