What’s the best vehicle for towing?

Article from 4WDing Australia.

If you were to ask this question on Facebook, you’d be inundated with a heap of responses from those recommending the vehicle that they tow with. Unfortunately, the correct answer cannot be found so simply, and when choosing the best towing vehicle you should be considering a wide range of factors, which we look into in depth below. If you get it wrong, you risk damage to your vehicle, having your insurance claims reduced or declined or even at risk of criminal charges.

Ultimately though, the best towing vehicle is not a one size fits all answer. There are a myriad of good tow vehicles out there, and your job should be to match the vehicle to what you want to tow. It’s all about knowing what makes a good tow vehicle, and picking what is most suitable for your situation. The best tow vehicle is the one that tows your setup safely, legally and suits your needs.

If you haven’t already seen the post we wrote about how to understand weights, and keep yourself legal this is a fantastic post that makes a complicated subject very simple to understand, and you can follow along with your own vehicles and figures; Towing Capacity.

For the purpose of this guide, we are looking at towing trailers that are over the 1500kg mark, as most vehicles on the market can tow under that without too many issues. Anyway, enough of the fluff, and onto the business.

What makes the best tow vehicle?

It can legally tow your trailer in the real world

So many people say ‘I own this, and it tows this no problems’. I promise you, just because your vehicle is able to tow something doesn’t mean it should, or that it is legally allowed to. There are 7 items that you need to comply with, which you can read in the ‘Towing Capacity’ link just above here.

There’s been a general improvement in people’s understanding of weights, but most people only know about GVM, payload and GCM and that’s about where it ends. This is just the tip of the iceberg. 

What you realise really quickly is that the figures that 4WD manufacturers give you are all smoke and mirrors, and that a 3500kg towing capacity is only possible under extreme circumstances, without upgrades taking place. If you have a modified 4WD, or one that is well loaded up, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to tow the vehicles full towing capacity.

If you don’t believe me, have a read of our mobile weighing post, where we took our Isuzu Dmax, and 2200kg Hybrid Camper trailer and we were almost illegal and overweight, despite being well under the 3500kg towing capacity.

Can your 4WD legally tow the trailer and be under all of the required weights?

It has limited overhang

The less distance you have between the rear axle and the tow ball, relative to the overall length of your vehicle the better it will tow. Dual cab Utes have a significant overhang, and are always going to be worse at towing heavier trailers than a Wagon. That’s not to say they can’t tow well, or are not worth buying, but a wagon will always tow better due to the smaller overhang. 

Some dual cab Utes, like the Mitsubishi Triton have their rear axle further forward, with makes towing even worse as the leverage applied on the tow ball is increased even beyond that of a normal dual cab Ute. No one wants a bent chassis, like is becoming extremely common.

It’s all to do with the way a vehicle can control the pitch and yaw of a trailer, and the more overhang you have, the worse it is.

The more overhang on your 4WD, the worse it will tow

It has reliability plus

Towing works your vehicle very hard. The heavier and larger the load, the harder the car works. If its not reliable, well maintained or properly set up, you will have issues in the engine, drive line and potentially other areas. 

If you don’t have an OBD2 reader, you should get one. Monitoring some basic parameters can literally save your vehicle from destruction. Things like coolant temperature and automatic transmission temperature are hugely important when towing. On that note, an automatic transmission cooler is a very highly regarded modification to any automatic vehicle that is towing something heavy, as the transmission works super hard.

If the fluid gets too hot, its lifespan reduces dramatically, and you can do serious, permanent damage to the internals of your automatic transmission (which will cost you anywhere from 5 – 20k).

If your vehicle isn’t super reliable, its not the perfect tow rig.

It’s suitable for your trailer

I’ve seen some pretty interesting combinations on the road. If you have a huge, off-road van, towing it with something that is low to the ground is not going to work well for keeping the two level. An Audi Q7 might have a great towing capacity, but they are quite low to the ground, and you shouldn’t have the van pointing down onto the tow ball.

Likewise, wheel track is important if you plan on going off road, and the tow ball weight needs to be under the maximum for your vehicle (and tow bar)

It weighs more than than your trailer

Now, this is going to stir the pot, and you’ll get a lot of people that will disagree here. Regardless, it is best practice to have a tow vehicle that weighs more than the trailer you are towing. It’s not a must, and there are a lot of people who don’t do this, but towing 3500kg with a 4WD that weighs in at 2 tonnes is a recipe for disaster. The tail is able to wag the dog, so to speak, and your vehicle will not have proper control over what you are towing.

