Towing 2013: What’s To Know?By John Tiger, Jr.
Published: Winter 2013
After the gloom of 2009 through 2011, dealers in many regions reported sales increases for 2012. Even vehicle manufacturers are showing interest in improving towing performance, which generally takes a backseat to lowering cost and improving fuel mileage. With this welcome change, here's what you need to know
A tow vehicle needs enough capacity to pull the boat, trailer, engine, fuel, and equipment. That’s why trailer boaters need to understand the many variables available in new models. The 2013 Ford Explorer (above) can pull 2,000 pounds with a 4-cylinder engine, but a 3.65L V6 gives it power to pull 5,000 pounds. With a trailering package, the 2013 GMC Sierra Crew Cab SLT (below) can tow 10,700 pounds.
Factory Tow Packages
Industry insiders call them “OE” (Original Equipment) towing packages. A factory tow package is the easiest and least aggravating way to equip a vehicle to tow; all the components are there, factory-installed, and the vehicle is ready to tow when it’s driven off the lot.
Factory packages are not perfect. The manufacturer chooses a hitch and wiring package that they hope will meet most customers’ towing needs. The factory package is designed, engineered, and tested with the vehicle; it’s not an afterthought. The factory towing package options that typically come with full-size trucks and many SUVs include much more than the hitch and trailer wiring connector. Check the option sheet carefully — the tow package option may include components that can’t be obtained or fitted aftermarket. For example, the 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee “Trailer Tow Group” package choices include a Class III receiver hitch and seven-way wiring connector; selecting the heavier-duty “Trailer Tow Group IV” adds a lower axle ratio more suited for heavier loads, a heavier-duty alternator to keep the battery charged, a trailer sway control feature, a heavy-duty engine cooling system, and load-leveling rear suspension. All these features, which certainly work together to help this particular Jeep tow heavier loads more safely, can’t be attained by opting out of the trailer tow package and having a hitch installed later.
Years ago, the factory hitch option was not viable if a heavier-duty hitch was needed, but that’s no longer the case. On larger pickups, the towing options include receivers rated well over 10,000 pounds, just like the heavy-duty aftermarket receivers. Even specialty hitches such as heavy-duty fifth wheel and gooseneck setups are available on some Ford Super Duty pickups.
Factory tow packages are widely available on pickups, SUVs, and crossovers from all domestic and import manufacturers. However, vehicle manufacturers stopped equipping passenger cars with factory tow packages many years ago. Though most still have tow ratings specified in their owner’s manuals, passenger cars have been severely downgraded in maximum towing capacities since the late 1990s. Where towing is concerned, the factories have moved consumers toward SUVs and trucks. Today, most passenger cars are rated to tow no more than 2,000 pounds (a Class I rating), which equates to no more than a lightweight boat or a pair of jet skis.
Towing with a new passenger car, therefore, requires an aftermarket hitch and wiring harness. It’s important to read the hitch rating labels carefully. Tongue weight is usually 10 percent of the total gross weight allowable. Know the difference between weight-carrying capacity (the hitch’s rated load using only a ball mount) and weight-distribution capacity (the hitch’s rating when using weight-distribution spring bars, chains, and sway control). Weight-carrying capacity is usually much lower than weight-distribution capacity. The great majority of boat trailers do not use weight distribution bars and sway controls, due to the difficulty in making these kits work properly with the surge brake systems typically installed on boat trailers.
The bottom line on factory tow packages? Do the homework and examine the components, but in general, the best way to order a new tow vehicle is to check the tow package option box on the order form. If you’re buying off the lot and you intend to tow, lean heavily toward the tow package-equipped models.
New For 2013
Factories continue to try to make towing easier and safer for consumers. Consider many Jeep models, which feature integrated trailer sway control (activated during braking) to help make towing smoother and safer by reducing potentially dangerous trailer sway. This innovative feature was first made available on selected Chrysler minivans a few years ago. Expect it to become more commonplace in the years to come.
Electric trailer brakes (standard fare on RV trailers, horse trailers, and equipment trailers) require an electronic brake control mounted under the dashboard. Long an aftermarket-only product, integrated in-dash electronic trailer brake controls are now available as a towing-package option on all the larger full-size trucks. This is an unnecessary feature when towing boat trailers, as most boat trailers use hydraulic surge brakes, not electric brakes. But electric over hydraulic (EOH) are gaining popularity.
BMW and Mercedes offer standard 2-inch receivers on their SUV models, with a twist — theirs are only compatible with their own ball mounts, available only at their dealers. This is to reduce the chance a consumer could use a ball mount not up to their specifications.
More consumers are requesting hitches completely hidden from view when not in use so the aesthetics of the rear bumper are not interrupted by a standard receiver (that will soon become rusty). Manufacturers are responding; many SUVs this year, such as Cadillac’s SRX and Chevy’s Traverse, come equipped with a removable plastic bumper cover that hides the hitch when not in use.
