Choosing the best used tow car isn’t going to make your caravan holiday, but the wrong one could quite easily break it. A vehicle that’s stable, practical and reliable means every trip should start and finish without stress.
But choose a car that’s sluggish, unstable or unreliable, and every towing journey will be something to grin and bear with. Making the right choice is important, whether you are shopping for a new or a used tow car. If you are looking at the secondhand market, though, there are extra pitfalls to be aware of.
You’ll need a car that’s suitable for the task, and one that’s been well looked after by its previous owners. Older cars might not come with any warranty, so choosing a car that won’t let you down becomes even more crucial than when you’re buying new.
Here are our tips to make sure you buy the right towing vehicle.
1 Start with the caravan
Whatever the age of car you plan to buy, the first question to ask yourself is: “Will it safely and legally tow my caravan?”
To find the answer, you need to start by knowing the weight of your tourer. Don’t match by the Mass in Running Order (MiRO), use the Maximum Technically Permissible Laden Mass (MTPLM) instead. This is the heaviest the caravan is allowed to be when fully loaded.
Let’s say your caravan has an MTPLM of 1350kg. To abide by the 85% guideline, which both the big caravanning clubs recommend for safe and stable towing, means choosing a car with a kerbweight of 1588kg (1350 divided by 85, multiplied by 100). So you’ll be looking for a car with a kerbweight of 1588kg or more.
To stay the right side of the law, it will also need to have a legal towing limit of at least 1350kg.
2 FWD, RWD or 4WD?
Most modern cars are front-wheel drive. Some vehicles, usually executive saloons and estates or high-performance cars, are rear-wheel drive. SUVs are often, but not always, 4x4s. Some estates and MPVs have 4×4 versions, such as the Volkswagen Passat Alltrack.
Setting aside the question of value for a moment, 4WD vehicles generally make the best towing vehicles, especially if you plan to tour all year or often stay on farm campsites. They also weigh more than 2WD models, which helps with matching ratios.
However, a 4WD model isn’t necessarily going to be the right choice for everyone.
A 2WD version will provide better fuel economy than a 4WD, and will generally cost less on the used market. And if you are considering a 4WD version of an estate or MPV, you might have to search far and wide to track down a good secondhand example, whereas 2WDs will be more plentiful.
If most of your towing takes place in the summer months, and you generally stay on hardstanding pitches, you might not derive enough benefit from 4WD to justify the higher purchase price and running costs.
3. Manual or auto?
There’s no hard-and-fast rule as to whether a manual or an auto is better to tow with. This really comes down to personal preference. That said, always compare the towing limits of manual and automatic versions of the same model carefully. You can’t assume they will be the same. For example, a 2011- 2015 Honda Accord 2.2 i-DTEC manual has a legal towing limit of 1500kg. That drops to just 1100kg for the automatic.
4 The right fuel type
There’s no doubt that diesel cars aren’t as popular as they used to be, certainly among new car buyers. And falling sales on the new market have made used car buyers more cautious about choosing diesel, because of quite understandable fears about resale values and whether cars will be allowed into clean air zones in towns and cities.
Values of diesel cars have weakened over the past few years, although they started out from a position of strength, typically holding on to more of their original price than their petrol counterparts. That has now flipped around, and petrol values are usually a few percentage points stronger than diesel values, but the price of used diesels hasn’t collapsed.
What’s more, this softening of diesel prices can play into the canny tow car buyer’s hands. You pay less than you would have done a few years back for a similar car, and still get the benefit of better fuel economy.
So for our money, with more pulling power and greater fuel economy, diesel is a better bet for regular towing.
You can also tow with a handful of pure electric cars, and some self-charging and plug-in hybrids. Of these, the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is most likely to be on your shopping list. Although it’s no better than middling as a tow car, it could make sense for an owner who mostly completes short journeys and can regularly rely on electric power alone.
5 Read the reviews
In each issue of Practical Caravan, we put two tow cars to the test – and our assessments are extremely rigorous. What’s more, each issue also includes a buyer’s guide to a particular used model. So put that big pile of back issues to good use when coming up with your shortlist of used tow cars. We regularly add new tow car reviews online too, so be sure to look back regularly.
6 Satisfaction and reliability surveys
Clearly, new car buyers don’t want their vehicle to break down. But reliability has to be an even bigger factor when choosing a used car, especially one that will face the extra wear and strain of towing a caravan. Take a good look at reliability and owner satisfaction surveys to narrow down your shortlist of possible cars.
7 Towball, or not?
One of the oldest clichés in used car buying guides is to walk away if the car has a towball. While this is clearly nonsense, it really does pay to check what a used car has been towing.
If you are buying from a private seller, ask what they tow and make sure it’s not more than the car could reasonably handle.
If the car already has a towball fitted, be very sure that it has been maintained properly, especially in terms of the clutch and the gearbox.
If the car doesn’t have towing gear, look into the cost of having this fitted before you buy. Check with the manufacturer if cars with factory-fit towing gear have additional cooling fitted, because this can be extremely expensive to retrofit.
Finding the right used tow car means doing your research first. Knowing the weight of your caravan is a start, then thinking about the kind of towing you do will help narrow the shortlist further.
Our regular tow car reviews will help you whittle down the list, and reliability surveys will show which cars prove durable after years on the road. Track down a good example of the right car for you, and you should be able to enjoy thousands of miles of happy towing.
You can also take a look at our guide to buying a car online, where we talk you through the various considerations.
If you liked this, why not read these:
- Want to take a look at the top new towing vehicles too? In our guide to the best tow cars, we round-up the standout models.
- We share our top towing tips to help you improve your skills
- This guide talks you through the process of reversing a caravan
Are you looking for more great driving advice and tips? Then head to our Back to Basics: Driving category, where we’re giving you the information you need to tow your caravan with confidence.
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