Tow­ing the line

Choos­ing the right tow ve­hi­cle for the job is es­sen­tial for safe and com­fort­able tour­ing.

Motorhome & Caravan Trader - - News&reviews Tech Talk - Philip Lord

Match­ing a tow ve­hi­cle and car­a­van is not al­ways easy. Not al­ways do you have the lux­ury of choos­ing both a new ve­hi­cle and car­a­van at the same time, and even if you do, there are plenty of traps you need to be aware of. There’s no point buy­ing a new van that you can’t tow or a new ve­hi­cle that’s not up to the job of tow­ing your van.

Any tow ve­hi­cle you have will be a com­pro­mise in some way. You can’t ex­pect that the heavy haul­ing truck you’ve bought to tow your 3000kg van is go­ing to be a cinch to park in a mul­ti­level carpark when re­fresh­ing sup­plies on tour.

Con­versely, that neat, old car that you know and love might not be up to the job of tow­ing your new van, even if the tow­ing ca­pac­ity num­bers look right.

Bear in mind that there are so many tow­ing ve­hi­cles and even more car­a­vans that there will al­ways be ex­cep­tions to the rule. While cer­tain pop­u­lar com­bi­na­tions are a straight­for­ward propo­si­tion, many com­bi­na­tions are not. So what are the things to look for in a good tow ve­hi­cle?

The first thing is to be re­al­is­tic about max­i­mum tow­ing ca­pac­ity. Don’t try to ac­count for that ca­pac­ity to the last kilo. Also, you need to ac­count for your car­a­van’s pay­load – there’s no point buy­ing a 1800kg Tare tan­dem-axle van with a 400kg load ca­pac­ity and then hitch­ing it up to a ve­hi­cle that has a 2000kg tow­ing ca­pac­ity. You’ll be pack­ing the van very lightly, once the wa­ter tanks and gas cylin­ders are filled.

CAR­RY­ING SUR­PLUS

There’s re­ally no such thing as tow­ing-ca­pac­ity overkill, though. While a large car­a­van may only be 2500kg fully loaded, you can buy 4WDS that have a 3500kg max­i­mum ca­pac­ity. Don’t think that the sur­plus 1000kg is a waste – the higher the mass you can haul, the bet­ter, gen­er­ally speak­ing. The ve­hi­cle will usu­ally have more power in re­serve and in­her­ent sta­bil­ity to make a more re­laxed tow­ing plat­form than some­thing a bit more light-on.

Try to buy a ve­hi­cle that has at least 10 per cent of max­i­mum tow­ing ca­pac­ity as the tow­ball mass

(TBM) down­load ca­pac­ity – don’t as­sume that the 10 per cent rule ap­plies. Many man­u­fac­tur­ers, such as Mit­subishi and Toy­ota, do state clearly that TBM is 10 per cent of tow­ing ca­pac­ity.

But some man­u­fac­tur­ers have a very low TBM down­load ca­pac­ity – much less than 10 per cent – of­ten be­cause a tow­bar can’t be en­gi­neered to han­dle a de­cent down­load, or the chas­sis is not up to the job. Ei­ther way, al­ways find out what the TBM is and whether that limit is re­al­is­tic for the van you pro­pose to tow.

Be aware, too, that TBM in many cases is counted as ve­hi­cle pay­load, and also a pro­por­tion of the rear axle load. These have to be fac­tored in to your cal­cu­la­tions of weights.

The same rule ap­plies to max­i­mum tyre load – the weight is ex­pressed in ki­los on the tyre side­wall. It is rare with fac­tory orig­i­nal equip­ment tyres, but it pays to check that the tyre’s share of the load is not beyond its ca­pa­bil­ity (es­pe­cially with a se­cond­hand ve­hi­cle).

Speak­ing of tow­ing plat­forms, gen­er­ally speak­ing, the ve­hi­cle will tow bet­ter if it is heav­ier than the car­a­van it is tow­ing (and in­deed is a le­gal re­quire­ment in some cir­cum­stances). While many ve­hi­cles are per­fectly le­gal tow­ing a trailer weigh­ing more than their GVM, don’t as­sume you can buy and load up the heav­i­est, biggest car­a­van you can find and that the ve­hi­cle will tow like it was built to do it.

TOW RIGHT

Never for­get the biggest re­stric­tion on what you can tow is not the ve­hi­cle’s tow limit it­self, but its tow­bar. Tow­bar ca­pac­ity can some­times be rated lower than the ve­hi­cle’s max­i­mum tow­ing ca­pac­ity, es­pe­cially some low-vol­ume Euro­pean im­ports (that are hardly main­stream and that have quite a low tow ca­pac­ity, in any case).

Al­ways check the tow­bar is up to the job. It should have a plate or sticker at­tached spec­i­fy­ing the max­i­mum ca­pac­ity, and some man­u­fac­tur­ers, like Holden, also gen­er­ally af­fix a sticker to the driver’s door jamb spec­i­fy­ing the tow­bar ca­pac­ity.

