I need to buy a used vehicle that can tow a boat. Suggestions?
March 10, 2014 1:00 PM   Subscribe

Help me find my best options for late-model used cars that have a reasonably decent towing capacity.

I currently drive a leased car that I will be turning in fairly soon. I have approximately $12,000 saved towards the purchase of a replacement car. Initially I wanted to pay cash for a replacement car and have no auto loan to deal with. However, I don't think that will be enough to get a car that is both as new as I'd like, and can tow the boat I need to tow. I am reluctantly willing to finance up to half the cost of a vehicle, which would be an out-the-door price of about $24,000, or a purchase price on the vehicle before tax of about $22,000.

Here are my absolute requirements, without which, I won't buy the vehicle:

1) Four doors, four seats.
2) 3,000 lb. rated towing capacity.
3) Automatic transmission.
4) Power locks.

Here are some things that I'd really like to have:
1) 4WD or AWD.
2) Satellite radio.
3) 20+mpg freeway milage.

Otherwise, I am fairly open to anything. I have no particular brand or country-of-origin loyalty and will consider just about anything. I will probably *not* buy a luxury brand like a BMW, only because the service costs are so astronomical. That said, I am not interested solely in reliability, and would rather get a "nicer" car, even if I have to pay a bit more for service once in a while (it just can't be $1,500 for brakes or the sorts of prices you get with e.g., BMW).

I am probably, due to the towing capacity requirement, looking at a mid-size SUV or crossover vehicle, but would actually prefer something more station-wagon-ish, though finding one of these with any reasonable towing capacity in the US seems impossible.

My current top choices are a Jeep Grand Cherokee or a Volkswagen Touareg, from around 2010-2011.

I am aiming to get a vehicle no more than 5 years old and with no more than 60k miles on it.
posted by tylerkaraszewski to Travel & Transportation (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Subaru Outback has 2700 pounds towing capacity but otherwise ticks all your boxes. How firm is that requirement? You should be able to get one a couple years old coming off a lease in your price range.
posted by kindall at 1:31 PM on March 10, 2014

My dad had this same problem and he eventually settled on a Hyundai Santa Fe for his boat towing needs. It's got a 3500 lb. towing capacity, and he says it's the best tow vehicle he's ever owned. He's on his third Hyundai. All of the previous ones were traded in so he could upgrade, not because of any serious damage or reliability issues. Previously he'd had a Honda CRV and I think he may have also owned Kia Sorrento at one point. The CRV, he's quick to point out, just doesn't have the engine to really be a tow vehicle.

Basically, he wanted something with 4 wheel drive, that could hold 4 people (and two carseats!), but still be able to hold things. It also get decent gas mileage for an SUV, and is very much not a pick up truck, which was a major thing for him.

The price is great, especially if you buy one used. They have 18/25 (city and highway) mileage, and they can come with all the bells and whistles.
posted by PearlRose at 1:32 PM on March 10, 2014

Perhaps a mid-sized truck (Nissan Frontier, Toyota Tacoma) would be the best solution.

The Frontier would have no problem towing 3,000lbs (max is 6,500lbs). It comes in four door (crew cab), with an automatic transmission and power doors, satellite radio, 4WD, and gets 21mpg on the highway.

Need additional covered storage? You could get a truck topper for around $1500.
posted by axismundi at 1:50 PM on March 10, 2014

The Volvo XC70 is rated at 3300 lbs towing capacity for at least the past 10 model years, potentially more. I found it when researching similar needs for my parents.
posted by HermitDog at 2:12 PM on March 10, 2014

As someone who is shopping for something similar, but with a larger towing capacity, I think the mpg is going to be your biggest obstacle, and you certainly aren't going to get that while towing a boat. Actual versus EPA estimated and all that. I'd encourage you to look for forums for whichever vehicles you choose to see how people's mpg experiences actually are.

The Tacoma and Frontier (and wow, apparently the Santa Fe) will fit on paper, but I've towed a 3000 pound rv with my 4dr/4wd Taco (supposed 5,000lb limit) and it was a little sketchy. Not so much the weight but it was physically bigger than the truck by quite a but, and tended to push it around. There is something to be said for getting the largest wheelbase you can afford. Also I had to add a brake controller - if the boat or whatever you are towing has electronic brakes you'll need to do this if the vehicle doesn't come equipped. Last I checked many mid-size vehicles don't include a controller or even wiring. Not a huge hassle but just something to know.
posted by Big_B at 2:19 PM on March 10, 2014

axismundi: "Need additional covered storage? You could get a truck topper for around $1500."

