Are you in the process of buying a new caravan, or have maybe even bitten the bullet and upgraded to something a bit bigger and more luxurious? With every upgrade or new purchase, a few questions arise. What can my vehicle tow and does it comply with towing capacity regulations and requirements? Should I get a Tow Pro or a break-safe break-away system? What is even considered the best tow vehicle in the first place?
There are some things you need to know about your current or new vehicle if you want to pull along your new toy. Here we look a bit deeper into the legalities, accessories and vehicle specifications that will help you make an informed decision when choosing the best tow vehicle for caravans and camper trailers ahead of your next adventure.
- Is your towing legal?
- Calculations you need to do before choosing your tow vehicle
- Transmission selection
- Ideal cars for towing caravans
- Best tyres for tow vehicles
- Know your tow vehicle service costs
Is it legal?
The number one consideration when matching up the best tow vehicle to your caravan or camper trailer is ensuring that it’s 100% legal by the book.
Ensure you keep to the manufacturer’s specifications in terms of what the legal maximum towing capacity is. This is not only for yourself and your passengers, but for everyone else on the road with you. Everything else after that comes down to personal preference.
To do this you need to determine four things for the caravan: ATM, GTM, GCM and TBM.
4 calculations you need to do before choosing the best tow vehicle
How to calculate Aggregate Trailer Mass (ATM)
ATM, referred to as the Aggregate Trailer Mass, is the maximum rating the trailer can legally weigh once everything is loaded into it. When the van is loaded, it must not exceed the ATM rating.
ATM = tare mass (weight of the trailer) + maximum loads (luggage, passengers, water, fuel and accessories) + Tow Ball Mass
What is Gross Trailer Mass (GTM)
GTM, known as Gross Trailer Mass, is the rating when the caravan (loaded) is hitched to the vehicle. It must not be exceeded.
This means that your Gross Trailer Mass is calculated by the Aggregate Trailer Mass minus the Tow Ball Mass (detailed below). Both the ATM and GTM ratings are determined by the manufacturer and are found in the vehicle's manual and trailer placard.
GTM = ATM - TBM
Working out Gross Combination Mass (GCM)
Then there’s the GCM. The Gross Combination Mass rating is determined by the total weight of the car and trailer combination plus the entire contents and passengers loaded.
GCM = GTM + GVM (Gross Vehicle Mass)
Tow Ball Mass explained (TBM)
Lastly, there is the Tow Ball Mass rating (TBM) which is the amount of weight a caravan applies to the tow ball of the vehicle. This is essentially knowing about the tow bar capacity of your vehicle. This is one to look out for because a manufacturer may state that a vehicle can legally tow, say up to 2,500kg, but it may only have a 1,500kg towbar fitted, in which case may limit the caravan or camper trailer you decide to buy.
By doing the homework before you buy the caravan, you will be better equipped in deciding which is the best tow vehicle to go with and vice versa.
For example, say your vehicle’s GCM is 5700 and it’s GVM is 2950. This means you can only really tow a trailer up to 2,750 kg to be within the legal limit. As we found out in a previous blog, you may need to look into a smaller caravan as you may need to compromise on your payload, to achieve that combination.
Always speak to the manufacturer to get the right information about towing stability and capacity and refer to the sticker or plate on the rear axle tow bar.
Let’s set the record straight for this one; there is no hard or fast rule on whether you should choose an automatic or manual when choosing the best tow vehicle. It’s really a ‘different strokes for different folks’ kind of thing. But here are some things you may consider when choosing one over the other.
Tow vehicle with automatic transmission
Generally speaking, vehicles that are fitted with automatic transmission have a much higher tow capacity than those with a manual transmission.
In a situation where there is uneven ground (like sand) or when going uphill, automatics do a better job as there is no messing around with gear changes, stalling or rolling backwards. This is true in turbulent weather conditions as well.
Automatics may also require a transmission cooler to prevent overheating.
Towing a caravan with manual transmission
Manual vehicles have a lower towing capacity due to the fact when shifting gears, damage can occur to the clutch when towing large loads.
Manuals are better in off-road situations because they allow the driver to have absolute control. Many manual drivers will also swear that driving a manual car keeps you alert from the constant shifting of gears. And that can also be true when going downhill.
The best tow vehicle for you will ultimately come down to personal preference, and what you feel more comfortable with as your chosen 4x4 or suv for towing a caravan.
Ideal cars for towing caravans
We’re talking about 2WD, 4WD or All-wheel-drive vehicles here. Your normal run-around car is typically a two-wheel drive, which is more than suitable because it’s mostly being driven on paved, fairly-level roads.
However, for the true off-roading experience, all-wheel-drive and four-wheel drive vehicles provide major benefits in traction and safety. Be it sandy, muddy, icy, or hilly, these are the best tow vehicles as they’ll do much better than the 2WD variety.
Best tyres for tow vehicles
Travelling on muddy, sandy or snow-covered terrain? Knowing ahead of time will help determine the type of tyre you will need. Most people opt for light truck tyres for any off-road travel, but be warned that they will wear down on bitumen. All terrain tyres in this case may be a good compromise, especially if you plan to use your tow vehicle for regular daily driving as well.
Knowing your tow vehicle service costs
Weigh up the required and expected servicing costs for each vehicle you consider buying. You can expect to be replacing parts and servicing even the best tow vehicle fairly regularly if you will be towing a caravan often.
Towing is hard on your vehicle and parts are going to wear out more quickly than normal. Think about what the labour charges are, cost of replacement parts and if buying brand new from a dealer will be more beneficial when you consider their warranties and servicing terms and conditions.
Your tow vehicle or caravan/trailer manufacturer may also require you to have a weight distribution hitch (WDH) fitted, in which case you will need to find out what tow rating it should be and what setting it should be used on. Also consider the restrictions or conditions regarding the use of a WDH.
In addition, your tow vehicle or caravan manufacturer may require you to install towing aids such as mechanical (user-controlled trailer brakes) and electronic anti-sway systems. By law, trailers over 750kg require an efficient service brake system and trailers over 2,000kgs, but less than 4,500kg must have brakes designed so that the braking force can be progressively increased and decreased by means of the control system from the towing vehicle. Often the easiest and most cost-effective way to comply is with either electric or electric over hydraulic trailer brakes. The brakes for trailers over 4,500kg require different technology and reserve energy.
Both of the electric or electric over hydraulic trailer brakes systems require the fitment of an electric trailer brake controller. Dashboard space in a lot of modern vehicles these days have extremely limited real estate, and therefore you should consider an electric brake controller that can be discreetly tucked away out of sight but also adequately distanced from airbags for safety and comfort.
More food for thought
In this video below, The Practical Guide to Modern Towing produced by RV Daily, shows you the absolute must-haves and the nice-to-haves when looking at the best tow vehicle for you.
It’s pretty clear that the most important aspect when looking for the best Australian caravan towing vehicles is selecting the right car that perfectly matches the towing capacity of your caravan or camper trailer. And whilst some other factors are important when planning to tow a caravan, such as opting for a 4WD over 2WD, it really is down to whatever takes your fancy. Small cars that can tow a caravan exist too!
Before deciding on the best towing vehicle though, be sure to test drive is and if possible, do so whilst towing to see how easy and comfortable it is for you. It can also help to speak to others that have been down this road before, because their experiences may just help you in making sure one of the biggest investments you’ll ever make is the right one.
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