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Towing Guide - Tow The Line

Posted in Features on November 1, 2000 Comment (0)
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Towing Guide - Tow The Line
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It's difficult to imagine, but there was once a time when fullsize trucks and SUVs were looked upon askance by four-wheeling purists. Conventional wisdom said that if you were going to go off road, then you should drive your rig to the trail and then drive it back home again later. To do otherwise (ie. to tow) was considered somehow...weak - like towing your Harley to Sturgis. It simply wasn't done. How times have changed.

Today, towing your trail rig behind a truck or SUV is commonplace. This is due in part to the fact that so many in the sport include their families when they head out for a trail and simply need more space than a small two-seater allows. Also, technology has allowed us to build trail rigs that are so competent off road that they are either no longer comfortable for long highway drives or are no longer street legal. Either way, towing is here to stay.

Consider the advantages: Fullsize trucks and SUVs are roomy, comfortable, and available with nearly any amenity you can imagine, from leather interiors and captains chairs with lumbar support to CD changers and power everything. You could actually drive for 8 or 10 hours with all your gear in tow and arrive at your destination still feeling like hitting the trail. And if you have children riding along, then you know there is no such thing as too much room.

Beyond the comfort factor, though, is the more practical side of fullsize trucks and SUVs. People may want them to be as comfortable as sedans, but they still want them to haul and tow like real trucks. Fortunately, Detroit has not forsaken us. Many of these vehicles have towing capacities that reach upward of 10,000 pounds or more and can be equipped with complete towing packages direct from the factory or through aftermarket manufacturers. There is virtually no trail rig that can't be hooked up and towed along with ease.

Adding to these options are the dozens of possible configurations that will literally let you build the tow vehicle you need. New, more powerful diesel engines are now available along with big V-8 and V-10 powerplants that produce enormous torque and horsepower. Add to that the spate of new body styles currently available - two door, four door; extended cab, quad cab; longbed, shortbed - and nearly every contingency can be covered. Of course, if you go with a truck, you also have the option of putting on a camper, which adds a whole other level of convenience.

Because we had never pitted a fullsize truck against a fullsize SUV in a head-to-head test, we decided it was time. So we took a 2000 Chevrolet Suburban 1500 4x4 and a 2000 Dodge Ram 1500 4x4, loaded them down with camera gear, tires, and other equipment, and set out for Moab, Utah, for the Easter Jeep Safari. In tow were a Nissan Xterra and a Jeep YJ Wrangler, both on dual-axle trailers. The nearly 2,000-mile trip gave us the opportunity to really see how the vehicles handled and performed under tow, and on the following pages you will find our observations and opinions, as well as the results of our vehicle tests.

Dodge Ram 1500 4x4The Dodge boys introduced their '94-model Ram pickup in late 1993. With this new truck, Dodge revitalized not only interest in its trucks but also an interest in pickup trucks in general. Some people talk about how trucks are getting more car-like. But you can bet those people are not really truck owners. The Dodge Ram is a truck built for work, but comfort has not been forgotten in the process. If building in comfort makes a vehicle car-like, then one could also say that a 747 is car-like. The truth is, comfort is not an attribute of cars alone. However, the ability to work hard and last long is the sole province of trucks. The Dodge Ram does work hard and is durable enough that many people own them for longer than average.

Last year, we tested the Dodge Ram Quad Cab 4x4 truck, equipped with the 24-valve Cummins diesel and a six-speed manual transmission. In all configurations, the Dodge Ram is a true workhorse. While the extra cab, 1/2-ton, 5.2L V-8 gas five-speed we tested this year didn't have the brute power of the diesel, it did pull respectably. The 5.2L V-8 produces 230 hp at 4,400 rpm and 300 lb-ft of torque at 3,200 rpm, which is fine for most light-to-medium towing jobs. (5.9L V-8 and 8.0L V-10 gas engines are available for those with more serious towing needs.)

The Dodge Ram manual transmission offers smooth shifting and is well geared. With the gas engine, the transmission always has the correct gear to get the job done. When combined with the 5.2L V-8 package, it feels powerful but not brutish. Our tests on the way to Moab proved that our Dodge Ram 1500 could pull a Jeep and a trailer up the mountains along I-15 and I-70. In the steepest sections, we had some difficulty keeping the Ram truck and trailer close to the legal limit. The gas rig settled in at a comfortable pace, and while it's not as fast as last year's diesel, it did not struggle to make it up the grade.

Last year, our test truck came to us with trailer brakes installed. This year, we had to install a controller, but thanks to factory forethought, it was easy. A pre-wired connector plug is attached using a factory plug that was included in the glovebox. After connecting four wires to the controller, we had electric trailer brakes. For our tow tests, hooking up the trailer was simply a plug-and-play situation. The Suburban we tested offered the same ease of installation. Hopefully this is a trend among the truck makers.

