Towing With Your Crossover SUV: The Basics

July 13, 2014

Towing a vehicle doesn't have to mean buying a full-size, body-on-frame SUV or truck. Most of today's carlike crossover utility vehicles can handle a fair amount of towing--whether it's jet skis, a small boat, or a small moving trailer.

Unlike those big trucks, though, most drivers towing with a crossover are less familiar than those pulling a fifth wheel with a duallie truck. For those drivers, it's critical to know what you're doing before you attach those weekend toys--and how you're changing the fundamental responses of the vehicle.

CHECK OUT: What Car Should You Really Drive?

Keep these tips in mind, and you'll be off to a good start--and stop:

Don't overload it

Have you ever followed a car towing a small boat trailer that’s loaded with a very large boat? Picture it. A large boat is hanging over a trailer on all sides and towering over the tow vehicle; the trailer’s tires are flattened, and the vehicle’s front end is pointing upward. It’s a mess looking for a place to explode, and this is not an uncommon sight. Talk about a safety issue. Not only are the people in the tow vehicle at high risk, but so are the motorists who share the same roadway space.

Vehicles come from the factory with a specific towing capacity. Some vehicles come made with a towing package that is designed for safe towing. Check your owner’s manual or call your manufacturer’s customer service department to find out the towing capacity of your particular vehicle.

 What happens when you pull a trailer that’s too heavy for your vehicle? Engine damage from overheating, undue stress to the frame, damage to the suspension and braking systems, and transmission damage from overheating.

Don't overheat it

Vehicles designed for heavy towing that have a towing package from the factory come with a high coolant capacity radiator and sometimes a heavier water pump. When hauling a heavy load on a trailer with a vehicle that is not designed to haul such a load, the engine heats up far beyond the ability of the radiator to cool it down. The result is overheating, blown head gaskets, and cracked or warped cylinder heads. This is not to say that you should never tow a trailer with your vehicle, just find out what the towing capacity is and do not exceed it. On vehicles that tow heavy loads regularly, it’s a good idea to add an auxiliary engine oil cooler to ensure the engine oil in the crankcase is thoroughly cooled, because intense heat causes the oil to break down and lose viscosity.

An excessive load causes the transmission to overheat, which causes the transmission fluid to reach temperatures that compromise the soft internal parts such as rubber seals and clutches. The heat hardens the rubber seals, causing loss of internal hydraulic pressure. In addition, the glue that secures the clutch friction material to the steel backings hardens and clutch strength is compromised. If you’re going to haul a trailer, install an auxiliary transmission oil cooler.

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Don't overstress it

Vehicles with high towing capacities generally have strong frames that allow for hanging the additional weight of a trailer on them. When hauling a trailer that is too heavy with a vehicle not designed to haul such weight, the frame buckles and damage to the structural integrity of the vehicle is incurred.

The suspension is designed to handle the weight of the vehicle plus the specified maximum trailer-towing weight. That’s it. Overload the vehicle and suspension problems occur. Leaf and coil springs or torsion bars are overtaxed and either break or wear out prematurely. U-bolts and shackles that hold leaf-spring-packs together break, coil springs crack or snap in two, and torsion bars break free from their securing brackets in the vehicle’s frame.

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