You might be thinking about hitting the road this spring with a new SUV or truck and pulling a trailer or toy hauler. But figuring out what kind of vehicle to get without overspending can be a confusing process.
To help, Edmunds’ car shopping experts have advice on how to better understand the jargon and interpret the potentially misleading towing numbers offered by automakers.
MATCH YOUR VEHICLE TO THE JOB
The towing capacity of your vehicle is generally related to its size. For many small SUVs, expect a tow rating of around 1,000-2,000 pounds. This isn’t much but can be sufficient to tow a small utility trailer.
Upgrade to a new midsize SUV or a midsize pickup truck and you can tow considerably more. Trailers will still be relatively small, but when you want to tow more than a small utility trailer, things can get heavy in a hurry. A maximum towing capacity of about 3,500 to 7,000 pounds should be enough to tow a bigger utility trailer or even a lightweight car trailer.
Going for a new full-size SUV or pickup will seriously increase your capability. With a maximum towing capacity of around 8,000 pounds for a typical full-size SUV or around 12,000 pounds for a light-duty pickup, you can pull many recreational boats, toy haulers and bigger car trailers.
Typically, heavy trailers like these require some upgraded vehicle hardware such as enhanced powertrain cooling, special trailer wiring connections and specific axle gear ratios.
Then there are the heavy-duty trucks. Want to pull a big fifth-wheel trailer or a multi-car trailer across the country? With capabilities pushing past 30,000 pounds, these trucks are the only vehicles up to the task.
UNDERSTAND YOUR VEHICLE’S ACTUAL TOWING CAPACITY
Maximum trailer weight is typically listed in the owner’s manual or on the door sticker of a vehicle and indicates what’s possible. But real-world towing can be quite different.
A Toyota Tacoma, for example, has a maximum towing capacity of 6,800 pounds. But that’s only with a rear-wheel-drive regular cab fitted with a V6 engine and the Tacoma’s optional towing package. Lesser Tacomas might drop to as low as 3,500 pounds depending on the configuration.
Most manufacturers release trailer-capacity guides for a given year, so check for a vehicle’s towing capacity before buying — that way you’ll know more precisely what to look for on a dealer lot.
DECODING TRAILER HITCH CLASSES
A conventional towing setup is the kind with the hitch mounted near the vehicle’s rear bumper. Before towing, you want to check your vehicle’s tow rating and the kind of tow hitch it has. The type of hitch installed varies depending on the class of vehicle and how it’s equipped. Tow hitches are separated into five classes notated by Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV and V). Each class refers to a corresponding higher weight limit.
Heavy-duty pickups can also come with what’s known as a gooseneck or fifth-wheel hitch. These are mounted in the bed of the pickup — similar in style to what you see on a semi-tractor trailer — and allow for higher capability than a conventional tow hitch.
TRAILER TONGUE WEIGHT AND GROSS COMBINED WEIGHT
Trailer tongue weight is how much of your trailer’s weight can be distributed onto the towing vehicle through the tow hitch. Calculating your trailer’s tongue weight requires towing your trailer to a scale. You can typically find these at a large gas station or a truck stop. Then weigh the tow vehicle with and without the trailer and subtract those two measurements. For instance, if your truck weighs 5,000 pounds without a trailer and it weighs 5,600 pounds with the trailer connected but the trailer wheels not on the scale, the tongue weight is 600 pounds.
For most conventional tow-hitch setups, that number should be between 10% and 15% of the trailer’s weight. Gooseneck tongue weight should typically be between 15% and 30% of the trailer’s weight.
You also need to consider your vehicle’s gross combined weight limit. This is what the automaker says is the maximum weight of both your vehicle and the trailer put together. Gross combined weight includes the trailer and anything inside the vehicle, though, so you might not be able to pull as heavy a trailer if you load up your vehicle with extra passengers or gear.
EDMUNDS SAYS: It’s important to research a vehicle’s configurations and options before making your purchase. Look into the right class of vehicle and be realistic about your lifestyle, and you’re more likely to find a vehicle that properly fits your needs without going over its limits.
This story was provided to The Associated Press by the automotive website Edmunds.
Travis Langness is an automotive editor at Edmunds.
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