Like ev­ery­thing to do with car­a­van­ning, it pays to care­fully read the fine print when it comes to tow­ing ca­pac­ity. For ex­am­ple, the Mer­cedes-benz Gl-class has a 3402kg braked tow­ing max­i­mum – just about as good as any heavy-duty 4WD – but the tow­ball down­load max­i­mum is just 272kg.

Read­ing the fine print also ap­plies to weight dis­tri­bu­tion hitches. Some ve­hi­cles re­quire their use (Holden Com­modore and Ford Fal­con) and oth­ers don’t rec­om­mend their use (Land Rover).

CLAS­SIC CA­PA­BIL­I­TIES

What if you own a clas­sic that you wish to tow with? An older ve­hi­cle, built be­fore 1998, may not have a man­u­fac­turer-spec­i­fied tow­ing ca­pac­ity. If so, the max­i­mum per­mit­ted tow­ing ca­pac­ity is 1.5 times the ve­hi­cle’s kerb weight.

Even more dif­fi­cult is get­ting a max­i­mum tow­ball down­load fig­ure you can rely on for such a ve­hi­cle. Tak­ing 10 per cent is prob­a­bly the best you can do.

Older ve­hi­cles can be hit by age-re­lated prob­lems and can be more sus­cep­ti­ble to over­heat­ing or hav­ing other prob­lems that tow­ing will high­light. But the main is­sue is that cars, in par­tic­u­lar, were only de­signed to tow the lighter vans avail­able back then, so you can’t nec­es­sar­ily take the ‘1.5 times’ rule as a safe bet for older ve­hi­cles.

For ex­am­ple, a 1980-1984 WB Holden States­man has a tow­ing ca­pac­ity of 1800kg – even though its kerb weight is 1709kg in Caprice trim. Also, the WB had a choice of two tow­bars, one a goose­neck tongue style that could only tow up to 907kg and the 1800kg hitchre­ceiver style. Try tow­ing 1800kg with the lighter tow­bar and you’re in trou­ble.

TOUGHEN UP

Then there is the mat­ter of ‘tough­ness’ of a tow­ing ve­hi­cle. All else be­ing equal, a sep­a­rate chas­sis is tougher than a mono­coque body. That doesn’t mean mono­coque is bad – the Fal­con wagon, for ex­am­ple, is a very good tow­ing plat­form.

How­ever, for heavy haul­ing, a sep­a­rate chas­sis,

only found on large 4WDS these days, is the best bet.

The best tow­ing ve­hi­cles are of­ten the ones with a long wheel­base and wide wheel tracks, and those ve­hi­cles that feel ner­vous or twitchy to drive solo are only go­ing to be more so with a van be­hind.

If you com­pare these di­men­sions be­tween cars you’re look­ing at, as a rule of thumb, the wider track, longer wheel­base ve­hi­cles will tow in a more sta­ble fash­ion.

A live rear axle is usu­ally bet­ter for load car­ry­ing than an in­de­pen­dent sus­pen­sion de­sign, so with the tow­ball down­load im­posed and a loaded ve­hi­cle it makes a bet­ter fist of it.

Be­cause the live axle is tougher, there is usu­ally a higher axle load limit than in­de­pen­dent de­signs. Tyre wear is even with live axles be­cause the wheel’s re­la­tion­ship to the road never changes. That is not al­ways the case with in­de­pen­dent sus­pen­sions that can in­tro­duce neg­a­tive cam­ber when com­pressed, even with load lev­ellers to iron out ride level.

There are also fewer bush­ings, and those there are will last longer be­cause of the tougher na­ture of the sus­pen­sion ap­pli­ca­tion.

FUEL FUROR

The diesel ver­sus petrol ar­gu­ment has many pros and cons. Tow­ing a heavy car­a­van puts a lot of load on an en­gine and while a petrol en­gine of ad­e­quate dis­place­ment and with good torque out­put will hap­pily shoul­der this, it will con­sume a lot of fuel do­ing so. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, you can count on at least 50 per cent more fuel use when tow­ing a tan­dem-axle van with a six or eight-cylin­der petrol en­gine ve­hi­cle than when trav­el­ling solo.

The mod­ern tur­bod­iesel en­gine is the best com­pro­mise for tow­ing, typ­i­cally pro­vid­ing that strong, mid-range torque that’s so use­ful when tour­ing on the open road with a car­a­van. The added bonus is con­sump­tion will, gen­er­ally speak­ing, not be as high as a petrol vari­ant.

The down­side is that be­cause tur­bod­iesels have be­come so ad­vanced, they can be more prone to ex­pen­sive fail­ures.

What­ever you choose, make sure you do your re­search so that you don’t get caught out with a com­bi­na­tion that is il­le­gal or, just as bad, ter­ri­ble to tour with.

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Clock­wise from top left: A sep­a­rate chas­sis ve­hi­cle is of­ten best for tow­ing; live axle leaf spring rear sus­pen­sion is gen­er­ally bet­ter for tow­ing; ve­hi­cles that have been tow-tested be­fore re­lease are a bet­ter bet for a tow tug; the 4.5L petrol 80 Se­ries

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