In towing tests just south of Moab, we found that from a dead stop, the Dodge Ram with the small gas engine was at a disadvantage towing uphill. We were unable to reach 60 mph in the truck, although we could maintain it if we hit the bottom of the hill at speed. Fuel economy while towing was fair for a gas engine considering how hard we were working this light-duty truck. We averaged 8.3 mpg while towing our Wrangler on a trailer to Moab and back.

Pros & Cons - PickupUsing a fullsize truck rather than an SUV offered a variety of advantages and disadvantages. Foremost, we were able to get a lot more in the back of the truck than we were in the Suburban, particularly things such as tools, tires, and extra gasoline. However, at night we were forced to pull everything out of the bed so that nothing disappeared. With the Suburban, security was less of an issue. With the standard-cab Dodge Ram, there was only seating for three, and it was a tight squeeze at that. The Suburban, of course, beat it hands down with room for eight. The heavily sprung suspension on the Ram, coupled with its greater ground clearance, made it more stable under tow than the Suburban. With the tongue weight, the Dodge settled right in and tracked straight, with the trailer following like a boxcar on rails. The Suburban, which came with a tow package but not the self-leveling rear suspension that Chevy has talked so much about, sagged badly with the tongue weight and required much more care when positioning the load - not to mention hurdling driveways, which was a slow, scraping experience.

Chevrolet Suburban 1500 4x4For more than 40 years, the Suburban has been the benchmark by which all other fullsize SUVs have been judged. In fact, until recently, it was in a class by itself. It is big and roomy enough to accommodate the largest of families and still provides excellent room for storing all kinds of gear, both inside and up above on the rack.

As big as it is, though, the Suburban never feels overwhelming, at least not to the driver. It is designed to be user friendly in every way, right down to the push-button, shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive. And lest you imagine that a vehicle with this much sheetmetal must be slow and cumbersome, guess again. Our Suburban came equipped with the Vortec 5300 gas engine and a four-speed automatic tranny. The 5300 puts out 285 hp at 5,200 rpm and 325 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. It shifts smoothly up and down through the gears, and during our towing tests in Moab it produced 0 to 50 times of 16.60 seconds.

Chevrolet offers two towing packages for the Suburban, depending on your needs. For moderate towing, the Premium Ride package is ideal. A self-leveling rear suspension uses the energy created by normal suspension motion to adjust and maintain level vehicle trim. This enhances the Suburban's towing abilities, while also improving handling and providing a firmer ride. For those with greater towing needs, Chevy also offers the Z82 Heavy-Duty Trailering package, which includes a 12,000-pound weight-distributing hitch platform, a seven-pin trailer harness connector, and a trailer brake controller harness that connects to the electric trailer brake lead.

Our Suburban was equipped with the standard tow package, but unfortunately it did not come with the self-leveling rear suspension, which made all the difference in the world. Having driven a Suburban with the self-leveling suspension, we can tell you that it performs wonderfully, both under tow and just around town. Without this feature, though, towing our dual-axle trailer, which was loaded down with a Nissan Xterra, was problematic because the rearend of the Suburban sank to within 4 inches of the asphalt. Going over speed bumps and driving up steep driveways required slowing to a crawl, and even then we scraped. It also required that we tape all of the wiring up out of the way to keep it from dragging along the interstate.

While the noticeable rearward rake was no fun, towing up and down the mountains on the way to Moab was absolutely great. The Suburban features a push-button Tow/Haul mode on the shift lever that causes the tranny to shift much faster, which was essential when tackling some of the steeper grades. In truth, we cruised up and down the mountain passes with so little effort that we often had to slow down and wait for the Dodge to catch up with us again.

However, in all fairness, from a dead stop, under tow, the gas engine in the Suburban lacked the brute force necessary to go from 0 to 60 on a steep ascent. In fact, during a series of tests in Moab, which were performed on a 40-degree grade, we were unable to reach 60 mph launching from 0. In this area, diesels still reign supreme.

Fuel economy on the Suburban was surprisingly good considering the kind of weight we were towing and the fact that we pushed it pretty hard. On the round trip, we averaged 11.1 mpg, not far off the sticker estimate of 14/16.

Pros & Cons - SUVThere are some distinct advantages to towing with an SUV rather than a truck. The first, of course, is that you can haul around more passengers, which is a prime consideration for families. With the bed of a truck, though, you do have the option of putting on a camper, which can be equally as useful. Fullsize SUVs provide plenty of room for all of your gear and are easy to lock up at night so you don't have to worry about anything being stolen. However, truck beds are generally better for things such as extra tires, gas cans, dirt bikes, and other dirty or smelly items you wouldn't want in your back seat. With our Suburban, having power enough to tow comfortably was not a problem, but the suspension was. You have to make sure you get the right tow package to meet your needs. With the Dodge Ram, on the other hand, the heavily sprung suspension took the weight of the trailer with no difficulties at all - a common trait on workhorse trucks.

