Top 3 tips for buying an SUV for towing

By Brendan Batty on 11 August 2016
SUV Towing

What are the three most important things to consider when buying a 4WD or SUV for towing?

The meteoric rise in popularity of the SUV is very well documented, and it's due in no small part to how adept modern 4WDs and utes are at towing caravans, campers and boats. But if you are buying an SUV, 4WD or 4x4 ute with a view to using it as a tow vehicle, it needs to have certain capabilities. Here are the three most important things to consider.

1. Maximum braked towing limit

All vehicle manufacturers dictate a maximum unbraked towing limit (the most a trailer, without some form of braking system, can weigh) and a maximum braked towing capacity, which is the absolute most a vehicle can tow, assuming the trailer is fitted with its own brakes. Vehicle manufacturers are free to determine these limits for their own cars, so weights can range depending on the make or model, or even the engine and transmission combinations. Capacity may even vary according to how much weight you are carrying on board the vehicle.

This is important, because it could limit the variety of caravans or trailers you are able to tow. For example, the Toyota LandCruiser Prado can tow a maximum of 2500kg, so any caravan that weighs more than this while it's being towed is out of the Prado's reach. And that's only if the trailer has brakes - if not, the Prado is limited to towing a maximum of 750kg.

2. Maximum tow ball download

This is the weight a caravan's tow hitch puts on the vehicle's tow bar. Again, it's set by the vehicle manufacturer and the driver must adhere to it. Like the towing limit, this can vary between make and model, and engine and transmission combinations. And tow ball download can have serious effects on vehicle performance.


In Australia, most caravan manufacturers claim the tow ball download of a caravan should be around 10 per cent of its total weight. While there's not total agreement on it, most experts agree that more tow ball weight means more stable towing. However, while many SUVs allow a tow ball download that's 10 per cent of the vehicle's maximum towing limit, not all do. One example is the Kia Sorento, which can tow a respectable 2500kg, but can only have 150kg of tow ball download.

3. Gross Combination Mass vs. Payload

The two limits above are relatively easy to work out. A little harder is the effective towing limit of your intended 4WD or SUV once it has the people, accessories and luggage you'll load into it. All vehicles have a gross combination mass (GCM), which is the maximum it and any trailer can weigh in combination.

For example, the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport Exceed has a gross combination mass of 5400kg. On its own, it weighs 2105kg and it can tow up to 3100kg with 300kg on the ball. But in doing so, the combined weight is now 2105kg plus 3100kg of caravan; that's 5205kg even before driver, passengers, luggage, and accessories such as a bull bar.

Considering the Pajero Sport has a payload capacity of 605kg, any caravan or trailer weighing more than 2500kg would overload the vehicle if it already had a full load. In reality, when towing 3100kg, there's not much room for more than a driver and a passenger. At best, this is going to strain the vehicle beyond manufacturer recommendations and, at worst, result in insurance claim rejection in the event of an accident.

Other considerations

Of course there are other important factors to think of – fuel economy, power and torque, safety, refinement, towing speed limitations, and personal preferences such as comfort and technology. But if you carefully consider how much your intended vehicle will need to tow, what the load on the tow ball will be, and how your caravan or trailer will affect payload, you can be sure you've bought a suitable car for towing.

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