How we test tow cars

This is the 10th year of the Tow Car Awards. Over that time we’ve reviewed over 400 tow cars and racked up thousands of miles of testing.

Some 41 cars have been put to the test this year. As before, experts from Practical Caravan, What Car? and The Camping and Caravanning Club have joined forces to sort through these contenders to find Britain’s best tow cars.

Every car goes through the same demanding tests, whether it is a small hatchback or a huge SUV. We’re looking for cars which tow brilliantly, have practical features to make a tow car driver’s life easy, and which will be enjoyable to live with every day. Our scoring also reflects a car’s value for money, safety standards and resale values.

Here’s exactly what we’re looking for, and how we find it…

Towing is one of the toughest things a passenger car ever has to do. Our tests reflect those demands, and go further with emergency manoeuvres which push each car to the limit.

Every car tows a caravan (or a small trailer) weighted to 85% of its kerbweight (or at the legal towing limit if it is lower), with the stabiliser hitch replaced with a basic hitch so as not to disguise the behaviour of the car and caravan. It is driven at 60mph, then up to 70mph if it feels stable enough at the UK legal limit.

A low-speed slalom tests the brakes and the handling, while a short, sharp steering input at speed mimics the effect of a sudden gust of wind. Then it’s on to a 1-in-6 slope for a hill start to reveal any shortcomings with the handbrake, engine torque and transmission.

One of our most experienced drivers completes a different route, with a 30-60mph acceleration test, 30-0mph braking, and our most violent and demanding test – the lane-change. Three runs through the lane-change at increasing speeds really help separate good cars from the very best, with data from the Al-Ko ATC stability system adding hard data to the driver’s impression of each car.

We don’t want to drive cars that tow brilliantly, but which are compromised in everyday driving. The solo score is based on What Car?‘s expert review of each model, and reflects a car’s handling, ride comfort, performance and refinement.

There’s more to a good tow car than being stable at speed and powerful enough to tow up a steep hill. In this part of our assessment we look for those features which make towing easier, safer and more practical.

Each car’s boot is tested by a typical load of caravan holiday luggage, with bags and touring gear of all sorts of shapes and sizes. Our practicality judges also score each car for the quality of the towing advice and data in the handbook, the accessibility of the towing electrics and whether they will charge the battery and power the fridge as well as the road lights, whether the car has trailer stability control, if the puncture repair provision is suitable for use when towing, and more.

Buying and owning
It’s no good buying a car that tows brilliantly if it’s overpriced, will cost a fortune to run, or will be worth next to nothing when the time comes to sell it on.

The buying and owning score reflects a car’s value as a new car and long-term running costs. A long warranty, good reliability and a strong safety rating from Euro NCAP also contribute to a high score.

The Green Award
This year sees the return of fuel economy testing as part of our assessment for the Green Award. Cars were shortlisted based on their official fuel economy figures.

Each car was matched to a caravan weighing 85% of its kerbweight, then the fuel tank was brimmed. The cars were then driven to the test track’s mile-long straights, and driven at 60mph on the straights, and 40mph on the connecting loops. At the end of the 55-mile-long test the car was brimmed again, and the fuel economy while towing calculated.

Every car was driven by the same driver, using a consistent driving style to ensure fair and comparable results.

In the case of the plug-in hybrid Mitsubishi, the test loop was completed twice; once with a fully charged battery and once after the battery had been depleted.

Winning the Green Award wasn’t simply a question of achieving the best economy while towing. Our driving judges discussed the merits of the most economical tow cars before choosing the Green Award winner.

Thank you
The Tow Car Awards relies upon the support of many organisations and individuals. Thanks to the Swift Group for supplying a fleet of caravans and to Al-Ko for its assistance in preparing the tourers for the tests; stability data from the caravans’ Al-Ko ATC sensors forms an important part of our judging.

We’re also grateful to Witter for their help in assessing the towing gear and electrics, and to Milenco for the supply of towing mirrors and adaptors. In particular, we would like to thank the volunteers from The Camping and Caravanning Club, whose hard work and enthusiasm make the event possible.

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