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Consumer Reports’ experts explain the many complicated factors to consider in order to haul safely

Truck advertisements boast about how much a pickup can tow, with demonstrations of stunning feats such as hauling a space shuttle down a city street. But the reality is, the typical pickup at the dealership has much more humble abilities.

For drivers looking to tow, there are two main things to know: How much weight they’ll tow, and which truck can adequately do that job. It may sound simple, but there’s a lot to learn about engine, transmission, and equipment packages to ensure that they have the right truck for their needs. Understanding all those numbers and what they mean isn’t always easy.

Take Ford, for example. The F-150 pickup can tow from 5,000 lbs. to 13,200 lbs., depending on how the truck is configured. The F-150 most commonly found on dealer lots—an XLT crew cab 4WD with a 5.5-foot bed and the 2.7-liter turbo V6 engine—can tow a maximum of 7,600 lbs. It begs the question: How can there be such a huge discrepancy in towing ability between versions of what is basically the same truck?

To be fair, this is not just a problem with Ford trucks.

Most pickup trucks sold in the U.S. today don’t detail exactly how much they can carry in a readily visible location. The driver’s-side doorjamb has labels with other important information, such as tire and wheel size, tire inflation pressure data, and the GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating), but shoppers will need to figure out a truck’s individual tow rating on their own. They might be able to look at the towing chart that sometimes appears in the owner’s manual, but often the manual refers readers to the manufacturer’s online towing guide. Or, they may be forced to trust that their salesperson has the correct information.

Starting with the 2019 model year, Chevrolet is putting a trailering information label on the Silverado 1500. It includes more information than you’ll find on the driver’s side doorjamb of most trucks, but it still doesn’t list the truck’s tow rating. Chevy says the label “provides customers with the information they need to calculate their pickup’s exact capacities,” but the point is this: Owners will still need to do some calculations of their own to figure out how much the truck can actually tow.

So, how can shoppers know which truck to buy to do the job they need it to do? We’ve got a plan to help.

The Factors That Affect Towing

Many full-sized pickups are available in a dizzying array of configurations, and all can affect the truck’s tow rating: cab size, bed length, engine, transmission, and two-wheel or four-wheel drive, as well as optional towing or trailer packages.

If you’re shopping for a pickup to tow a specific size or weight trailer, it’s important to make sure the truck you’re looking at can handle your needs. Most compact and full-sized pickups can easily tow a couple of personal watercraft, a small pop-up camper trailer, or even a 20-foot powerboat. But if you’re looking to haul a larger dual-axle RV travel trailer, those can weigh 8,000 lbs. or more. And no one wants to drive up to the RV dealer to pick up a new trailer for the summer family road trip only to find out the truck they bought doesn’t have the guts to safely pull it along.

That’s why it’s critical to understand, before you buy your truck, what type of towing you’re going to do, the terrain you’re most likely to encounter—whether it’s mostly flat highways or short, steep hills, for example—and the weight of the trailer, including any gear you’re planning to take along.

Here at Consumer Reports, we typically recommend that new pickup truck buyers be careful not to purchase more truck than they need (for instance, don’t get a heavy-duty truck if you’re trying to accomplish mostly lightweight chores), but “when it comes to towing, more capability is always better than less,” says John Ibbotson, CR’s chief mechanic. “For example, if you plan on towing, it’s well worth the money to get the most comprehensive tow package that is available for your truck,” he says.

Manufacturer towing and trailer packages can range from little more than a receiver hitch and trailer wiring harness to comprehensive equipment packages that have integrated controls for electric trailer brakes, beefed-up suspension components, and more. Before you spend your money, it’s important to understand how any tow package will enhance the truck’s abilities, and what its total capacity will be once it’s been properly outfitted.

We talked to CR’s experts and all of the major U.S. pickup truck makers to determine the key factors to consider.

Weight Is Everything

When it comes to towing, it’s crucial that you understand how much weight your truck can carry, both in passengers and payload, as well as how much it can tow behind the vehicle. It’s extremely important that you have a clear understanding of how much everything you’re taking with you weighs.