If you are towing a 3 tonne van, your vehicle should weigh at least 3 tonnes, and this is where you run into issues with GCM, and need to start looking at a truck, or American Ute (F250, Silverado, Dodge Ram etc).

Our Dmax is about 3 tonne, and the trailer is a maximum of 2.5 tonne

It maintains a decent payload with the trailer attached

Your tow ball weight comes off your GVM. That means if you have 300kg on the tow ball, you have 300kg less payload. If you attach the trailer, and then have no payload left for the passengers and gear in your 4WD, you don’t have the right vehicle of choice.

This is a major problem when some vehicles only start off with 600 – 700kg of payload to begin with. Put your family in, and a 300kg tow ball weight, and you can be overweight already without any accessories, a full tank of fuel or any other gear in the 4WD!

If you have no payload left once the van is hooked up, you are in trouble

It’s not at the end of the vehicles limits

Going on from above, just because your vehicle can tow something doesn’t mean it should. If you are right at the limits of your GVM, GCM, tow ball weight, axle weights or what ever it may be, you are going to be increasing the chances of something going wrong.

If you head off road, this is going to be made even more likely, as the stresses are significantly more. There are a couple of 4WD manufacturers who state if you are going off road you should only load up to 80% of GVM, and this is a smart move.

It suits your trailers tow ball weight

Tow ball weights on trailers range from practically nothing (like an empty box trailer) through to 350 – 450kg on seriously heavy caravans. Asides from the need to comply with your vehicles maximum tow ball weight (and the tow bars) you need to ensure your tow ball weight suits the vehicle you want to tow with based on what you are using it for. 

As an example, on a normal dual cab 4WD, you might get away with towing a caravan with a 300kg tow ball weight (assuming you are under all of the required weights), but if you were to head off road with this in tow, you are at high risk of a bent chassis. 300kg applied right to the back of your vehicle can translate into significantly more when you hit a bump, ledge or step up off road, and in our opinion this sort of weight off road would only suit a vehicle that is significantly stronger.

If you want to tow your trailer off road to the more adventurous places, you really want a tow ball weight that is under 250kg at the absolute maximum, with the lighter being better. Anything around 150kg would be better again. At the end of the day, it highlights the need to match your tow vehicle to the trailer you buy.

You shouldn’t make a 3 tonne caravan have a 100kg tow ball weight as it will be totally instable, but if your vehicle isn’t safe with a 300kg tow ball weight perhaps you have the wrong vehicle, or the wrong trailer to begin with.

Tow ball weight is critical

It’s capable of towing where you want to go

Bitumen is one thing, but if you plan on heading off the road well travelled, your tow vehicle needs to be able to do this, with the trailer you have. Towing a big, 2.5 tonne plus caravan on a soft beach with a conventional 4WD is going to end badly for you. Likewise, if you plan on dragging a heavy trailer up a steep 4WD track to the top of a mountain, your automatic transmission is going to get hurt badly.

Again, this all comes down to the limitations of the vehicle you are choosing, and how heavy your trailer is. The heavier the trailer, the bigger and stronger the vehicle needed to tow it.

If you want to drag your trailer back up a dune, you need the right vehicle

It has enough torque and power

Going on from the above, there are a heap of 4WD’s that have a ‘3500kg towing capacity‘. However, if you actually hook a 3.5 tonne trailer onto the back of them and take it for a drive, you’ll realise that they simply are not suited for that task. Motors are getting smaller and smaller today, with more and more output, and if you are running them at maximum for a lot of their life, they are going to fail earlier. 

There is a significant difference in towing with a 5.6L V8 Petrol Y62 Nissan Patrol compared to a 2.4L Turbo Diesel Mitsubishi Triton in stability, but most obviously in torque and power. Again, you can sometimes get away with it, but you will have issues maintaining speed when there are hills, getting up to speed takes a long time and there’s no hope that you’d be able to take it on anything that requires extra power or torque.

It’s OK in the leverage and axle weights area

The last point that I will make, which a lot of people don’t think about is the leverage effect, and axle weights of your vehicle. Along with the GVM, you need to ensure that your axle weights are also compliant.

For example, an Isuzu Dmax might have a GVM of 2950kg. On top of this, the front axle weight maximum could be 1270kg, and the rear 1860kg. Often the two axle weights added together are more than the GVM, and this is done to allow you some wiggle room in having more weight over the rear, than the front.

