Alastair ClementsSee other Blog articles filed in ‘Tow cars’ written by Alastair Clements
These days, ‘petrol’ is almost a dirty word, particularly in the world of towing. Yet in this year’s Tow Car Awards, we introduced a category specifically for cars powered by this fuel, which was once a staple for cars in the UK but has now become something of a retro choice as the majority of us follow our Continental neighbours by switching to diesel.
And the reason why we’ve made that change is pretty clear: on the whole, turbodiesels are more fuel efficient than their petrol counterparts, and as tow cars they excel thanks to their healthy torque figures, usually produced nice and low down in the rev range – ideal when lugging a heavy load.
But recently, unleaded has been fighting back, with several manufacturers introducing powerful, fuel-efficient and all-round ‘greener’ petrol engines, which have allowed them to put smaller engines in larger cars without leaving them gasping for breath on hills or when towing.
So when we needed a tow car at short notice for a cover shoot earlier in the summer, I grabbed the opportunity to try out our 2014 Petrol Tow Car award-winner, the Vauxhall Insignia Sports Tourer 1.6i Turbo. Although it’s only a 1.6-litre, it boasts 16 vales, turbocharging and direct injection and musters a very healthy 168bhp. Our test car also had a natty swing-out towbar, which is useful because the Insignia is a very pretty thing, sacrificing some practicality in terms of boot space in favour of an elegant roofline.
It’s also pretty good to drive without a caravan in tow. The engine is quiet and smooth, but with a pleasing snarl at the top end, and it’s an excellent mile-eater. We hitched it up to a Venus 540/4 with an MTPLM of 1295kg (within the 1371kg recommended 85% match for this car, which has a kerbweight of 1613kg) and initially it felt very composed, just as our testers had found.
The only problem occurred when we began trying to do a cover shoot in a rather steep part of the scenic Trough of Bowland, near Preston in the north west of England. Because the dreaded ‘T’ word that has always dogged petrol engines – ‘torque’ – began to rear its head. No, it isn’t a hugely heavy van, and the 1.6 turbo petrol offers a pretty decent 191lb ft at 1950rpm, but we still really struggled when photographer Phil had me doing repeated hill starts on some of the steeper climbs. Our problems weren’t aided by a torque limiter that prevented me giving lots of revs before releasing the clutch.
Overall, however, the Vauxhall Insignia Sports Tourer was a very pleasant companion. Good enough to persuade me to ditch the diesel? Well, that resolve was tested a few weeks ago when we were lucky enough to be offered an Insignia as a long-term test car. We pondered, we wavered... And then we promptly plumped for a 2.0 CDTi, with a whopping 258lb ft of torque yet only 20bhp less than the petrol – not to mention the chance of 30mpg-plus, even when towing.
So far we haven’t been disappointed. It feels superbly stable on tow, with not a wiggle from the caravan, and the engine picks up easily and pulls hard with a load behind. The moral of the story? A change may be as good as a rest, but in the long run it’s better to stick to what you know...