Surge Brakes vs. Electric BrakesSurge BrakesSurge brakes are hydraulic brakes that are operated by a cylinder that is built into the coupler and compresses as the tow vehicle slows. The more the brakes are applied in the tow vehicle, the more the coupler compresses, which applies the trailer brakes more. It is a very reliable system and is especially nice when you are towing really heavy loads. The only real drawback to using surge brakes is that sometimes they will begin to lock in as you back up, especially if you are backing up even at the smallest grade. Some systems are equipped with free-backing brakes, which allow you to lock out the surge coupler to prevent the brakes from locking when you back up. One nice thing about surge brakes is that the system can be used on any vehicle with a hitch, whereas electric brakes require a brake controller in the vehicle.

Electric BrakesThis type of system operates by wiring the brakes on the trailer to the brakes in the tow vehicle vis- -vis an electronic control unit in the cab that engages the trailer brakes when you press down on the brake pedal. The controller unit also allows you to set the amount of brake drag you feel comfortable with. This means that the extent to which the trailer brakes are engaged is determined by the controller (ie. you), not by how hard you apply the brake pedal. A pendulum-type control will electronically add more brake as you stop, but if you have your controller turned all the way up, the slightest pressure on the pedal could lock your trailer brakes. Using electric brakes takes a little practice getting use to and requires that you give more thought to setting up the controller than would be necessary with a surge brake system.

Automatic vs. ManualAutomaticMost people use their trucks as much for running around town as for hauling and towing - probably more. If so, an automatic tranny is far more convenient. Continually shifting up and down through the gears gets old fast, especially on a big truck with low gearing and a lot of torque where the shifter throw is probably very long. In addition, on modern computerized trucks, the computer will choose the shift points as well as, if not better, than most people, which will translate into better fuel economy and faster acceleration from light to light.

On the highway, manual transmissions used to rule the road in the mileage department. However, in recent years, automatics have become available with Overdrive. This was once the sole province of manuals. While this makes cruising speeds more comfortable and fuel efficient, your gas mileage will still not be quite as good as it would with a manual; close, but not quite.

The biggest advantage, as well as the biggest problem, with automatics is that they require very little maintenance. Little maintenance does not mean no maintenance. With automatics, people tend to forget to occasionally check the fluid and change it at the appropriate intervals. This can shorten the life span of the tranny, and, if allowed to continue, result in an early death. With a manual transmission, it's much more difficult to ignore a failing clutch, which means people are more likely to perform the necessary upkeep.

ManualYes, it's true that city traffic can make the task of shifting seem like a chore, but for towing, a manual can't be beat.

Manual transmissions on tow rigs are generally equipped with a granny First gear, which usually provides double the reduction normally found in First. This added reduction makes it much easier to get started while hauling a heavy load. In addition, manual transmissions with more than four forward gears usually offer an Overdrive, which reduces engine rpm at cruising speed and increases fuel economy. Sure, automatics now come with Overdrive too, but the manual is still the king for fuel economy. This is because of the efficient power transfer of the manual. Also, manuals are more efficient, which means more of the engine's vital horsepower gets to the ground. The slip and slide of an automatic may make for a smooth ride, but it steals horsepower and fuel mileage.

Unlike automatic transmissions, there is no need to worry about coolers to keep the transmission from self-destructing while towing a load. On the down side, the clutch is much the same as your brakes and will wear out over time, requiring maintenance and money for repairs. If your main goal is highway towing, then a manual transmission is a wise choice, but you may want to think twice if all you're doing is commuting.

Gas vs. DieselGasGasoline has one major advantage over diesel: You can always find it no matter where you go. Gas stations seem to have multiplied and taken over nearly every street corner across America, but only a tiny percentage of them carry diesel fuel. That's not to say it can't be found, but you'll have to go searching for it, and you'll always have to plan ahead so as not to get caught on empty.

At the pump, your only concern with unleaded gas is choosing which octane level you want. You would never have to worry about accidentally putting diesel fuel in your tank because the nozzle doesn't fit. However, because the gas filler on diesel trucks is bigger, it is all too possible to accidentally fill it with unleaded, which uses a smaller nozzle. Assuming the engine doesn't simply explode, you'll be spending a considerable amount of money getting the fuel tank drained, and the lines and the engine cleaned.

Gas engines are quieter than their diesel counterparts, they weigh less, and they produce better high-end horsepower. On the other hand, diesel engines produce better low-end torque and often last for upward of 300,000 miles.

