Tow Ratings Standardization: Comparing Apples to Apples

Have you ever wondered if 10,000 pounds of towing capacity means the same for trucks manufactured by GM, Ford, and Dodge?

Towing Capacity Overkill. What could possibly go wrong here? (Credit: tacomaworld.com)

You will soon know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Automotive manufacturers agreed in 2008 to standardize tow ratings as specified in the SAE’s Surface Vehicle Recommended Practice J2807 to take effect by 2013.

The industry alliance includes Ford, GM, Chrysler, Toyota, and Honda, along with several leading trailer and hitch makers.

Until now, each manufacturer was free to test using proprietary conditions ideally suited to a truck’s towing strengths and decide their own maximum trailer rating. They could pretty much advertise whatever ratings they wanted since there was no “apples to apples” comparison between brands or models.

Each company designed its own test, and—surprise, surprise—their trucks always aced the tests. Imagine the EPA didn’t exist, and car companies could just make up fuel-economy figures to boost sales. Kinda like, catch me if you can—on my towing ratings!

Makers would boast about the pounds their pickups and SUVs could tow, and their exhaustive testing used to determine the towing capacity.

But when a new truck claimed a higher number, the other manufacturers would rewrite their spec sheets with increased towing capacity and, as if by magic, match or beat the new kid on the block.

The maximum vehicle towing capacity is... (Credit: eviews.ebay.ca)

And there was nothing a customer could do, short of bringing a 12,000-pound fifth wheel or travel trailer to a test drive.

Towing capacity measures the maximum weight that a vehicle can safely and legally haul. The rating is as important to many pickup and SUV buyers as fuel economy or horsepower are to minivan or sports-car shoppers, reports the Detroit Free Press.

“Before, you couldn’t say who had the best towing capacity, because you didn’t know how it was tested,” says Mike Levine, editor of Pickuptrucks.com. “This is the first time a customer can do an actual apples-to-apples comparison.”

Major makers of pickups and SUVs have agreed to a standard test to rate their vehicle’s towing capacity. By the end of the 2013 model year, most truck buyers should know—for the first time—how a vehicle performs compared to the competition.

This will allow for apples-to-apples comparisons between trucks from different manufacturers and it’s a really big deal for millions of drivers especially for RVers towing a fifth-wheel or travel trailer.

There are five engineering characteristics that strongly influence any tow vehicle’s performance:

  • Engine power and torque characteristics
  • Powertrain cooling capacity
  • Durability of the powertrain and chassis
  • Handling characteristics during cornering and braking maneuvers
  • Structural characteristics of the vehicle hitch attachment area

To tow safely, do what the pros do: Visit a certified scales to find out what your truck weighs loaded, what your trailer weighs with everything in it, and the two together weigh. With that, you can compare to the manufacturer's published capacities and plan accordingly. (Credit: rvmagonline.com)

The standard, known as J2807, spells out test procedures and performance requirements that must be met for a manufacturer to assign a maximum tow rating to a particular vehicle. While various trailer configurations are suitable for these tests, the towed unit must provide a minimum specified frontal area starting with 12 square feet for a TWR (Trailer Weight Rating) below 1500 pounds, ranging to 60 square feet for a TWR exceeding 12,000 pounds. There are also specifications for how the trailer’s load is distributed on its axle(s) and how the attachment tongue is configured.

One major change from past practice is what the SAE committee defines as TVTW (Tow Vehicle Trailering Weight). Unlike the past, a driver, a passenger, optional equipment purchased by at least one third of the customer base, and hitch equipment are now included in this calculation along with the base weight of the tow vehicle. Raising the TVTW figure automatically lowers the maximum permissible GCWR (Gross Combined Weight Rating) and TWR figures.

With the demanding test, automakers expect their tow ratings to decrease by anything from a few hundred to more than a thousand pounds. They’re willing to take the hit, because it’s in their interest as well as the customers’ to have credible towing figures.

Toyota was the first to use the standard. It already applied it to the Tundra. The Tundra’s claimed towing capacity decreased, but its credibility grew.

Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford and GMC full-size pickups are expected to adopt the test during the 2013 model year, which begins January 1, 2012. Nissan will use the standard someday, but won’t say when or on which vehicles.

Every truck tested to the standard can say its towing capacity is SAE rated. That’s the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval when it comes to vehicle performance. The SAE is the leading independent body for vehicle standards and tests.

The towing standard is not mandatory. No manufacturer has to use it. If they don’t, though, the figures they claim for towing capacity will be less credible and more open to challenge than their competitors.

Worth Pondering…
The important thing is not to stop questioning.

—Albert Einstein

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