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Our Ford Flex has served us well for towing a small trailer, taking ski trips and carrying our mountain bikes. But after 255,000 trouble-free kilometres, it is time to replace the Flex with a new vehicle that will still meet our needs as empty nesters. My preference is for a vehicle that is rated to tow 3,500 pounds. My concern is for the long-term durability of a four-cylinder turbo engine as a tow vehicle, and I’m not sure if a CVT is robust enough to be used to tow a trailer, especially in hilly conditions. – Steve

Gentile: Steve, don’t discount the turbocharged four-cylinder engines. Nowadays, car companies are squeezing out more horsepower and better performance from these smaller engines. And best of all, they’re more fuel efficient – a definite benefit with a trailer in tow.

RIchardson: But do discount a continuously variable transmission. Forget it right now. CVTs are designed to save fuel, but they’re not usually designed to tow anything more than a bicycle.

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Gentile: Why is that, anyway?

Richardson: It’s because CVTs use belts or chains that slide back and forth on variably sized pulleys – hence the name – and if there’s too much torque applied to them, they’ll slip. They can handle torque, but only so much. Regular transmissions are metal cogs against metal cogs and their teeth don’t slip.

The all-new 2020 Ford Explorer.

Petrina Gentile

Gentile: Steve seems loyal to Ford, but he’s open to shopping around. But maybe he should stick with Ford. I just drove the all-new 2020 Explorer and it’s impressive – you can get it with a hybrid or a high-performance ST trim. It has a 10-speed automatic transmission and depending on the model, can tow up to 5,000 pounds.

Richardson: And it’s big and expensive, starting at more than $45,000. Steve can buy a new Flex with the basic 3.5-litre V-6 engine for at least $10,000 less and it will tow 4,500 pounds.

Gentile: It sounds as if he wants something smaller, though.

Richardson: Yes – if they’re empty-nesters now, both a Flex and an Explorer will probably be way too large.

While the basic version of the 2019 Toyota RAV4 can only tow about 1,500 pounds, the ‘mild’ off-road Trail version, above, tows 3,500 pounds. That comes at a premium, however, with the Trail costing $8,000 more than the basic all-wheel drive RAV4.

Gentile: I don’t mean to sound like a broken record when it comes to the Toyota RAV4, but it is one of my favourite SUVs. The Trail version is the “mild” off-road version of their best-selling SUV. It can tow 1,587 kilograms (3,500 pounds) versus the regular version, which can tow just 680 kg (or 1,500 pounds). So it would suit Steve well.

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Richardson: I’ll agree for once. I drove the RAV4 Trail and it’s impressive in every way. Clearly, plenty of others feel the same way because the RAV4 is now the best-selling Toyota in North America, period, and it’s built in Canada.

Gentile: It’s not cheap though.

Richardson: No – the Trail starts at $38,690, which is an $8,000 premium over the basic AWD RAV4. That kind of pricing means you’ll be paying just more than $45,000 out the door, after the stupid Freight and PDI charges, and taxes.

Gentile: There’s also the Subaru Outback – that could be another option. I haven’t driven the 2020 model yet, but the 2019 is more than capable, reliable and affordable, starting around $30,000. It can tow 1,224 kg (about 2,700 pounds) – slightly less than what he’s looking for.

Richardson: Even the bigger Subaru engine with the automatic transmission doesn’t increase the towing capacity.

Gentile: You know, I think the Outback is straining Steve’s towing needs. It doesn’t take much to make a trailer heavy, and he’ll still wreck his transmission if he tows more than the vehicle’s capacity.

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Richardson: I learned this the hard way with a rented tent trailer and a Mercury Mystique.

Gentile: That doesn’t surprise me. Do you men ever learn things the easy way?

The next-best choice after the Toyota is probably the Mitsubishi Outlander. As with the RAV4, it has a towing capacity of 3,500 pounds in a category that usually tops out at 2,000 pounds.

Richard Drew/The Associated Press

Richardson: Ow! Burned! But Steve says he needs at least 3,500 pounds. How about just knocking it out of the park and getting a Jeep Cherokee? It’s not too large, and the 3.2-litre V-6 can tow 4,500 lbs with the towing package. It will add about $2,200 to the base $30,000 Jeep, though right now, they’re selling for around $3,000 less.

Gentile: Sure the price is low, but I wouldn’t recommend the Cherokee for Steve. It doesn’t have the best track record for reliability. Did you know the 2019 Cherokee has been recalled seven times already by NHTSA – recalls on everything from the seats to the powertrain? That’s a BIG red flag, in my books. So stay away from it.

Richardson: Well, the next best choice is probably the Mitsubishi Outlander. As with the RAV4, it has a towing capacity of 3,500 pounds. This is a category that usually tops out at 2,000 pounds, after all.

Gentile: That’s too big, again. And besides, the Toyota has the better track record for safety and reliability. My pick for Steve is the RAV4 Trail.

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Richardson: The Outlander’s not much bigger than the RAV4. It’s worth a look at least, as is the Cherokee. In the end though, the Trail will be the best buy for Steve.

What car should you buy? Write to Mark and Petrina at globedrive@globeandmail.com.

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