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It was only a fleeting glimpse, but I'm 98.3 per cent sure it wasn't my imagination. On a German autobahn a few years ago, I saw a Volkswagen Jetta compact sedan atop a flat-bed trailer being towed by a Honda Fit subcompact.
You'd never see that here because most passenger-car owners' manuals say "not recommended for towing." And even in the rare case a car does have a tow rating, it's usually a low one.
We are convinced by Trailer Weight Ratings that only large pickups and SUVs suit our towing needs. Yet Europeans manage fine with four-cylinder vehicles. And the few car models that do have a tow rating here usually have a higher one in Europe.
The 2015 British Tow Car of the Year was the Seat Leon – a VW Group compact wagon based on the Volkswagen Golf/Jetta. In Europe, it is rated to tow 710 kilograms if the trailer is unbraked and as much as 1,600 kilograms for a braked trailer.
Depending on the powertrain, the Jetta's rating in Canada for a braked trailer varies from 454 to 907 kilograms (though only with manual transmission, VW specifies).
The European Economic Community is not noted for a cavalier attitude to road safety, so how to explain this disconnect between towing capability?
For Americans, the typical 4,000-plus-kilogram tow ratings of large trucks ensure they are well within their capabilities. Andy Thomson, the owner of an RV dealership in London, Ont., suggests too that American auto makers won't put a tow rating on any vehicle that can't be sold in large numbers at a generous profit (read: pickups and SUVs). And he doesn't blame them. Citing the litigiousness of American society, he notes: "The vehicle is one-third of the towing of equation; one-third is the trailer, and one-third is the hitch. Car makers have no control over two-thirds of the equation, but if something goes wrong, they're the first to get sued."
"But with a profitable SUV," he says, "it's worth taking the risk."
Volkswagen doesn't publicize tow ratings in Canada, says spokesman Thomas Tetzlaff, "but for customers who have purchased the vehicle and want to tow, we publish it in the owner's manual." The ratings listed in the manual are followed by the caution, "Volkswagen does not recommend installing a trailer hitch … if you plan to tow a trailer, please remember your vehicle will be performing a job for which it was not primarily intended. The additional load will affect driveability, handling, fuel economy and performance, and may require (more frequent servicing)."
That said, Thomson is an evangelist for towing with passenger cars, and smaller vehicles in general. His RV store, Can-Am, designs and builds its own weight-distribution tow hitches for the task.
Two years ago, Can-Am's display at the Toronto RV Show included a small camping trailer hitched to a Fiat 500 – a combo that Thomson drove to the show from London.
"The Fiat had been traded in and was laying around, and there's not much laying around here that we don't put a hitch on," he says.
"It ran at 100 km/h with no headwind; coming home into a headwind, 85 was it. It was a bit underpowered. It's not a combination we'd endorse without the turbo. But it was solid and stable."
Can-Am's display also included a VW Jetta hitched to a 22-foot Vista camping trailer. A 26-foot trailer on display was promoted as tow-able by a V-6 family sedan, and there was a 30-foot Airstream coupled to a Ford Taurus. Thomson has been impressed, too, by the Chrysler 300 with the Pentastar V-6 and eight-speed transmission: "They gave it only a 1,000-pound (454 kilogram) rating because they can't be bothered."
He also says that minivans (most of which share engineering underpinnings with mid-size sedans) all have at least 3,500-pound (1,588-kilogram) tow ratings. "We run two Dodge Caravans because you can't beat them for value."
Robert Krouse, a GM trailering engineer, concedes some points to Thomson. "Europeans do expect a lot more out of smaller vehicles, because they drive a lot smaller vehicles. We probably could do more with smaller vehicles."
But with many cars based on global architectures, auto makers have to decide whether to build in tow capability across the board, or only for markets that would use it. "A lot of the time, we bite the bullet and build them the same way, sometimes we have to pull back," Krouse says.
It's hard for an owner to know whether, say, their Chevrolet Cruze (which has a 454-kilogram tow rating in North America) is built exactly the same as the European version (which is rated tow up to 1,200 kilograms), so if in doubt, play safe and observe the lower limit.
As for CanAm RV's Thomson, he says he won't touch a trailer that doesn't have electric brakes; and he only uses weight-distribution hitch receivers.
He rarely needs to upgrade the car springs but prefers to work with sport sedans for their more buttoned-down suspensions. Short rear overhangs are also preferable.
Of course, the (loaded) weight of the trailer isn't the only factor. You also have to work within the tow vehicle's axle load limits, and the overall gross combination weight rating that applies to the trailer and tow vehicle combined, including passengers and cargo. Always be clear whether your vehicle's ratings are based on braked or unbraked trailers. And some cars require an extra-cost tow package.
It also helps to have a trailer that is specifically designed to minimize mass and aerodynamic drag.
"Everybody talks as if weight is the only thing, but once you're moving, aerodynamic drag is a big factor," says Thomson.
Light, svelte trailers may be more expensive but, as Thomson wrote in his column for RV Lifestyle magazine, "a high-quality, easy-to-tow trailer is a better investment than a fancy new tow vehicle."
Besides those already mentioned, here are some other passenger cars and smaller CUVs with higher tow ratings than you might expect. Note that these are the maximum ratings and may not apply to all versions of the given nameplate (it may depend on which engine), and they may require a suitable tow package and/or a braked trailer. Do your research.
Mouse over the bars to see the exact figures
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