Choosing a car can be complicated enough, but if you want to tow a caravan, then the decision gets a lot more complicated.
A car that performs just fine on the daily commute won’t necessarily have enough oomph to comfortably pull a caravan, and a small and light car might not be heavy enough to feel stable with a heavy tourer behind it.
Here’s what to look for when deciding what tow car is right for you.
Stability matters most
You’re on your caravan holidays. Imagine you are towing downhill. There’s a strong crosswind blowing. You look in your mirrors and see the caravan starting to sway from side to side.
In caravanning parlance this is known as ‘snaking’ and, as you’ll know if it has ever happened to you, a ‘snake’ is not a pleasant experience. If the caravan doesn’t come back under control, it can lead to a serious accident.
The best way to deal with a snake is to prevent it from happening in the first place. The more stable your tow car (and the more sensible your driving), the less likely it is that a snake will start.
A great number of qualities contribute to the stability of your tow car. One of the most important is how much the car weighs relative to the caravan it is towing. This is sometimes referred to as the matching ratio.
Get your matching ratio right
The Camping and Caravanning Club recommends towing a caravan weighing no more than 85% of the car’s kerbweight, especially if you are new to towing.
This is sometimes called ‘the 85% rule‘, however that term is a little misleading because it is not a legal requirement. But as a rule of thumb, it has served caravanners well for many years.
The upshot of the 85% guideline is that, all else being equal, a heavy tow car will be more stable than a light one pulling the same tourer. Go too far the other way, with a light car and a heavy caravan, and you risk the tail wagging the dog.
However, it would be too simplistic to state that just because a car is heavy it will be stable while towing. Many other factors come into play.
Like what? Well, these include the length of the car’s wheelbase (the distance between the front- and rear-axle), how well controlled the ride is, and whether or not self-levelling suspension is fitted to keep the car level when heavily loaded.
It’s hard to be sure that a particular make and model will make a stable tow car just because it drives well in everyday driving. So it’s worth checking the hundreds of reviews on the Tow Car Awards website, as well as our regular tow tests online, on the Practical Caravan YouTube channel and in Practical Caravan magazine itself.
You should also check that the car can legally tow whatever caravan you plan to match it to. To find the legal limit, take a look in the sales brochure, the handbook, or check the car’s VIN plate.
Electronic aids can help
If you’ve chosen a stable tow car, matched it sensibly to your caravan and you drive it with care then, fingers crossed, you won’t experience a snake.
If you do, it helps to have a car which will work with the driver to bring the caravan back under control.
Any electronic stability system should help, but in some cars there are specific systems designed to work when towing.
These systems have different names (Trailer Stability Assist, Trailer Stability Program and Trailer Sway Control, among others), but all do much the same job.
They detect instability before it becomes pronounced and apply the car’s brakes individually, or reduce the throttle to bring car and caravan under control.
We’ve tried these systems on a number of cars when hitched up, and have found them very effective. So if you are looking for a tow car, check if such technology is – or can be – fitted.
Towing takes torque
Pulling the weight of a caravan puts extra strain on the tow car’s engine and transmission, so it pays to have a punchier engine than you might otherwise be happy with.
Check a car’s specs for the engine’s torque (its pulling power). Measured in lb ft, it’s a lot more important than peak power when towing, unless you’re prepared to rev the engine close to the redline every time you want to accelerate or hold speed on a steep hill.
The more torque an engine has the better, preferably well spread across the lower and middle rev range (say, 1500rpm to 2500rpm).
For strong mid-range torque, it’s hard to beat a good turbodiesel. While diesel power may be steadily falling out of favour with declining sales, there are good reasons to put a diesel at the top of your list if you plan to tow regularly.
The torque characteristics are the most obvious, but diesels also tend to weigh more than petrols, which helps with matching ratios.
In addition, fuel economy while towing is usually much better with a diesel than a petrol-powered car. If anything, the difference between diesel and petrol when it comes to fuel efficiency tends to be more pronounced while towing than in everyday driving.
The benefits of a four-wheel-drive tow car
Many tow car drivers choose a four-wheel-drive car. It’s not essential – plenty of front- and rear-wheel-drive models tow very well – but if you plan to tow all-year round, in any weather, then it’s well worth considering.
Even in dry conditions, it is much easier for a 4×4 to put its power to the road than a front-wheel-drive car, especially with the weight of a caravan pushing down on the back of the car and unweighting the driven wheels.
What’s more, the extra weight of a four-wheel-drive transmission also helps with matching ratios, therefore contributing to safe and stable towing.
Stability is the most important quality you can look for in a tow car. It is that simple.
As a rule, the heavier the car is relative to what it’s towing, the better. Electronic aids such as Trailer Stability Control help, too.
If you want to be able to keep up with your own shadow, then choose a tow car with plenty of pulling power.
And for anyone who plans to tow all-year round, whatever the weather, four-wheel drive is a definite plus.
Stability is the most important quality you can look for in a tow car