It's a tale of drama and intrigue, of international affairs and high-stakes backroom business plots.
We're not talking about the latest Hollywood thriller. No, we're speaking about the curious story of the J2807 towing test standard.
It might surprise you to know that until very recently, when you saw towing-capacity claims in car and truck ads, those figures had been set by automakers themselves through a series of proprietary tests. Unlike, say, the EPA tests that determine fuel economy or the IIHS tests that establish safety ratings for vehicles, there weren't standard tests for towing.
Several years ago, the Society of Automotive Engineers attempted to fix that problem with a set of standards known as J2807. J2807 includes a series of towing tests that measure acceleration, stopping, ability to climb at particular grades, and so on.
Why does this matter for consumers?
Well, for starters, it means that folks shopping for trucks and SUVs can compare apples and apples. For example, if you're cross-shopping two trucks that followed different tests to achieve their claims, you have no way of knowing whether those vehicles were tested in equally rigorous ways. By having one standard for all vehicles, it puts automakers on a level playing field and gives consumers the info they need to make smart choices.
Standardized tests are also important because they ensure impartiality and, in theory, safety. Ditching proprietary tests in favor of a standardized model gives customers a more accurate sense of what their vehicles are capable of doing so that drivers don't push those vehicles too hard, damaging the vehicle -- or themselves -- in the process. By definition, J2807 sets a standard to which every automaker can be held.
Why isn't J2807 standard now?
In 2009, automakers agreed to begin using J2807 towing tests, beginning with model-year 2013 vehicles. So far, however, only Toyota has stepped up to the plate.
Why haven't others followed suit? Mostly because of Ford and General Motors.
Chrysler, for example, was ready to implement J2807 tests with its 2013 Ram, which would have had some impact on the Ram's towing stats. (A spokesman for Ram describes that impact as "minor".)
GM was also planning to roll out new tow ratings for the 2013 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, even though doing so would have had a negative impact on those figures. In fact, GM went so far as to print owner's manuals and promotional materials with the new ratings.
But Ford balked. Ford says that it's rolling out the J2807 standard only to new or redesigned vehicles, like the 2013 Escape crossover. But the company's cash cow -- the F-150 -- isn't due to be refreshed until the 2015 model year. And so, the 2013 F-150 uses Ford's own tests to determine towing capacity.
Panicked to hear that news, GM quickly changed its publicized tow ratings for the 2013 Silverado and 2013 Sierra so that they remained at their 2012 levels. The new J2807 ratings could appear later this year on redesigned 2014 model-year GM pickups.
Without participation from Ford and GM, Chrysler saw no reason to use J2807, so the Ram's 2013 stats are the same as they were for the 2012 model year.
It goes without saying that as long as automakers use different methods for determining towing stats, customers suffer. It puts us at a disadvantage when shopping and could put us in danger on the road.
However, we also see this issue from the automakers' perspective. Pickup trucks are hugely profitable, and even though we know many great, thoughtful people who work at car companies, given the cash that's at stake it seems unlikely that any of them (Toyota excepted) would put themselves at a disadvantage by publishing lower tow-ratings simply because it's good for consumers. We're sometimes naive, but we weren't born yesterday.
For now, we're in a transitional phase as automakers switch over to the new standards. Until all automakers begin using J2807 -- which could take several years -- customers will have to continue being diligent in showrooms.