When you’re new to caravanning, you probably chose your first van to suit your existing car – but we’ll bet that, once bitten by the bug, you’ll be choosing a tow car to suit the next caravan.
Here we will assume that you are familiar with the aspects of vehicle and caravan weights for your tow car shortlist, while the choice of saloon, hatchback, estate or MPV is entrenched and your budget decided.
The first question, then, is choosing the right tow car engine. Very soon, new electric vehicles (EVs) will be mandatory. Battery EVs – in my opinion, a technical cul de sac – will be enforced initially, but their current towing capacity is so poor and its effect on range so catastrophic, we will leave them aside for now.
Today, engine choice is wider than ever, with petrol and diesel joined by mild hybrid electric vehicles (MHEVs) as well as the ‘traditional’ or ‘self-charging’ hybrid and the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV).
In a MHEV, the wheels are driven by the petrol or diesel engine, with assistance – in simple terms – from a small motor that draws power from a 48V battery, recharged on the overrun or going downhill.
The conventional, so-called self-charging hybrid drives the wheels solely by the combustion engine, or only the electric motor, or a combination of both.
A PHEV (see: our guide to the best plug-in hybrid tow cars) can drive the wheels via an electric motor, with battery power from a mains charge until it is drained, or via the combustion engine, with the driver often able to choose the source of motive power. In some models, the combustion engine does not drive the wheels, acting instead as a generator for the electric motor.
Too much choice?
In sum, when you’re choosing your tow car engine, you have to find the best that suits your purpose. This used to be a straight choice between petrol and diesel, the rules for which have not changed.
Diesel’s had a bad press, much of it outdated. Governments pushed diesel in company cars and by tax incentives – and this was right. Less fuel burned per mile equals less CO2. The question of particulates became a smokescreen, older diesels being guilty, but Euro 6 requirements made them incredibly clean.
Better torque for towing uphill, better engine braking downhill and much better mpg; plus, as the forecourt price climbs, percentage-wise it favours diesel more. Petrol or diesel for towing? Still diesel.
Then, MHEV or not? Early models were rather crude in application, but now they are seamless. The regenerative effect boosts engine braking, saving brake pad wear, and the motor boosts acceleration and hill climbing, saving fuel.
The battery is larger and much more expensive to replace – like any vehicle with auto stop/start – but for towing a caravan, MHEVs are worthwhile.
The choice of whether to go for a hybrid at all will initially be down to whether you prefer manual or auto: the vast majority of hybrids have only two pedals.
They are more complex for long-term maintenance and offer fuel consumption midway between a petrol or a diesel auto of the same size and weight. The more costly, heavier PHEV is good for short EV-only daily commutes, with towing mpg akin to that of a traditional hybrid.
- Take a look at our caravan towing tips guide for our top advice to staying safe and comfortable on the road.
- Don’t be biased against diesel – Euro 6 diesels are extremely green
- Switch on your MHEV indicator menu, because observing its operation helps effective use
- Most hybrids are EV-only when reversing, in silence, so watch out for pedestrians
- If selectable, set maximum regeneration when towing, for best engine-braking
- Don’t operate a PHEV in EV-only mode when towing a caravan: save the battery for uphill boost
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