Choosing a Tow Vehicle - Part II
In Part I, we talked about weight ratings and capacities of the tow vehicle and trailer. This is by far the most critical aspect of choosing a capable tow vehicle that is safe to tow. Please read that first.
In this section we will talk about the considerations we made in choosing the tow vehicle for our 2011 25 FB Airstream trailer.
What came first, the tow vehicle or the trailer?
When choosing a trailer and a tow vehicle, there are generally two approaches:
1. Choose the trailer first, and then choose a tow vehicle that can accommodate it.
2. Choose the tow vehicle first, and find a trailer that you can tow it with.
Sarah and I decided on the first option, and really don’t see the point of the second unless you already own a capable tow-vehicle. Our old Toyota RAV4 is capable of many things – but towing a trailer is definitely not one of them!
Once we settled on an Airstream, and specifically a 25-foot Airstream, we were off to the races searching for a tow-vehicle.
What did we want?
· First and foremost, it had to be capable of safely towing a fully loaded trailer, including up and down mountains (and living in Colorado, there are plenty of mountains). Note that at higher elevations you lose a little horse power, some Colorado passes are as high of 11,000 or even 12,000 feet. Some mountain passes have 7-8% grades (up and down). We had to educate ourselves on the various tow ratings and capacities (which are covered in Part I of this post). We were not interested in any V6 engines, we wanted V8 or above to get us up hills more easily and perform better at high elevation, and if possible, a max-trailering/max-towing package to give us even more towing capacity and better engine braking going downhill.
· Good gas mileage. We weren’t expecting miracle gas mileage while towing our trailer, but we anticipated driving as much or more without the trailer and so gas mileage is important.
· Capable of driving off-road (decent clearance and 4WD) for our adventures when the trailer was parked. Again our Toyota RAV4 can do very limited off-road (and we have pushed it further than we should), having a truck with higher clearance and better 4WD capability is a nice perk and will allow us to get to places we haven't been able to reach before. Trucks are wide, heavy (will accelerate quickly even in 4L down steep hills), and do not have the tight turning radius of a Jeep, but for many flatter or straight 4WD roads, high clearance and 4WD is good enough.
· It had to have a roomy and comfortable interior large enough to support two humans and two cats. For a truck, this means having an extended cab (four doors), and no suicide doors (back doors that open the opposite direction of the front doors and require that the front doors are open).
· As large as necessary to tow the trailer but no larger. We didn't want some behemoth dually full-ton diesel pickup that could tow 30,000 lbs. when we only needed 1/3 of that.
· Gas (instead of diesel). Diesel engines will (typically) last longer and are much more fuel-efficient and have more torque, but they are more expensive to maintain, louder, and smellier. Some gas stations do not have diesel and some that do, only have it for a few bays.
· An included towing package. We were not interested in installing an aftermarket trailer brake controller, or receiving hitch, or anything else. We wanted it all to be integrated from the start.
We contemplated purchasing larger SUV (there are only a handful out there that can tow a trailer), but ultimately decided that a truck would be more versatile and much more capable.
Once we narrowed it down to a truck, we had to decide what class of truck we wanted: half-ton (Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado 1500, GMC Sierra 1500, RAM 1500, etc.), three-quarter ton (Ford F-250, Chevy Silverado 2500, GMC Sierra 2500, RAM 2500), or full ton (Ford F-350, Chevy Silverado 3500, GMC Sierra 3500, RAM 3500). Unfortunately the Toyota Tundra did not have the towing capabilities sufficient for our 25 FB trailer. These classes originally referred to the payload of the truck, see Part I for more on payload.
Now days, a “half-ton” pickup can usually carry a lot more than a literal half-ton, but the “half-ton” nomenclature remains. The three-quarter and full-ton pickups have a more robust frame, better engine braking, and much higher tow ratings. They are also larger, heavier, more stiff when driving, and much less fuel-efficient (in fact, because of their large size and towing capabilities, the EPA does not require them to report fuel-economy ratings).
While we briefly discussed getting a three-quarter ton truck, our heart was on a half-ton pickup. They are smaller and more fuel-efficient, and the larger models are more than capable of towing our fully loaded Airstream, even up and down steep grades. Half-ton trucks are also cheaper!
New or Used?
One of the “fun” parts of this project was finding out how expensive trucks really were! Another realization is that while the used-truck market is fairly robust, most people really use their trucks. There were not many used trucks with low mileage and those that had low mileage were almost as expensive as a new truck. So we decided to pay a little more for a new truck that we could abuse ourselves, rather than be at the mercy of a truck that someone had abused before us.
After a lot of research, dealer visits, and test-driving we settled on a 2014 Chevy Silverado 1500 double cab 4WD with a EcoTec3 5.3L V8 engine (The EcoTec3 automatically switches between 8 and 4 cylinders, increasing fuel-efficiency). Our particular model was one of four in Colorado that had a max trailering package, which includes a higher axle ratio and tow rating. It had the highest towing capabilities of any V8 half-ton pickup, and also the best gas mileage. We also liked the interior more than the Ford F-150, and preferred normal rear doors rather than the "suicide" doors on the Ford. The main initial drawback was the color – black – we would have preferred red or blue or silver, but we were on a time crunch and the selection of trucks with the max-trailering package was limited.
After 6 months of travel and 24,000 miles of driving, we are still happy with our decision. While towing we get 11-13 MPG, which we expected. When not towing, we easily get 20 MPG on the highway, which is better than we expected. It is much more quiet than we anticipated, and drives very smooth (it certainly doesn’t feel like you are driving a stiff truck). We have driven it up and down the mountains in Colorado (including the 5,000 ft up and down passes on I-70 west of Denver) easily, and some 8% grades. The cruise control, console display, stereo, back up camera, and trailer break controller all work great. We have driven on some sandy 4WD "roads" in California and Utah (without the trailer!), and some 4WD in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado and the truck has handled great so far.
Our only complaint is that we wish the area under the rear seats was flat (as they are on the Ford F-150), which would make it more practical to use that area for storage.
There are some people who argue against having a half-ton pickup truck towing larger trailers such as our 25 foot Airstream, but to us that's nonsense. If you have enough towing capacity, a weight-distributing (and anti-sway) hitch, and drive with common sense you will be more than fine.
It is now almost 2016 and the tow vehicle landscape has changed a little since our purchase almost a year ago, but we expect to be happy with our Chevy for a long time and many more miles. The important thing when choosing a tow vehicle is that you are happy with it, some of our "must haves" might not be important to you, and you might care about things that we don't (or you might be towing a much larger or heavier trailer, where a half-ton pickup doesn't make sense, or where the higher torque rating on a diesel engine is important to you,). This is an expensive choice that you have to live with and you should make it on your own terms and not anyone else's.