But be advised that the weight of this will add to what you are pulling around in terms of cargo.
posted by Big_B at 2:21 PM on March 10, 2014

My parents use a Saturn Vue (6 cylinder) to tow a boat + trailer (no brakes) about that size. Its rated capacity is 3500 lbs. It does it but struggles a bit on hills and launch ramps.
posted by bonehead at 2:28 PM on March 10, 2014

I've towed a horse trailer with two different Dodge Durangos. Just stick to the 2004 or later and the reliability on them is not bad. We really haven't had any major issues. Your tow capacity on a 8 cyl Durango will be 6000 lbs or better, depending on options and the engine. We've had the 2005 HEMI (totalled in an accident - not while towing) and then replaced it with a 2004 with the normal V8. I think the traditional V8 is more reliable. It'll be cheaper to buy used too.

As stated above, I was told repeatedly when I was learning about tow vehicles to get the longest wheelbase that fit in my budget and other requirements.
posted by COD at 2:31 PM on March 10, 2014

I'd buy a used F150 crew cab with a short bed. They are the most reliable towing vehicles on the planet and hold their value very well. The newer ones get about 20mpg on the highway.

Honestly though more info is needed. If you're towing a low profile sail boat or skiff fairly short distances on the eastern shore in stop and go traffic and mostly flat dry summer roads my answer would be to get a station wagon and drive slow. If you're hauling a high profile cruiser with a heavy outboard back and forth over the Rockies, going long distances and sharing narrow roads with logging trucks? Get the truck.
posted by fshgrl at 3:05 PM on March 10, 2014

I'm towing a J/70 around California. The boat is based in Santa Cruz County and will be towed to places like San Francisco Bay (requires going over an 1,800 foot mountain), Huntington Lake (at 7,000 ft elevation), Lake Tahoe (6,000 feet elevation), and Southern California which takes me over the Grapevine (over 4,000 feet).

The problem with just buying a pickup truck is that this is also my everyday car that I need to do things like drive my two-year-old daughter around. It seems like a truck is overkill for the 350 days a a year that I'm not towing anything.

I don't really care about the gas mileage *while* towing. Most days I'm not towing the boat and if it gets 12mpg a couple days a month when I drive the boat somewhere, that's OK.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 3:16 PM on March 10, 2014

If you want to use a smaller vehicle that isn't officially rated for towing that amount, consider looking into what the same vehicles are rated for towing in Europe. Apparently manufacturers sometimes reduce capacities in the US/ Canada because it's not usually a big selling point here for smaller cars. (Realized this when I was looking into towing with a Mazda 3, which wouldn't be able to handle your load, but is rated for 1100 lbs in Europe and NONE in the US.)
posted by metasarah at 3:19 PM on March 10, 2014

Also, renting or borrowing a tow-worthy vehicle as needed might make more sense than making it your primary car, if you can't get one that meets all your needs well.
posted by metasarah at 3:21 PM on March 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

A 4th gen (04-08) Toyota 4Runner can pull that (6000 lb rating) and can be had in good condition for less than 20k.

Personally, I'd recommend the V8 version, but the V6 is the same as the one in the Tacoma and makes similar power to the V8. My wife gets 21 MPG out of her 06 and she loves the AWD.

You might find a good deal on a used 5th Gen(09+) 4runner, too.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 3:41 PM on March 10, 2014

Disregard my notes about the brake controller:

Brakes: The stock package Triad Trailer will not be equipped with brakes. Hydraulic surge disc brakes will be offered as an option factory direct from Triad Trailers LLC.
Important Note: The following states will require brakes to be installed on the J/70 Triad Trailer:
, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, Nevada, Ohio, Tennessee and Utah

So it'll very likely have hydraulic surge brakes which is a good thing and will work on any vehicle.

Mid-size SUV with at least a v6 sounds perfect for you. Might struggle a little on hills but nothing you couldn't just take your time with.
posted by Big_B at 3:48 PM on March 10, 2014

Some of the Outbacks actually have the towing capacity that you need. According to this Subaru page "The 2.5i Outback has a maximum towing capacity of 2,700 lbs, while the 3.6R Outback can haul 3,000 lbs. " I've had a hard time doing useful Googling but it seems like the more recent Forresters have actually had their towing capacity/ratings reduced and I think the older ones had better/higher ratings. In trying to look this up I actually found a bunch of boat discussion boards where people were debating this topic.
posted by jessamyn at 3:59 PM on March 10, 2014

I've towed a lot on those roads and that would be really borderline for me truck or big SUV vs mid size SUV wise, mostly because of the length. That's a minimum 24' trailer? I think you might be slightly underestimating the loaded weight too with all the sails, gear plus trailer plus passengers in the truck. I think you're looking more like 4000lbs. You can take it to the scales and weigh it you know. We used to do that to make sure we were legal.

That is a lot to stop in a hurry. I'd want a double axel trailer, electric trailer brakes (not surge brakes, which are the Devils plaything, proper trailer brakes) and a brake box in the rig, plus a tow package. A lot of very steep grades, very fast traffic and very hot weather on those routes. There's a reason you see so many blown out tires and car fires along I-5 and over Donner Pass.

