So, you’re looking for a used tow car to pull a caravan, boat, or horsebox. You need a car that tows well, but don’t want to be stuck with a thirsty old lump for everyday driving. Where do you start? Follow these tips and you won’t go far wrong.
If you know what you’ll be towing, start by thinking about how much it weighs. Let’s say you own a caravan, and it weighs 1,200kg when fully loaded. Both of the major caravanning clubs in the UK recommend towing a caravan weighing no more than 85% of the kerb weight of the car, especially if you are new to towing. So take the caravan’s weight, divide by 85, then multiply by 100. In this case, you’d be looking for a car weighing 1,412kg or more (you can check how much a car weighs with a quick Google search).
This is sometimes referred to as ‘the 85% rule’, which can lead to confusion – it’s a guideline rather than a hard and fast rule, but towing will be more stable and safer if the car weighs significantly more than the caravan. The guideline is well known in caravanning circles, but it’s a good rule of thumb whatever type of trailer you tow.
You also need to make sure you stay the right side of the law. That means checking the car’s legal towing limit (look in the car’s handbook, check the weight plate, or use a matching website like Towsafe.co.uk), and be sure whatever you are going to tow is within the legal maximum.
TOWING VERSUS DAILY DRIVING
Choosing a used tow car means balancing everyday requirements with how well a car will perform as as a tow car. A lighter, less powerful car may be more economical to run from day to day, but all else being equal it will be slower and less secure when towing then a heavier and more powerful model.
Our advice? Prioritise towing ability. Make a shortlist of cars that will definitely be up to the job of towing a caravan or trailer, then find cars on that list that are easy to live with and affordable to run.
MANUAL vs AUTOMATIC
Some drivers still worry that automatics overheat when towing, but in reality it’s not a big concern as long as you match car and trailer sensibly. If you are within the legal towing limit a well maintained modern auto should have no trouble towing.
There are others who prefer the control a manual gearbox gives over gear selection, along with the benefits of engine braking. But when just about every auto now gives drivers control through the lever or with paddles behind the steering wheel, that’s no longer significant.
Really, this choice comes down to personal preference, unless there’s a significant change in the towing limit between the manual and automatic versions of the same model. Be sure to check – sometimes the difference is as much as 500kg.
FWD vs RWD vs 4X4
A 4×4 is the obvious choice for towing, but it’s not essential. The benefits of four-wheel drive are greatest if you tow all year round, need to tow across grass or mud, or have a boat you will be launching from a damp slipway.
However, if you are planning to caravan in the summer months, and will always be towing on a hardstanding pitch (parking your caravan on gravel or Tarmac rather than grass), then four-wheel drive is not necessarily essential.
TOW BALL vs NO TOW BALL
It’s a cliché of used car guides that the buyer should “walk away if you see the car has a tow ball”. Towing puts more strain on a car, the logic goes, so why buy a car that’s led a hard life?
Like most clichés, there is a nugget of truth to it, but in this case a very small nugget. If you are buying a small hatchback with a tow ball, and there’s a huge twin-axle caravan sat on the drive, you have good reason to be worried. But check the car’s legal towing limit and the weight of what it has been towing. If the caravan or trailer is well within the legal maximum, don’t be unduly concerned if the car already has a tow ball.
In fact, having towing gear already fitted could and should be a big plus point, given that a professionally fitted tow ball and electrics could easily set you back £500 or more.
Just go in with your eyes (and ears) open. When you take a test drive, listen out for any signs of a slipping clutch (such as the engine revving higher without noticeable acceleration or a burning smell from under the bonnet). And when you check the service records pay particular attention to any work that’s been done on the clutch and gearbox.
The key thing when buying a used tow car is to think about what you need to tow and the conditions you’ll be towing, and only then plan your shortlist of models. You can narrow the list further by looking for a car that suits you as a tow car and an everyday drive. And remember to factor in the cost of fitting towing gear, unless the car already has a tow ball fitted – in which case you’ll be quids in, so long as the car hasn’t been used to tow more than it should.
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