Tow Vehicles For Rated Loads
Most crossover vehicles and smaller to mid-size SUVs are not rated to tow more than 3,500 pounds GTW (gross trailer weight, the weight of the pulled load, trailer, boat, and all accessories including fuel, batteries, gear, and so on). This is the defined maximum load that the tow vehicle can safely pull. Boats checking in at 5,000 pounds GTW or less are handled by most midsize and larger SUVs and lighter-duty pickups. Examples include the Chevy Tahoe and Traverse, Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Dodge Durango, Toyota Highlander and 4Runner, and Honda Ridgeline.
For towing loads greater than 5,000 pounds, a heavy-duty large SUV such as a Ford Expedition (tows 9,200 pounds), a Chevy Suburban, or any of the larger pickups will do. A select few standard-sized SUVs such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee can tow up to 7,400 pounds GTW. Anything larger than 10,000 pounds GTW will require a 3/4-ton pickup such as a Ford Super Duty, Dodge Ram 2500, Chevy Silverado 2500, or larger.
The good news is that whatever the towing requirement, there’s a vehicle available to fill it. Buyers of 2013 vehicles will find plenty to please them. In addition, though fuel mileage won’t be great with any SUV or truck, they’re better than ever and significantly thriftier than their predecessors of even a few years ago.
New Rules, New Standards?
Recently, towing got a more in-depth look by the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers). They developed a new standard, code J2807, that basically tightens the standards for rating a vehicle’s GCWR (Gross Combined Weight Rating), which includes trailer towing. GCWR is important because it defines the combined weight of tow vehicle and trailer that the manufacturer has deemed a safe maximum. In theory, this should make towing safer for consumers because the tightened standards will likely be more accurate for most tow vehicles, and lower their tow ratings somewhat.
But J2807 is not a requirement at this point; it’s a guideline. So not all manufacturers will follow it at the same time. For example, Nissan is rating all new vehicles to J2807, but is not going back to “re-certify” existing models. Honda’s vehicles that are rated to tow 3,500 pounds and higher have adhered to the J2807 standard since 2011. Toyota’s tow vehicles were already re-rated to reflect adherence to J2807 standards, and this resulted in the lowering of some of their tow ratings in 2011. Ford, Ram, and GM have all elected to hold off, citing potential consumer confusion with re-rated tow capacities.
Expect all manufacturers to adhere to this new standard over the next few years; this will make comparisons between brands easier and more consistent, and tow ratings more realistic and accurate.
A sampling of 2013 vehicles that can tow 5,000 pounds
|Acura MDX||3.7L V6||5,000 pounds|
|Chevrolet Avalanche||5.3L V8||
|Chevrolet Silverado 1500||4.8L V8||5,400 pounds|
|Jeep Liberty||3.6L V6||
|Ford Explorer||3.5 L V6||
|Ford F150||3.7L V6||
|GMC Acadia||3.6L V6||5,200 pounds|
|GMC Sierra 1500 SL||4.3L V6||4.3L V6|
|GMC Yukon XL||5.3L V8||5,500 pounds|
|Nissan Pathfinder||3.5L V6||5,000 pounds|
|Ram Truck 1500||5.7L V8||8,800 pounds|
|Toyota 4Runner||4.0L V6||5,000 pounds|
|Note: This list does not include every 2-13 model with a 5,000 pound tow capacity|
Tow Vehicle Quick Facts:
- 1. Your tow vehicle plus your towed load must never exceed the Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR): This is the weight of your tow vehicle PLU S your boat, engine, and trailer. When calculating this, don’t forget to add the rigging, gear, fuel, and water being carried in the boat. For a safety margin, actual total GCWR should not exceed 85 percent of a tow vehicle’s rated GCWR. Fuel weighs about 6 pounds/gallon so determine the capacity of the boat’s fuel tank and factor this in as well.
- 2. Similarly, GT W (gross trailer weight) and TW (tongue weight) are also figures to learn, understand and follow. GT W equals the total load your vehicle and hitch are rated to tow. The lower of the two figures (vehicle or hitch) is what you need to adhere to. For example, if your hitch sports a decal that says it’s rated at 5,000 pounds GT W and your vehicle owner’s manual calls for a maximum of 6,000 pounds, then you can only safely tow 5,000 pounds. Tongue weight (TW) is typically no more than 10 percent of GT W; so if that hitch is rated for 5,000 pounds maximum, then usually 500 pounds is the maximum tongue weight (TW).
- 3. Your boat’s listed specifications (from the manufacturer) may include “dry weight.” This is the weight of the hull when manufactured, and in some cases may not include the engine. Don’t determine tow capacity of a tow vehicle using dry weight.