While the caravan market is booming right now, it’s also true that not everybody needs or wants to tow a 3000kg van on holidays. Increasingly common is the camper trailer in its various forms, most of which require a much lower towing limit than that offered by a full-sized four-wheel-drive or the ubiquitous dual-cab ute.
Which brings us to the best compact SUV for towing. In fact, let’s extend that to the best small SUV for towing as well, as even small SUVs are quite big these days. These vehicles are often more than capable of hauling a small trailer on a camping holiday, yet they offer better fuel economy and improved dynamics compared with traditional tow-cars when you’re just using them as urban transport. It really is no mistake the world has gone crazy for the SUV concept.
But if you are going to tow a small trailer or even a small off road camper of some sort with your mid-sized or small SUV, which are the best vehicles to put to that task?
We’ll get to specific makes and models in a moment, but for a start, there are some basic ground rules for choosing an SUV to tow a load.
When it comes to the best small SUV for towing Australia throws up some unique challenges. Our distances are huge, conditions can be harsh and the roads aren’t universally brilliant. So here’s where to start the figuring.
Rule of thumb number one is that you can‘t really have too much power and, even more importantly, torque. Yes, the smaller-engined option might do the job, but having a bit of grunt in reserve is terrific for overtaking and hauling up hills or into a headwind at freeway speeds.
It was once the case that a turbo-diesel was the default setting for a tow-vehicle, but modern petrol engines with turbochargers have come so far, that they’re just as good in some cases, and darn near as fuel efficient. That doesn’t rule out the turbo-diesel, but if you don’t do many highway miles and use the SUV mainly around the suburbs apart from the annual trip away, then a petrol engine is probably a better idea anyway. If, however, you travel the highways and byways on a regular basis, then a diesel starts to make a bit of sense, too. Don’t rule either out is the message here.
One platform you can often disregard is an SUV with a hybrid driveline. The extra mass of the hybrid’s batteries and electric motor often reduces the mass the same vehicle can tow when fitted with a conventional driveline. It’s not always the case, but as a rule of thumb, hybrid vehicles are not usually promoted as tow-vehicles by their manufacturers.
Modern SUVs come in two main layouts, front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive and the latter is definitely the tow-car of choice if you can afford to option up to the more expensive AWD version of a particular make and model. The equation is fairly simple; having all four wheels driving the car when needed is just a safer way to go. And if it’s a boat you tow from time to time, you’ll really appreciate the AWD grip on a wet launching ramp. But even a soggy caravan park can suddenly make the extra dollars at purchase time seem like a great idea.
The other general rule deals with transmission choices. And it is this: Broadly speaking, the transmission of choice for towing is a conventional, torque-converter automatic. It doesn’t matter whether it has five gears or ten, the bottom line is that an old-school automatic is the best for hauling a load.
The alternatives, CVTs and dual-clutch transmissions, are less robust (sticking with the generalisations, of course) and don’t tend to be rated to tow so much. Throw in the fact that it’s hybrids that often feature a CVT, and the problem only gets worse. Also, a conventional automatic gives a nice, smooth power delivery which is what you want when taking off with a load hitched on behind or when trying to manoeuvre a camper-trailer into a small space at a van park.
So, if those are the ground rules, what are the makes and models that stand out as smart towing SUVs?
The version you want is the petrol engine and all-wheel-drive. This comes with an eight-speed automatic gearbox and a towing capacity of 1800kg (braked) which is heaps for a camper-trailer or small boat. Fuel economy is a combined 8.6 litres per 100km, although the Escape does require premium ULP.
There’s performance aplenty with the Escape in this format, with 183kW of power and 387Nm of torque, which is a lot. In its cheapest form, the Escape will cost you $41,490. There’s also a plug-in hybrid Escape, but for all the above reasons (CVT transmission and 1200kg towing limit) we recommend the 183kW petrol version.
The Hyundai brand has a great reputation in the trade and owners seem to love them too. For towing duties, we’d go for the 2.0-litre turbo-diesel version of the Tucson with 137kW and 416Nm. Along with the eight-speed automatic and all-wheel-drive, this is a sensible tow-car in this class of vehicle.
Towing capacity is 1900kg (braked) and the vehicle itself is hefty at 1680kg, which is actually no bad thing for a tow-car. Fuel economy is a creditable 6.3 litres per 100km. Prices start at $45,400 with this driveline.
Mechanically identical to the Hyundai Tucson, the Kia Sportage is another good mid-sized tow-vehicle. The 137kW turbo-diesel engine is spot on for the job and the eight-speed automatic and all-wheel-drive likewise fits the bill.
Again, like the Hyundai, the Sportage can tow up to 1900kg braked and uses 6.3 litres of diesel per 100km. At $39,845, it’s cheaper than the cheapest Tucson with the same mechanical package, and the Kia has the best warranty in the game at seven years/unlimited kilometres.
While the RAV4 is best known for its popular hybrid variant, there is also a conventionally powered petrol version with an eight-speed automatic and all-wheel-drive. And that’s the RAV4 to tow with, for our money. Power is 152kW and torque is 243Nm from the 2.5-litre petrol engine which is nothing to write home about, but will do the job. Fuel consumption is a combined 6.7 litres per 100km.
Similarly, the towing capacity is not class-leading, but at 1500kg will be enough for some owners. Because you’re buying the all-wheel-drive platform, the RAV4 is not cheap at $50,200, but as with any Toyota, you’re paying something for the badge and reputation.
Mazda offers the CX-5 in both diesel and petrol forms, but the turbo-diesel is far and away the best powerplant for towing of the two. Power for the pair is the same at 140kW, but the diesel absolutely trumps the petrol’s 252Nm of torque with a full 420Nm. The six-speed conventional automatic is also a big tick in the Mazda’s favour.
Towing limit is the same across diesel and petrol at 1800kg, but the diesel again steals a march with a combined fuel consumption figure of 6.0 litres per 100km versus the petrol’s 7.5 litres. In the real world, the difference might even be a bit more than that. The cheapest CX-5 diesel AWD is the Touring Active at $45,680.
If you’re prepared to live with an older mid-sized or small family SUV, there are loads of choices for really sensible money. In fact, you can be mobile for under 10K if you know what you’re doing and what you’re buying.
The trick with second hand SUVs is to buy the one that has the best service history. This is actually more important (up to a point) than how many kilometres the car has travelled and vastly more important than what colour it is and whether it has Apple CarPlay. Try to gauge what sort of work the car has done previously, too.
Fundamentally, you need to take all second hand SUVs on their individual merits, rather than adopt any blanket rulings on make and model. Obviously, steer clear of the renowned duds (like the Holden Captiva or anything with a Daewoo badge) but other than that, buy on conditions and history.
By David Morley