Ask Jack: Towing With a Trunk?

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
ask jack towing with a trunk

There are quite a few differences between Europe and the United States. Which, if you think about it, was kind of the point of having a United States in the first place. A hundred years from now, when Europe and America are both part of the Caliphate, these differences might not be as pronounced as they are today. In the meantime, however, we are still two continents separated by a common, fast-vanishing heritage. Which leads us, quite naturally, to the subject of towing.

Serge writes:

Since you asked for questions, what would you say from grapevine and experience is a good option for a car that can tow a trailer about 2500 pounds, new or used? This really goes to which car has the tranny and brakes that are good enough for this task. Don’t need big engine; a six-cylinder max. Volvo S60 is rated at 3500 pounds, but many other cars seem to carry as big loads in Europe but they’re not rated as such here. I’ve seen Saab 9-5s tow similar loads pretty well.

It’s very common, as Serge notes, for a car to carry very different tow-capability ratings on different sides of the Atlantic Ocean. If you’ve ever spent any time on the Continent, you’ve certainly seen plenty of cars towing small campers, equipment trailers, or even the occasional full-scale car hauler. Here in the States, however, most manufacturers specifically prohibit towing with any of their products that have a trunk. Nor will you see too many people flouting that prohibition. As a society, we tend to think of an F-250 diesel as the absolute minimum equipment necessary to pull a lawn mower.

This is the kind of situation that lends itself very well to the “COOL BRITANNIA VERSUS FAT STUPID DIABETES AMERICA” because it reinforces the stereotype that we are all overfed, over-equipped, hugely insecure morons. Why else would the Superior European Manufacturers deny us permission to tow the same kind of stuff they permit in the Fatherland? If you want to get a sense of the boilerplate used in these discussions, try posting on VWVortex that you’d like to tow a 32-foot Bayliner with a new Golf 1.4T and see what everybody says. A solid 50 percent of the commenters will assure you that only fat Americans would disapprove of such an efficient enterprise.

Yet I have to wonder if “stupid Amerifats” is really the answer for the difference in tow ratings across the pond. I rather suspect that it’s really a difference in expectations. Yes, Europeans tow 5,000-pound trailers with plain-Jane cars. They also believe in a different set of rules for vehicles that are being used in the fashion. Never have I seen a car with a trailer in the left lane of the fabled Autobahn. In Europe or in the UK, when you are towing, you are expected to behave in a predictable, relaxed fashion, the same way that an art car or joke car in LeMons does. Move over early and often, make the passing easily, and stay out of the way.

Contrast that with the behavior of the 3/4-ton diesels on the American road. They will run with six horses or a 28-foot car hauler behind them at 85 mph. Into a turn. Up a hill. When it’s raining. The idea of moving over or driving slower just because you’re pulling a trailer simply doesn’t enter into the mind of an average American driver. Nor should it, because as a nation we tend to be remarkably unpleasant to people who are “holding us up” on the road. I’ve done some low-speed towing myself, using compromised equipment, and I can tell you this from experience. There’s a lot of deliberate swerving and honking and sometimes even a flash of a middle finger or a steel barrel out of the passing window.

That, I believe, is why Mercedes-Benz does not want you pulling three tons with a four-cylinder turbo E-class. You simply can’t go, turn, or stop at the level that American consumers expect. The Germans have no interest in the negative customer interactions that would occur if they told customers that a 5 Series is interchangeable with a Tahoe from a towing perspective.

So what is Serge to do? Well, he could just find a shop willing to put a Class III hitch on a Euro-sedan and damn the torpedoes, with the understanding that he might find an Audi pulling 2,500 pounds to be a trifle frustrating in certain circumstances. But I have a different idea, one based on personal experience.

Long-term readers of this website will recall I once owned a 2009 Ford Flex Limited. It was an early build, prior to the availability of the Ecoboost motor. I used it to tow my Neon race car on a steel open-deck trailer all over the Midwest and I was rarely unhappy with the ability to the Flex to climb or safely descend a grade. That was about a 4,700-pound load, considerably more than what Serge wants to tow.

The Flex is part of Ford’s large-car Lego set and is constructed in a manner very similar to the Taurus or Lincoln MKS. I think that a Taurus SHO or MKS Ecoboost would have enough power, enough brake, and enough transmission durability to satisfy the needs specified by Serge. It wouldn’t have the long wheelbase that made the Flex very docile under load, but it would have the rest of the package. And it’s not really that much larger than, say, a Volvo S60.

Don’t forget that when you buy an MKS you have the option of the outstanding THX sound system, which to my mind entirely justifies the car’s existence. That’s my advice. What’s yours?

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2 of 197 comments
  • Focus-ed Focus-ed on Apr 14, 2017

    I've seen old Focus loaded to the roof while pulling uhaul trailer (not the smallest one). Them safety chains arcing on the highway. Better yet, once I saw a Smart pulling a trailer (the size of coffin but still) through mountains in AZ.

  • Mesatowing Mesatowing on Jul 27, 2017

    I used to have a 2002 subaru outback and we towed a 4x8 trailer PACKED with our stuff, all over the country. Drove close to 3000 miles with it. Had a hitch put on by u-haul. That car did great for us but I was glad to upgrade soon after to an '01 Tacoma.

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  • FreedMike I think this illustrates a bit of Truth About PHEVs: it's hard to see where they "fit." On paper, they make sense because they're the "best of both worlds." Yes, if you commute 20-30 miles a day, you can generally make it on electric power only, and yes, if you're on a 500-mile road trip, you don't have to worry about range. But what percentage of buyers has a 20-mile commute, or takes 500-mile road trips? Meanwhile, PHEVs are more expensive than hybrids, and generally don't offer the performance of a BEV (though the RAV4 PHEV is a first class sleeper). Seems this propulsion type "works" for a fairly narrow slice of buyers, which explains why PHEV sales haven't been all that great. Speaking for my own situation only, assuming I had a place to plug in every night, and wanted something that ran on as little gas as possible, I'd just "go electric" - I'm a speed nut, and when it comes to going fast, EVs are awfully hard to beat. If I was into hypermiling, I'd just go with a hybrid. Of course, your situation might vary, and if a PHEV fits it, then by all means, buy one. But the market failure of PHEVs tells me they don't really fit a lot of buyers' situations. Perhaps that will change as charging infrastructure gets built out, but I just don't see a lot of growth in PHEVs.