You would think a big 4×4 could tow most caravans.

The biggest SUVs often have legal towing limits as high as 3500kg and kerbweights over two tonnes, so there aren’t many tourers they can’t sensibly tow.

That’s what Practical Caravan reader Melvin Hay was expecting when he bought a new Audi Q7 in March.

However, he was shocked to be told that his big, powerful new 4×4 couldn’t tow his caravan.

You might want to put the kettle on and make a cup of tea, because this turns into a bit of a saga (although there is a happy ending…).

The problem

When Mel collected his car he noticed it had ‘Trailer assist’, which helps the driver reverse a caravan or trailer. There’s a plastic ring around the towball which contains sensors for this system.

He also noted that the towball was painted. Melvin queried whether the paint on the towball should be removed and the dealer told him there was no need.

Unconvinced, Mel checked the answer he had been given with Al-Ko, the manufacturer of the chassis and the AKS 3004 stabiliser hitch fitted to his caravan.

“Their response shocked me,” Mel told Practical Caravan. “The paint should be removed and the Audi Trailer assist ball was not compatible with AKS 3004.”

A question of compatibility

So, Mel owned a brand-new 4×4 which, according to Al-Ko, wasn’t suitable for towing his caravan. He contacted Audi customer services, who confirmed that Al-Ko was correct.

Audi told him: “It has been confirmed by our Technical Department that this towbar is not compatible with the Al-Ko stabiliser on the caravan, as the towbar has Trailer assist.”

Could the towball be swapped for one compatible with an Al-Ko stabiliser? Apparently not.

“Now that a genuine accessory towbar has been fitted and coded, and activated to the vehicle and the PR code changed, it cannot be removed or swapped for a different towbar – it is fitted for the life of the vehicle.

“The factory will not allow the vehicle to be recoded for a different towbar or to recode the vehicle back to standard factory codings. It would not be possible to retrofit a non-genuine towbar to your Audi Q7, as the towbar could not be coded to your Audi vehicle again,” customer services told Mel.

”With regards to the above information, the only other option would be to change the caravan trailer stabiliser to comply with the towbar on your Audi Q7. 

I am sorry that this is not the information you were hoping to hear, and for any disappointment this may cause.”

A ray of light

Mel contacted us to bring the problem to our attention.

Was the company’s flagship 4×4 really unable to tow most modern UK caravans? And was the only solution available to remove an important safety feature and fit a non-stabiliser hitch?

Initially Audi confirmed what Mel had been told, telling us the plastic ring in the towball could be damaged by a stabiliser hitch.

So far so bad, but a few weeks later Mel had some good – if rather confusing – news. He was about to return the car to the dealership, but at the eleventh hour, the Audi dealer told him the information they had been given initially was wrong.

“The service manager stated that it was safe to tow, but there would be wear on the clutch plates and the towball ring. He confirmed that the ring was easily replaced in five minutes and was warrantied for three years.

“He could not offer any view on how long before the ring or wear on the clutch would cause an issue,” Mel told us.

“In the handbook it indicates that the towball is suitable for a hitch with side clutch stabilisers, the Al-Ko 3004 has clutch plates at the sides and front and back.”

We went back to Audi.

What had changed?

Audi told us: “In order to address customer concerns about compatibility between the factory approved towball available for the Audi Q7 and the Al-Ko AKS 3004 trailer stabiliser, Audi UK has been in close consultation with the relevant departments within Audi AG.

“Technicians there have extensively retested the components as a precaution and have confirmed that the Al-Ko stabiliser is fully compatible, and safe to use, with the factory fitted towball.

“To prevent damage to the towball’s rotation sensor the owner’s manual for the Q7 stipulates that any stabiliser used should be fitted with friction linings at its sides. The Al-Ko 3004 stabiliser is equipped with these linings and is therefore approved for use.”

Al-Ko has told us that the older 2004 stabiliser is fitted with the necessary friction linings, as well as the current 3004.

Happy holidays!

Mel now has written confirmation from the supplying dealer that the towball fitted to his Q7 is suitable for use with his caravan, and he says the dealership has been understanding and supportive throughout.

He’s now looking forward to his summer caravan holidays, albeit with some concern as to how the plastic ring and the sensors inside will hold up.

“I must say I still have my doubts about whether the Trailer assist system will work, and how long the sensor ring will last. No doubt after my tow to the south of France and back this summer I will be a bit wiser. Watch this space!”

We wish Mel a happy and hassle-free trip.