Tow Package Or Not?

By John Tiger, Jr.
Published: Summer 2013

Many of us will be using our old reliable vehicle to tow, but if you're thinking of buying new, you might want to consider a factory tow package.

Towing a boat

There are several very strong reasons to consider a factory tow package, as opposed to buying the vehicle without any towing equipment and having a local hitch and trailer shop install it. First, the engineers who design the vehicle — from the first drawing to the last manufactured part — work together to ensure that towing a trailer is within the vehicle's capabilities. This means they design the engine, transmission, brakes, frame, electrical system, and cooling system to handle the extra weight of the towed load. To accomplish this, they have to think about and then incorporate the necessary equipment during the development of the vehicle.

Tow/Haul Defined

"Tow/Haul" mode is a switch that's activated to keep the vehicle's transmission from upshifting into overdrive when towing or carrying a load, so as not to lug the engine with a higher gear. It also prevents the transmission from "hunting" between higher gears while trailering. It's typically available on most full-size trucks and SUVs and is useful when towing up and down hills.

Towing By Design

That means including a hitch platform, trailer towing wiring harness, engine cooling capability, transmission cooling capability, and sturdy frame for mounting the hitch. In addition, in many cases, factory designers add or upgrade such things as the rear-end (differential) gearing to make towing less stressful on the engine and transmission. They also upgrade the battery, alternator, and charging system wiring to handle the added electrical load of the trailer's lights.

Towing-capable circuitry is added to the vehicle's onboard ECM (electronic control module, a fancy way of describing the vehicle's computer) so adding trailer lights doesn't harm the electrical wiring and connectors. And finally, they often upgrade the standard shocks/struts and brakes to handle the added load and stress of towing. That's a lot of designing and upgrading! While it may sound very convincing, it's important to remember that not all vehicle tow packages come with all those upgrades. Some come with a portion, some simply include a hitch and trailer wiring package. However, most original equipment (OE) tow packages include some or all of the aforementioned upgrades.

Not For Everyone

Not all trailer towing activities will require all these upgrades and designed-in capabilities. For example, imagine buying a BMW X5 to tow jet skis on a lightweight trailer. That whole GTW (Gross Trailer Weight) might tip the scales at perhaps 2,000 pounds or so. That hardly qualifies as heavy-duty towing, so an aftermarket hitch would likely do just fine — and the added weight of the two skis and trailer would barely register on the Beemer's braking, cooling, and electrical systems. However, if you bought that same X5 with towing a 24-foot cuddy fisherman in mind, one that weighs 5,500 pounds without gas and gear, you can see where having the factory package — engineered and designed to help the vehicle tow heavier loads with less strain — would be the better option.

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