However, there only a little wiggle room, and leverage can hugely hurt this. Lets say you take a totally stock Dmax, and you put a 3 tonne caravan behind it, with a 320kg tow ball weight. With the wheelbase of a Dmax being 3095mm, and the overhang being 1375mm, adding 320kg to the tow ball is going to shift 142kg from the front axles to the rear.

Ultimately, you end up with 320kg plus 142kg on your rear axle. That’s 462kg. Take that away from your maximum rear axle weight, and the original rear axle weight, and you can be in some pretty serious trouble even though you might be under GVM, and GCM.

What are some good tow vehicles?

Y62 Patrol

When it comes to power, the Y62 is king in the traditional sized 4WD market. These run a 5.6L V8 Petrol motor, and will comfortably tow big caravans up to 3.5 tonnes (you still have to watch the GVM and other weight figures). They will use a fair bit of fuel doing it (25 – 32L/100km) but will reliably, comfortably and safely tow your bigger trailers.

If you have something smaller, and lighter weight, you’ll comfortably be able to tow it off road, even in soft sand and have the best chance of not getting stuck.

200 Series

The major competitor to the Y62 Patrol is the 200 Series Land Cruiser, and to be honest I’ve never seen such fierce competition between owners of the two. The 200 Series Land Cruiser is significantly more common than the Patrol, and has been out since 2007, making some 14 years of vehicles. 

These run a twin turbo V8 diesel motor, and have plenty of torque and a decent chunk of power. These will also comfortably tow a bigger trailer, and have plenty of upgrades available for GVM and GCM (state dependent!)

This is important, because the factory payload of a 200 series is nothing short of abysmal. Fit some basic accessories, load your family in and a bit of gear and hook a light trailer on the rear, and you will be at maximum GVM. In stock form, these are not very suitable for towing larger trailers unless you can keep the vehicle very light.

The 200 Series Land Cruiser is one of the most popular towing vehicles in Australia

Dual cab Utes

I’m not going to go into all of the dual cab Utes. In essence, they are all very similar anyway in terms of towing capacities, and what they can actually tow safely. You will be at greater risk towing a heavier trailer with a dual cab Ute than you would with a wagon, especially if they aren’t loaded well.

Whether its an Isuzu Dmax, Toyota Hilux, Holden Colorado, Ford Ranger, Volkswagen Amarok, or Mazda BT-50, the end result for towing is going to be fairly similar.

The only exception to this is the 79 series Land Cruiser, which is a heavier duty Dual cab ute, and has a much higher payload and GCM. They are expensive, quite agricultural but certainly a heavier duty version of Ute, and a lot of people like them as tow vehicles.

American Dual Cab Utes

We are starting to get spoilt for choice in Australia. There are a lot of American Dual Cab Utes, or ‘Yank Tanks’ as many people refer to them.

Some of the options include the Dodge Ram 1500, Dodge Ram 2500, Chevy Silverado, Ford F250 and Toyota Tundra. These are essentially a normal Australian dual cab Ute on steroids. The motors are much bigger capacity, and so are their payloads, GVM, axle capacities and GCM. Still do your research though, as some will not have much payload left when towing their maximum capacity. 

These can also be licensed in different configurations. Many are 4495 GVM, but you can license some of them as an actual truck, and have their GVM at up to 6 tonnes in this configuration. It does mean you need a truck license to drive it, but this is the path a lot of people are going to tow their big vans safely.

An F250 with a boat on the back and trailer in tow, all well within its specs

Actual trucks

Again, the actual 4WD truck option is taking off in Australia in a big way. Think of a 4500kg towing capacity, whilst retaining a 1500kg payload, and you’ll soon see the attraction. Some of the main 4WD trucks that people are using as tow vehicles include the Iveco Daily 4×4, Mitsubishi Fuso/Canter, Isuzu NPS 300, Hino 300 and on the odd occasion a Unimog or Oka. 

These are significantly bigger, significantly stronger and ride very differently to a traditional 4WD. Whilst they are not the ideal daily vehicle, a lot of people do use them on truck licenses.

An actual truck is not a bad way to tow a heavy trailer and maintain plenty of payload.

Common modifications for tow vehicles

GVM Upgrades

Once you understand the different weights you have to comply with when towing a trailer, it becomes pretty obvious why so many vehicles have GVM upgrades. It’s simply not possible for the average family to travel in a normal 4WD towing a full size, off road van with all the gear and be legal in the GVM department.