For example, a camper trailer’s listed weight doesn’t include any extra cargo, water in the holding tank, or dealer-installed options. It’s quite likely you’ll end up throwing some extra equipment or luggage into the trailer for your trip, and all of that weight adds to the trailer’s total weight. It’s the same concept when you’re towing a powerboat; the manufacturer lists its dry weight, but hauling the boat with a full fuel tank can easily add 250–300 lbs., not to mention other gear that might be stored on the boat.

We recommend weighing your truck and trailer together at a certified scale or weigh station before going on a trip—this usually costs about $10. Then disconnect the trailer from the truck and weigh the pickup on its own, which typically only costs about $2 if you do it during the same visit. There are weigh stations located throughout the country, especially near rural interstate highways. This is the only way to know the true weight of your loaded truck and trailer.

Engine and Transmission Combo

The engine’s size and power are significant factors in determining how much a truck can tow. When it comes to pickups, there are generally a few different types of engines. Compact trucks typically offer four-cylinder or V6 engines. Full-sized pickups offer a variety of V6 engines, and some of those are turbocharged. Then there are traditional V8 engines, which are what many truck drivers think of as the heavy hitters. That used to be true, but there are some turbo V6 engines that create more torque, the power to start you moving.

For example, a compact Chevrolet Colorado with the base four-cylinder engine can tow up to 3,500 lbs., but choosing the V6 engine lets you tow 7,000 lbs.

Most Ford F-150s come with a 2.7-liter turbo V6, which allows them to tow up to 9,000 lbs. when properly equipped. But to tow the maximum 13,200 lbs., you’d have to step up and get the F-150 with the 3.5-liter turbo V6. That engine, thanks to its prodigious 470 lb.-ft. of torque, is capable of towing even more than an F-150 with Ford’s 5.0-liter V8 engine.

With other full-sized trucks, including the Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and the Toyota Tundra, the largest available V8 engine has the highest towing capacity.

There is also a growing number of capable turbo diesels for light-duty pickups.

Cab Size and Bed Length

Compact trucks are typically configured as four-door crew cabs with a short bed that’s about five feet long. But the Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma achieve their highest tow ratings in extended-cab versions with the six-foot bed, while the Chevrolet Colorado hits its maximum capability with a crew cab and 6.1-foot bed. The Honda Ridgeline and Jeep Gladiator come only in crew-cab form, with 5.3-foot and 5-foot beds, respectively. Notably, the Ford Ranger can achieve its 7,500 lb. maximum tow rating with either of its two cab and bed combos.

Full-sized pickups can be ordered in a variety of cab and bed lengths, from the old-school regular cab with just one row of seats, to a crew cab with four full-sized doors and a huge amount of interior space; extended cabs fall in between the two. Bed lengths range from 5.5 feet to just over 8 feet.

In doing our research, we found that most full-sized trucks get their highest tow rating with an extended cab. But there are exceptions: both the Nissan Titan and Titan XD achieve their max tow ratings with a regular cab and an 8-foot bed, while the Ford F-150 gets to its max tow rating with a crew cab and 6.5-foot bed.

Two-Wheel-Drive or Four-Wheel-Drive?

Most pickups are rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. (The Honda Ridgeline is the exception; it’s front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive, because it’s built on an SUV platform). In most cases, RWD versions can tow more than their four-wheel drive counterparts. That’s because the RWD model weighs less, and every pound not built into a truck is another pound your truck can tow.

But for many drivers, it’s worth giving up some towing capacity for the greater traction that comes with 4WD. This is especially true for people who haul boats, as 4WD can be necessary to haul the trailer out of the water up a slippery boat launch. Four-wheel drive will also be critical if your towing sometimes involves driving on snowy roads or navigating muddy campsites.

Gear Ratios

We’re not talking about how many gears your truck’s transmission has, but rather whether the axle ratio is geared “low” or “tall.” Shorter (or lower) gearing is more ideal for towing because it’s easier for the truck to access the engine’s power, which helps the truck accelerate faster from a stop or climb steep hills. Be aware, though: Lower gearing means the engine will run at a higher rpm on the highway, which will ultimately hurt the truck’s fuel economy.

Here’s an example of how gearing can affect a truck’s towing abilities: A Ram 1500 with a crew cab, 4WD, a short bed and the 5.7-liter V8 engine, comes with a 3.21 axle ratio. Opting for the “shorter” 3.92 axle ratio raises the tow rating from 8,240 lbs. to 11,340 lbs. And it’s only a $95 option. That’s a lot of towing bang for the buck.