You might ask other owners what they tow with to get some real weights and experience.

There is no fucking way I'd tow that over the grapevine with a Subaru. Or anywhere.
posted by fshgrl at 4:04 PM on March 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

To clarify the length is what makes it hard to stop without jacknifing and if I had to compromise on the tow vehicle wheelbase length and weight (which is what stops the trailer pushing the tow vehicle around) then I would want all the other stuff.

And besides better suspension the tow package will also help your rigs transmission last longer towing up those grades.
posted by fshgrl at 4:12 PM on March 10, 2014

Your link indicates that the displacement of the J70 is only 1750 pounds. With trailer you are talking about not much more than 2250 pounds.
posted by JackFlash at 5:05 PM on March 10, 2014

I towed a Capri 22 (2250lbs) with a Mercury Voyager minivan. I think it was fine, though I had no need to take it very far, or up mountains, or on bad roads. The Nissan Quest is basically the same vehicle.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:32 PM on March 10, 2014

You want to tow a boat, but drive your daughter to school? Get two cars. Get a small SUV (Trailblazer sized) for the boat, and a Honda for around town. Ten year old versions of each will likely come in under the wire.
posted by notsnot at 6:18 PM on March 10, 2014

it seems like the more recent Forresters have actually had their towing capacity/ratings reduced and I think the older ones had better/higher ratings

There's a new tow rating standard, SAE J2807, being used from the 2013 model year, that's more conservative than the old standard.
posted by Dasein at 7:10 PM on March 10, 2014

Also keep in mind that the maximum rated towing capacity is usually a special circumstance. At a 3,000Lbs towing capacity you need to subtract the weight of the fluids and cargo (including people) in the vehicle itself.

Have you considered spending something like $5,000 on a no-frills older pickup truck and then buying something else as your commuter car?
posted by VTX at 7:17 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you considered spending something like $5,000 on a no-frills older pickup truck and then buying something else as your commuter car?

This is what I'd do (assuming you have the parking space, and budget for two insurance payments etc).

My experience is that you never, ever, want to be towing at the top of most vehicles' tow ratings further than across town. It's always safer and more comfortable to be at maybe half to two thirds of the maximum rating. (And remember, as VTX says, that the maximum capacities need to be calculated with a full tank of gas, passengers, and all the stuff in the boat -- that may lead you to a lot less than the number in the manufacturer's sales brochure.)
posted by Dip Flash at 7:42 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you are set on having only one vehicle, consider a used Toyota Highlander, the V6 with the tow package, from 2008 or later. Rock-solid reliability (way better than Jeep or VW), 5000 lb tow rating, all the features you're looking for (satellite radio can be bought aftermarket easily).

I will say that you'll use a lot of gas driving around a vehicle that has the tow rating you need. If you have the space, I like the idea of a cheap (like $5k) vehicle for hauling a few days a year. See if you can insure it only part of the year, and don't bother with comprehensive insurance; just get liability insurance.
posted by Dasein at 8:34 PM on March 10, 2014

Out of curiosity I googled a picture of this boat on a trailer and found a forum with a bunch of photos. It's huge. That is going to catch a lot of wind and the supplied trailer is a looonnng single axle. I'd personally want a real truck or full size SUV to pull it on the roads you're talking about and that's what people were using in the photos I saw. But you should definitely talk to other owners and see how it hauls before you decide. The weight/ size ratio is quite different from what most people tow so I don't know how valuable our experience will be compared to owners or dealers with experience of this boat, but probably not very.

It looks like the boat and trailer fully kitted out weigh 2900lbs, not 2200lbs fyi.

If you do go the my-second-vehicle-is-an-old-Suburban route, a fine and traditional towing rig btw, I would suggest you get AAA towing roadside assistance or similar. I believe the current rate for a tow company to rescue a trailer that long from the Grapevine is one arm, one leg and your firstborn child.
posted by fshgrl at 9:46 PM on March 10, 2014

So I ended up buying this 2010 Ford F-150. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a mid-size SUV or a compact truck was sort of a compromise that wouldn't really do anything wanted particularly well, so I thought I'd look for a full-size SUV or pickup, and I really don't need seating for 7, but do occasionally have stuff to move to the dump or pick up from Home Depot, etc, and a truck seemed like it'd fill that roll, too. I went over my budget by a little bit, but not too much, and it's a very nice truck. I also talked to my girlfriend and we agreed to drive her car (a Mazda 3) more often when going places as a family to mitigate the gas mileage of the truck.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:39 PM on March 14, 2014

Nice truck. I just test drove a 2014 yesterday... Getting close but lots of $$$.
posted by Big_B at 6:20 AM on March 15, 2014

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