You can get a heap of GVM upgrades today, but pay careful attention to the different laws in each state, particularly around pre and post GVM upgrades. We ended up with a GVM upgrade on our Dmax, which you can read about here – ARB GVM Upgrade.

Old Man Emu Suspension and GVM Upgrade on our Isuzu Dmax

GCM Upgrades

It is still possible to get GCM upgrades in parts of Australia. Some states have outlawed it, and some are very restrictive (think 6WD conversions, or chassis extensions). If the combined weight of your trailer and vehicle are at their maximum, it might just be possible to have it increased to a number that makes you completely legal.

Automatic transmission coolers

If you have an automatic transmission, and you are towing anything over 1.5 tonnes, you should have an OBD2 reader, and be monitoring your automatic transmission temperatures. Automatics are super convenient and reliable if they are treated well, and not allowed to get too hot. 

Towing works your vehicle hard, and if you don’t keep an eye on the transmission temperatures and the oil runs hot for a long period of time (or a short period at very high temperatures), you can be up for a new transmission at a cost of 8 – 20k.

If your temperatures are regularly running north of 110 degrees, you should fit an aftermarket transmission cooler, and make sure you are getting the fluid changed every 40 – 50k.

The external transmission cooler on our Dmax

Towing mirrors

If your van is wider than your factory mirrors, you cannot drive in Australia without extended, towing mirrors. This is regardless of what camera system you have; its just not legal. Clearview, MSA, Milenco, Ocam and a heap of other manufacturers make mirrors specifically for your vehicles, and you need to have them, and use them properly.

Clearview towing mirrors for a van (with a nice blue wren on top!)

Tyre pressure monitoring systems

A more and more common accessory for towing today is a tyre pressure monitoring system. You can get wireless ones that run off solar for under a few hundred dollars, which alert you when your tyre pressures drop suddenly. If you get a puncture, it will give you some notification that there is a problem and you have time to slow down and pull over safely.

Without it, you’d be driving at high speed until you felt something was wrong, and with a big van (especially if its single axle) this can be the point of no return, when it starts to sway and drag your vehicle around.

For a few hundred dollars, getting a TPMS is often money well spent

Rear trailer cameras

Another item that is invaluable is a reversing camera on your trailer. A lot of people have them in their vehicles already, and these are super useful when hitching your trailer up and ensuring you don’t back into anything, or anyone. The trouble is, once you have a trailer hooked up, often you can’t see behind them anyway, and you are in the same situation. 

By fitting a rear vision camera to your trailer you maintain perfect visibility, and ensure you don’t back into anyone. It also makes backing into a camping site a lot easier.

So, what’s the perfect towing vehicle?

There are lots of great towing vehicles out there today. At the end of the day, if it does what you need it to safely, its perfect. You don’t need a 100k + towing vehicle for many applications, but there are times where you should have something bigger and more suited to the task.

What do you tow with? How does it go?

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Comments 4

  1. Most blokes love their rigs and will not be told it’s not the right vehicle for what they are towing I’ve been travelling WA now for 5 months and you see hundreds of utes towing big, big vans. As you say, they will tow it, but have a prang and get put under the weight microscope and your going to have issues with the insurance company. We all know if they can get out of paying they will. I drive in a 200 series with rear bags and an upgrade. I tow a van that is 3.2t. I change oil and filters every 5k because it may be a 4.5L V8 but they work hard.
    I think most of the Ute drivers are either not willing to part ways with a lot of there hard earned cash or they use their business vehicle which is fully understandable.

  2. I think you have made a mistake in your article when you say a big American ute can carry more weight than a dual cab mid size ute ,I think you will find that a Ram 1500 has less weight carrying capacity by around 200kg. I stand to be corrected if wrong.

  3. Excellent article.
    It can be daunting for most prospective purchasers of campers and caravans, when it comes to a vehicles eligibility for towing/weight distribution purposes.
    This article outlines clearly what one should be aware of and how to ascertain the safe and legal requirements in relation to towing matters.
    I learnt a good deal from reading this and my enlightenment and edification has vastly improved.
    Thanks 4X4

  4. My GU Patrol is fitted with a 4L80E auto. I recently had a new torque converter built with a triple plate clutch to provide lock-up. The difference in transmission temperature and fuel consumption is remarkable. Before the change temperatures were as high as 105°C when towing. While towing using the lock-up, temperature sits as low as 70°C.
    Fuel savings are around 3 litres per 100 km.

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