4 tips to find the best towing vehicle for your needs

This spring, you might be thinking about hitting the road with a new SUV or truck and pulling a trailer or toy hauler. But figuring out what kind of vehicle to get without overspending can be a confusing process. To help, Edmunds has advice on how to better understand the jargon and interpret the potentially misleading towing numbers offered by automakers.

It’s important to research a vehicle’s configurations and options before making your purchase. Look into the right class of vehicle and be realistic about your lifestyle, and you’re more likely to find a vehicle that properly fits your needs without going over its limits.

Here are four things to consider when looking for the right towing vehicle:

Match your vehicle to the job

The towing capacity of your vehicle is generally related to its size. For many small SUVs, expect a tow rating of 1,000-2,000 pounds, enough for towing a small utility trailer.

Upgrade to a midsize SUV or a midsize pickup truck and you can tow considerably more. Trailers will still be relatively small, but things can get heavy in a hurry. A maximum towing capacity of 3,500 to 7,000 pounds should be enough to tow a bigger utility trailer or even a lightweight car trailer.

A full-size SUV or pickup will seriously increase your capability. With a maximum towing capacity around 8,000 pounds for a typical full-size SUV or around 12,000 pounds for a light-duty pickup, you can pull recreational boats, toy haulers and bigger car trailers. These heavy trailers typically require upgrades such as enhanced powertrain cooling, special trailer wiring connections and specific axle gear ratios.

Then come heavy-duty trucks. Want to pull a big fifth-wheel trailer or a multi-car trailer across the country? With capabilities pushing past 30,000 pounds,only these trucks are up to the task.

Understand the actual towing capacity

Maximum trailer weight is typically listed in the owner’s manual or on the door sticker of a vehicle, and indicates what’s possible. But real-world towing can be quite different.

A Toyota Tacoma, for example, has a maximum towing capacity of 6,800 pounds. But that’s only with a rear-wheel-drive regular cab fitted with a V6 engine and the Tacoma’s optional towing package. Lesser Tacomas might drop to as low as 3,500 pounds depending on the configuration.

Most manufacturers release trailer-capacity guides for a given year, so check those for a vehicle’s towing capacity before buying — that way you’ll know more precisely what to look for on a dealer lot.

Decoding trailer hitch classes

In a conventional towing setup, the hitch is mounted near the vehicle’s rear bumper. Before towing, you want to check your vehicle’s tow rating and the kind of tow hitch it has. The type of hitch installed varies depending on the class of vehicle and how it’s equipped. Tow hitches are separated into five classes notated by Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV and V). Each class refers to a corresponding higher weight limit.

Heavy-duty pickups can also come with what’s known as a gooseneck or fifth-wheel hitch. These are mounted in the bed of the pickup — similar to what you see on a semi-tractor trailer — and allow more capability than a conventional tow hitch.

Trailer tongue weight and gross combined weight

Trailer tongue weight is how much of your trailer’s weight can be distributed onto the towing vehicle through the tow hitch. Calculating this requires towing your trailer to a scale (typically found at large gas stations or truck stops), then weighing the tow vehicle with and without the trailer and subtracting those two measurements. For instance, if your truck weighs 5,000 pounds without a trailer and it weighs 5,600 pounds with the trailer connected but without the trailer wheels on the scale, the tongue weight is 600 pounds.

For conventional tow-hitch setups, that number should be between 10% and 15% of the trailer’s weight. Gooseneck tongue weight should be between 15% and 30% of the trailer’s weight.

You also need to consider your vehicle’s gross combined weight limit. This is what the automaker says is the maximum weight of both your vehicle and the trailer put together. Gross combined weight includes the trailer and anything inside the vehicle, so you might not be able to pull as heavy a trailer if you load up extra passengers or gear.