Finally, gasoline engines are standard fare in new trucks, while the diesel option typically costs a few thousand extra.

Diesel For pure, brute force, a diesel is hard to beat. Big-block V-8 gas motors do offer more torque than the average small-block, but they still can't compare with the torque of a diesel. Torque, not horsepower, is the key to towing heavy loads over steep grades. In addition, torque means fuel efficiency. Diesel motors typically get better mileage than comparably sized gas units, especially when under load.

While it is true that diesel engines are a little noisier than gas engines, this is not a real concern in modern trucks. The noise and vibration damping in new trucks make most diesel trucks quieter than gas versions of years past. Sure, they're not as quiet as current gas-powered trucks, but you can still carry on a conversation or listen to music undisturbed.

Since the main reason for owning a diesel truck is for towing, the availability of fuel is not as problematic as some might think. On the highway, diesel is easy to find, and around town you're sure to have one or two stations close to home that carry it. In many foreign countries, diesel is easier to find than gas. So if you're planning a trip to Mexico and beyond, diesel is sure to be the better choice.

One down side to diesel is the initial higher cost, but this is offset by the longer life you can expect from the engine and the higher resale value. While it's true that diesel motors weigh more than gas mills, the added towing capacity makes up for it.

Flat Towing vs. Trailer Towing vs. Dolly TowingFlat TowingThere are a number of advantages to flat towing, the first of which is cost. A good towbar will generally run a couple hundred dollars, while a well-built trailer equipped with lights and brakes can run several thousand.

Then, of course, there is the matter of convenience. When flat towing, once you reach your destination you can simply fold up the towbar and stow it in one of your vehicles. With a trailer, you have to have room for storage both at home, for when it's not being used, and at your destination, whether it be a campground, an RV park, or a hotel. And, of course, you have to be careful to park in such a way that you have room to back your vehicle off the trailer and load it back on later.

If you're traveling with a bed-mounted camper on your truck or have an SUV that is already loaded down with heavy gear, then flat towing is a nice option because it adds no further weight. On the flip side, if you're flat towing with an empty truck, the towbar will provide no tongue weight to settle it down, which can make towing a little unsteady at highway speeds.

There are two big drawbacks to flat towing. The first is that you can't back up, which requires that you always be thinking two steps ahead to avoid getting into a situation that you can't get out of. If worse comes to worse, you can always remove the towbar and back the two vehicles out separately, but it's awkward and inconvenient. The second drawback is the lack of trailer brakes. This means you have to rely entirely on the tow rig's brakes to stop both vehicles.

Trailer TowingTrailer towing is perhaps the best option for long hauls in all weather conditions. Towing with a trailer has several advantages.

The first is tongue weight. A properly loaded trailer will typically have around 500 pounds of tongue weight. This weight provides a downforce that helps to stabilize the back end of the tow rig. Without tongue weight, the back end of your tow rig tends to get pushed around by the towed vehicle, especially when towing with a pickup.

In addition to tongue weight, a vehicle trailer usually has trailer brakes. Two versions are available: hydraulic and electric. With brakes on your trailer you won't have to rely solely on the towing rig's brakes. This means quicker, more consistent stopping than you'll find with flat towing.

The third advantage to trailer towing is that size and weight are not as much of a consideration. With trailer brakes assisting your tow rig, you can tow more weight because you can stop more weight. Also, towing a trailer is much more stable than flat towing, which means you can tow a longer rig than you typically would in a flat tow situation. Of course reason should prevail and you should never tow a trailer that is ridiculously longer than the tow rig. For situations like that, a fifth-wheel car hauler is a better choice.

Trailers are easier to back up than a flat towed rig, and you can always get your trail rig home no matter what you've broken on the trail. On the down side, trailers cost more, weigh more, and are harder to store than a towbar. The weight can be handled by keeping a close eye on the trailer construction and the size. Buy a trailer that is the right size for your trail rig, not the super jumbo one you found on sale.

Dolly TowingDollies share some of the advantages and disadvantages of both trailers and towbars. Similar to towbars, dollies are less expensive than trailers and are easier to store, both at home and on the road. However, there are strict limitations on the weight of the vehicle you can tow, which is a major concern.

When we approached U-Haul about using a dolly to tow our 2000 Nissan Xterra to Moab, the staff informed us that the vehicle exceeded the maximum weight a dolly can safely handle. The standard figures are 3,950 pounds for a front-wheel-drive vehicle and 4,250 pounds for a rear-wheel or four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Before you start thinking about renting or buying a tow dolly for your next trip, be sure you know how much your trail rig weighs. If you're pushing the limit, it might be safer and more convenient to get a fullsize auto trailer or use a towbar.

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