Know Your Towing Terms

If you’re new to the towing game, you’re going to hear and read a lot of terms you might have never seen before. Here’s a primer.

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR): The weight of the truck plus the maximum allowable weight for all passengers and cargo. The GVWR is shown on the vehicle’s certification label on the driver’s doorjamb. Note that trailer’s own weight is not included in the GVWR, but the tongue weight of the trailer is—meaning the weight of the portion of the trailer that connects to the truck. More on that soon.

Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR): The maximum weight that a truck with a fully loaded trailer—including all cargo and passengers—can handle without risking damage. The GCWR for your truck is not usually found on the label on the truck’s doorjamb, but it can usually be found in the towing section of the manufacturer’s website.

Payload capacity: This is the maximum weight of cargo and passengers that the vehicle is designed to carry. Payload is the GVWR minus the truck’s base curb weight, which is classified as the weight of the vehicle including a full tank of fuel and all standard—but not optional—equipment. Don’t forget that the trailer’s tongue weight needs to be included here, too.

Trailer tongue weight: Also known as tongue load, this is an important number. It’s the amount of the trailer’s weight that rests on the hitch ball, the part of the truck that holds up the trailer while you drive.

Tongue load should usually be 10 percent of the trailer’s total weight—if you’re towing 5,000 lb., then the tongue weight shouldn’t exceed 500 lb. Typically, if your truck is rated high enough to handle the trailer you’re towing, it should also be rated high enough to handle the weight the trailer puts on the hitch. But keep in mind: The trailer’s tongue weight needs to be added to the truck’s payload, so the 500 lb. in the above example needs to be added to the truck’s GVW.

As a Ford trucks’ engineer pointed out to us, it’s critical to be mindful of (and add in) tongue weight because the tongue load sits directly on the vehicle itself.

It’s also very important to know your truck’s payload capacity, and to factor the tongue weight into the truck’s payload, because the trailer’s tongue weight can limit how many people can ride in the cab and how much stuff can be carried in the bed.

The height of the hitch affects both the tongue weight and the truck’s braking ability. It’s absolutely critical that the trailer sit level when it’s attached to the truck. Too much tongue weight can cause the truck to sit too low in the rear; that can hurt the front wheels’ ability to provide steering, traction, and braking, and potentially cause suspension damage. Too little tongue weight affects how the trailer will handle behind the pickup, potentially causing the trailer to fishtail, or sway from side-to-side.

If you have to tow different trailers, it can be helpful to have a hitch that can be adjusted for height.

How It All Comes Together

Once you understand what the truck you own can do, and the weight of the trailer you’re looking to tow, it’s time to make some calculations. There are many things to consider, and yes, there is some math involved to make sure your pickup truck hasn’t exceed its GVWR and that the truck and loaded trailer combined don’t exceed the maximum GCWR.

Here’s a real-world example from a Chevrolet engineer that shows the math:

Trailer weight: 10,000 lb.

Pickup truck GVWR: 7,000 lb.

Pickup truck weight before added payload: 5,500 lb.

Payload added to pickup:

  • Two passengers: 300 lbs.
  • Extra cargo: 100 lbs.
  • Trailer hitch equipment: 75 lbs.
  • Trailer tongue weight: 1,000 lbs. (10 percent of trailer weight)
Total payload: 1,475 lbs.

Tow vehicle weight (5,500 lbs.) + Payload (1,475 lbs.) = 6,975 lbs., which is just shy of the truck’s 7,000-lb. GVWR.

As this example shows, reaching the limits of a pickup truck’s payload can happen quickly when you’re towing. This means that if you’re towing near your truck’s limits, you might have to leave something—whether it’s cargo or passengers—behind to stay within the truck’s safe capabilities.

Figuring all of this out can be confusing. Luckily some truck makers have online towing and trailering guides. For instance, Ram Trucks has a unique website to help truck owners and shoppers. Owners can type in their vehicle identification number (VIN) to get hauling info that is specific to their truck, Ram spokesman Nick Cappa told us. Shoppers can build out a truck on the site that will meet their hauling needs.

Original story from ConsumerReports

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