Tow Vehicle Basics

By Peter Tartarilla, GMC

Don't be pushed around when looking for some pull.

If you trailer your boat, then you need to know a few steps about pulling it. Peter Tartarilla is a GMC Truck Sales and Service expert in West Palm Beach, Florida and has been selling tow vehicles for 19 years. When he isn't at work at GMC, he's an Offshore Powerboat Race Team Member who, sometimes, tows the boats to the next race site. Obviously, he knows about tow vehicles and here, he tells you the questions you need to ask when going on the showroom floor.

Photo of a truck towing a boat

Putting the truck before the boat is like putting the cart before the horse. Too many people today are guilty of this error and it will cost some of you big $$$$. If you buy too much truck, that could kill you. There is a right way to buy a tow vehicle and I hope to give you a few good pointers.

Weight Ratings

First, of course, you should at least have an idea of what your boat, trailer, and all accessories are going to weigh. If the terms GVWR and GCWR are unfamiliar to you then pay close attention.

GVWR, or Gross Vehicle Weight Rating, is the allowed weight your vehicle and the load it can carry.

GCWR, or Gross Combined Weight Rating, is the amount of weight your vehicle can carry (gas, passengers, luggage, boat, trailer and fuel for the boat) combined. I'm not going to talk brand-specific, but here at GMC our motto is "just enough is never enough." Think about your boating future as you are deciding on the Tow-vehicle. If your plans are to start small and trade up in the near future, then go for overkill on the vehicle and you will be ready for the next boat without having to trade trucks as well. Of course those of us in the business make money each time you trade.

Shopping For The Right Vehicle

Choosing the brand and the dealer is a very important step in the process. You should look for a dealer who has a real truck department and does commercial as well as retail sales. If it were I, I'd also try to find a truck adviser who is also a boater or RV'er. First hand experience is a great plus. More than a third of the heavy-duty pickup customers buy their trucks because they trailer their boats. Your boat dealer may be able to help you with a recommendation. I personally belong to the Marine Industries Association of Palm Beach County and do business on a regular basis with boat dealers, yacht builders, and marine suppliers. Once you have decided on the make, model, and the dealer we move on to the equipment. Engines, transmissions, axle ratio. Gas or diesel? Why, which and what.

A diesel is not always the answer because some times it is just too cost prohibitive. Yes, in some cases it is the most powerful, but the cost of the package could make the price of the truck as much as $5500.00 more than the next best gas engine. Diesel engines are sometimes a lot noisier, and not always less expensive to run. If you divide the cost of the package with the total miles driven and are not driving at least $25-30k per year then it will cost you more. There have been times that diesel fuel was more money than gas. Six years at $35k per year will make it work. A diesel is like 4wd: if you don't need it don't spend the extra money. They never bring back the full expense after 3 years on a trade value.

4x4 — Do We Really Need It?

No not really, at least not all the time. If you are in snow country or use some really bad desolate launch sites, then the need is greater. If truth were told, a 4x4 equipped exactly the same as a like model 2wd will be from 450-800lbs heavier than the 2wd and do you remember what GVWR and GCWR mean? If you are hunting alligators in the everglades, then it's a no brainier.

Factory tow-packages are designed by the engineers who build and rate the truck you are looking to purchase. For the most part, today they are recommending automatic transmissions and big diesels for the maximum tow ability. Don't forget the keyword here is maximum.

The most important part of the tow-package is not any one thing, but the combination of it all.

  • Engines? Gas or diesel is, of course, the "up front" first choice to make. Do not sacrifice the right one for the one available at the moment. If you decide on a truck that the dealer doesn't have in inventory, ask for a "dealer trade" or go ahead and place a factory order.
  • Transmissions? Yes for the most part you do have a choice. Manufacturers today are recommending the automatic over the manual shift. Not only are they stronger and more reliable today, but they are "smarter". In today's world they have special tow/haul shift modes. Some automatics can actually learn to shift and react to the driver and the conditions. The manual transmission today is also greatly improved, with 6 forward gears and all-gear synchronizers now commonplace. It really is your choice, depending on availability. Just remember one important thing: A clutch and your leg have no warranty. Almost all manufacturers offer service plans up to 6 years and 100k miles.
  • Axle ratios really are simple. The higher the # is, the more towing power and acceleration the vehicle will have. The downside is fuel economy. There is always a "happy" medium, and that will be up to you and the consultant to decide.
  • Locking differential? It is an option in the rear axle that puts power to both rear wheels when one starts to spin on the ramp.
  • Traction control? This is an option that automatically reduces the applied power when a wheel starts to spin.
  • Hitch platforms? They are rated from class 1-5 and should be used according to both tongue weight and trailer weight.
  • Wiring harness? This is an integral part of any factor tow-package today and should be modified only by a professional because of the technology today with anti-lock brakes, computers and the like. Mirrors are much neglected part of the tow-package and it is very wrong to do so. If your boat is 8' wide and your mirrors are 7" what do you're going to see when looking behind you? Not much probably. Mirror extensions are available at most good boat supply stores or RV dealers.

Again I emphasize that the salesperson who tows is the "one who knows" and will be more apt to be more patient and precise. Most dealers will have a trailer guide that is brand specific to their brand and all the models. Make sure you ask for it, if it isn't given to you.