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Car buying tips

How to buy the best tow car

By Martin Pratt

Article 10 of 11

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How to buy the best tow car

Want to buy a tow car? Whether you’re looking to tow a caravan, boat, horse box or trailer, our top 10 tips will help you choose the best tow car for 2017.

A good, reliable tow car is essential if you own a caravan, trailer, boat or horse box. 

As your tow car needs to cope with the rigours of towing, it’s important that you choose wisely – we’re here to help. 

We’ve put together this essential guide to make sure you know all you need to about buying the best tow car. Keep reading for our top 10 tips for buying the best towing vehicle to suits your needs.

Our unique research means that we can tell you which cars are the most reliable and efficient, and the best to drive. So you’ll know that the car you’re buying won’t let you down. Discover the cars we recommend – see our round-up of the best cars. 

1. What weight are you towing?

The first thing to establish is how much weight you’ll be towing. Small caravans can weigh below 750kg, but some larger ones can weigh up 2,500kg, so do your research. 

Don’t forget to add in the weight of any extra items you’re carrying, such as camping gear. If you’re towing a horse box, the weight of a couple of horses can easily double it.

2. Before you buy, check how much the car can tow

Car manufacturers always publish towing capacities for their cars, so ask about this to make sure your intended purchase will be able to cope. However, the limits quoted are what a model is physically capable of pulling, not necessarily what would be routinely safe to pull. 

There’s no hard-and-fast rule, but many towing specialists recommend that whatever you’re towing doesn’t exceed 85% of your car’s weight. For instance, if your car weighs 1,470kg, it would only be recommended to tow something weighing less than 1,250kg. Generally speaking, the lower the weight ratio between your car and what it’s towing, the better.

What driving licence you hold, and when you passed your test, is also a factor in determining what you can legally tow.

3. Braked or unbraked? There’s a big difference when towing

Manufacturers always quote ‘braked’ and ‘unbraked’ maximum loads. The braked figure refers to trailers and caravans that are hooked up to the car’s braking system. These have their own brakes that are activated when you press the pedal. 

If what you’re towing doesn’t have its own brakes, it needs to weigh much less than the braked figure to be safe to tow.

4. Considering noseweight

If you’re towing a caravan, you’ll also need to establish its noseweight – in other words, the weight bearing down on the car’s towball, which is the part of the car that whatever you’re towing attaches to. You can do this either by asking the manufacturer or by using a noseweight scale. Then check that this comes in under your car’s towball limit.

5. What cars are best for towing heavy loads?

Got something big to tow? If you need to transport a horse box, sports boat or eight-berth caravan, you’re going to need something pretty serious; that means a full-sized SUV.

We’re talking about cars such as the Volkswagen Touareg and Land Rover Discovery, which can tow up to around 3.5 tonnes (braked). 

Our latest reliability survey has revealed some large SUVs that have disappointingly poor reliability – and the last thing you want is a workhorse you can’t rely on. Find a car that’s up to the task by heading to our best large SUVs.  

6. What cars are best for towing medium loads?

If you need a practical everyday car that can also be pressed into towing a caravan or boat, a medium-sized SUV or estate car is ideal. That way, you can avoid the typically high running costs of a full-sized SUV. 

Examples of medium-sized SUVs include the Audi Q5, Honda CR-V and Skoda Yeti. Many estate cars are well suited to towing, too. Some, like the Skoda Superb estate, are available with 4x4. 

Despite what the car manufacturers say, even estates and compact SUVs can use a lot of fuel. Our independent tests reveal just how fuel efficient a car really is – for the full picture of the best cars, check out our best compact SUVs and best estate cars.

7. What cars are best for towing lighter loads?

If you only have a small trailer or caravan to tow, you really don’t need a huge 4x4. 

Even medium-sized hatchbacks, such as the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf, can do the job. The current Audi A3, for example, has maximum towing weights of 690kg/1,800kg (unbraked/braked). 

The medium-sized car market is huge and fiercely competitive. But you can cut straight through the fluff by heading for our best medium cars.

8. What about trailer stability assist systems?

Wallowing or jack-knifing can occur when you’re towing, which can be difficult to control. Trailer stability assist systems aim to mitigate this. 

They use the car’s stability control system, automatically braking one or more wheels and limiting torque (pulling power), to bring the motion back under control.

9. What tow bar should you use?

Most carmakers offer their own bespoke tow bars, some of which have the advantage of being hidden away when not in use. However, you don’t necessarily need a manufacturer’s own tow bar – they’re normally more expensive than proprietary ones, which can be every bit as good.

10. Diesel, petrol or hybrid tow car?

Diesel engines, with their huge reserves of torque (pulling power), have traditionally been the engines of choice for tow cars, especially as fuel consumption is usually better with diesel. Some drivers prefer the instant response of a large petrol engine, but fuel costs can be prohibitive.

If you’re interesting in buying a hybrid, then do your homework carefully. For example, Toyota’s Auris Hybrid and Prius are not designed to tow at all, but others – such as the Lexus RX450h and Volvo V60 PHEV Plug-In Hybrid – can tow almost as much as a diesel.

Fantastic reliability, great fuel economy, easy to drive? Whatever you want from a car, you can use our expert independent car reviews to find the right model at the right price.

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