This post was most recently updated on May 18th, 2023
It’s possible to get a practical car that will carry most things you could ask of it, but you’ll end up filling up a lot of your car for no good reason when you don’t want to carry stuff. Fortunately, it’s easy to fit most cars with a towbar, and then you can do everything from carrying bikes on a proper rack, to towing gliders or a holiday home in the form of a caravan.
Not all cars are equal though, and legal requirements, as well as power and strength, define often narrow ranges of towing ability if you don’t go for a pickup or big 4×4.
When looking at 2nd hand cars for towing you may want to avoid the one accessory you’ll definitely need. A towbar on a higher-mileage car can mean the clutch, suspension and brakes have worked harder, as well as automatic gearboxes and cooling systems. It could work out cheaper to buy a well-maintained one and then fit a towbar.
What’s a safe weight for towing?
Cars and vans have manufacturer-approved towing weights, and these should be your first port of call. For safety, you should not tow more than 85% of your vehicle’s mass, however that rule only really applies to conventional passenger cars; many pickups, 4x4s and big vans can tow 3,500kg legally and safely even though they weigh much less.
As a rule, trailers under 750kg authorised mass (that’s both trailer and contents) will be unbraked. That’s your usual inexpensive garden waste trailer, small trailer tent or motorbike trailer. While most cars can handle 750kg trailers there are exceptions – some hybrid cars, or big cars with small engines, can be limited to 500kg. Check the VIN plate under the bonnet as it will have the weights, axle loads and maximum permissible towing weight.
For over 750kg, trailers have to be braked. This a safety rule that’s been around for some time, and it’s a wise one. These days it works in conjunction with enhanced stability controls that can use the car’s own brakes and sensors to mitigate trailer sway. Since there is no MOT requirement for trailers it’s important to keep the brakes fully maintained, as well as the lights.
How do you equip a car for towing?
Obviously the first thing you need is a towbar. Some cars will have concealed or retractable units, but the majority of cheap systems are a fixed swan-neck type arrangement. They bolt to the bumper mounts and chassis/floor at the strongest points.
You will need a wiring kit for 7-pin or 13-pin electrics. The former is an old standard that carries lighting and a 12V feed for charging a caravan battery. 13-pin is more advanced and includes trailer detection, fog lights and a signal to inform the car’s ECU that there is a trailer so it can disable the car’s foglight and parking sensors, adapt the stability control, and in advanced cases even pass control signals to the trailer.
For serious towing, you may need spring assisters or self-levelling suspension, a remote oil cooler (particularly important on automatic cars that use the same radiator for coolant and gearbox oil), and wider mirrors, particularly for caravans.
Does my licence allow towing?
Most drivers in the UK can tow 3,500kg – for a while younger drivers weren’t allowed to without an additional test, but in December 2021 the law changed allowing the full weight. Even so, there is a subtle difference for drivers who passed before 1 January 1997 in that they can tow with various combinations of vehicles, including small trucks, up to a maximum of 8,250kg. For example, a 7.5-tonne truck, plus a 750kg trailer.
What can a typical car tow?
Most large estate and saloon cars can tow up to 2,100kg, which is sufficient for a big caravan or a small, light project car and trailer. Some bigger MPVs and SUVs can tow up to 2,500kg.
A smaller petrol SUV or crossover, such as a Skoda Yeti, SEAT Ateca or Ford Kuga will tow around 1,300kg to 1,500kg. You can get lightweight caravans that will fit this limit.
City cars and electric cars are often limited to towing the 750kg unbraked load, which is enough for a box trailer or camping trailer but isn’t enough to tow a caravan or a car (even if the car itself is light, like a Caterham, the car trailer will weigh at least 400kg).
Big SUVs, 4x4s and pickups can often tow the full 3,500kg allowable. The best vehicle for towing and carrying is the SsangYong Musso pickup, which can carry 1,000kg and tow 3,500kg at the same time thanks to a high maximum authorised mass.
Can a plug-in car tow?
Most hybrid and electric cars are limited, but that is changing. For example, the Mazda CX-60 plug-in hybrid can tow 2,500kg, and many electric pickups in North America make strong claims for towing. As a rule, though, you are better off sticking with a traditional diesel or petrol engine when buying a second hand car for towing as the majority of early EVs and hybrids simply don’t offer the capability.
Is it worth towing stuff?
Yes. You can get caravans for less than a motorhome, for example, and when you get somewhere to stay you can park the box you’re living in and take the car places that would be difficult with an equivalent camper. When it comes to things like vehicle recovery, hiring a truck or paying for the service costs considerably more than hiring a trailer – and if you want to take lots of garden waste to the tip you can save your car interior and save money over professional services.
You don’t even need to own a trailer, you can hire all kinds of solutions, but the towbar is handy for much more than trailers. Bike racks are a popular addition, carrying your bikes low down and safely behind the car. You can even get a camping toilet for it, though we don’t recommend leaving it attached while driving.