Motor homes can be a pleasant way to travel, letting you stay at a campsite, alongside a picturesque stream or even on the street at Aunt Matilda's for the annual family get-together.
But things change when you need to run into town for groceries, or want to take a sightseeing trip after you've set up camp. Driving that beast along narrow twisty roads, navigating in urban traffic, trying to find parking spots and paying for the additional fuel it's consuming can be anything but pleasant.
With a small car or truck available, however, motor home travelers don't have to stow all their gear and pull up the stakes every time they want to go somewhere. That's why it is not uncommon to see big RVs pulling smaller vehicles behind them. That extra set of wheels, usually in the form of a little SUV or subcompact car, makes it so much easier to get around once the majestic motor home has been parked and hooked up to the various utility lines that keep the lights on, water flowing and AC pumping out that nice cold air.
Trailering Is Not Best
With two-wheeled dollies and four-wheeled trailers, almost any vehicle can be towed behind an RV, provided that the weight of the car or truck and whatever is being used to facilitate the tow doesn't exceed the motor home's recommended towing capacity. But that kind of towing isn't all that popular, for good reason.
First there's the expense of buying and maintaining a trailer or tow dolly. Then there's the storage space at home and in the campsite that those conveyances require when not in use, as well as the extra work needed to get the towed vehicle on and off of them.
The Dinghy's the Thing
The alternative is flat towing, also called four-down towing or dinghy towing. It involves attaching a tow bar to a suitable car, SUV or pickup and letting the vehicle roll along behind the motor home on its own four tires (thus "four-down" towing). It's often called dinghy towing because the towed vehicle resembles a small dinghy being pulled along behind a large yacht at sea.
Years ago, finding cars suitable for flat towing wasn't all that hard. Most cars and trucks with manual transmissions could be pulled four-down, as could most four-wheel-drive SUVs with manual transfer cases.
But things change. Today the plethora of electronic transmissions and front-wheel and full- and part-time four-wheel-drive systems requires a bit of advance planning when selecting flat-towed cars and trucks.
It's All About Lubrication
Toyota, for instance, makes several vehicles that would seem ideal for flat towing. For hearty off-road adventurers there are the FJ Cruiser and Land Cruiser. But while they're fine on their own on rough terrain, the company's four-wheel-drive trucks don't make the grade when it comes to flat towing.
"It all has to do with transmission lubrication," says Dave Lee, a senior engineer and towing specialist at the University of Toyota, which is the automaker's technical training facility.
No Toyota, Lexus or Scion vehicle with an automatic transmission is suitable for dinghy towing, Lee says. And the company's manual transmission vehicles aren't all designed the same. Some require continuous operation of a pump inside the transmission to keep the moving parts lubricated, and those can't be towed four-down.
With automatic transmissions and pump-dependent manuals, the output shaft isn't being lubricated unless the vehicle's engine is running, and severe transmission damage can occur if they are towed with the driven wheels rolling along the highway, turning the driveshaft or, in the case of front-wheel-drive cars, the half-shafts.
Typically, a vehicle can be pulled dinghy style if it has rear-wheel drive and a manual transmission, or four-wheel drive and a manual transfer case that can be placed in neutral, says Chrysler Group spokesman Nick Cappa. Chrysler's Jeeps and Ram pickups are popular dinghy vehicles.
The best way to make sure a vehicle is suited to flat towing is to check the owner's manual. Virtually every automaker states clearly in every model's manual whether it can be towed on all four wheels or whether it must be hauled on a flatbed truck or trailer or pulled "two-down" with the driven wheels off the ground.
If your vehicle isn't suitable for flat towing, there are devices, including driveshaft decouplers and transmission lubrication pumps that can be added to some automatic transmission vehicles to handle the job.
The devices can be expensive and complicated to install and maintain, though. And if they're not used correctly, the engine or drivetrain components can be damaged while a vehicle is being towed. That can leave owners with warranty problems.
If you've already got a vehicle you'd like to flat tow and it isn't factory rated as suitable for flat towing, most RV dealerships and repair centers carry and can install decouplers, lubrication pumps and other such devices.
If you are looking for a towable vehicle, it's best to concentrate on those that are factory-ready.
How To Winnow the Field
To keep from looking through hundreds of owner manuals for details on tow readiness, thin the list of candidates by deciding what kind of towed vehicle will best suit your needs: a 4X4 if you like to go off-roading, for instance. Then decide what you can afford to spend.
If you aren't sure of what's out there, Edmunds.com's "Find Your Next Car" feature allows you to search by vehicle type and price range. It can help you create a list of candidates that meet your requirements and fit your budget.
Edmunds editors have also reviewed some of our long-term test fleet cars for their ability to be flat-towed, including the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic (yes), the 2012 Honda CR-V (yes), the 2014 Mazda CX-5 (no) and the 2013 Subaru BRZ (another no).
Other Flat-Towing Tricks
While dingy towing makes things easier once you've arrived at your destination, it can add work before and during the journey.
- Some cars and SUVs that can be towed four-down require special stops to run the engine in order to lubricate the transmission. Some require removal of various fuses before starting off. There are a number of four-wheel-drive trucks with automatic transmissions that must be towed four-down with their transmissions in the "Park" position while their transfer cases are in "Neutral."
- Vehicles with steering locks triggered by the ignition switch, and that's most of them these days, can't be flat towed if the front wheels won't turn. The key must be in the ignition and the ignition switched to the accessory position in order to unlock the steering.
- Don't assume that because previous years' models were towable, this year's will be as well. The Ford Escape has long been a popular dinghy-tow vehicle with the RV crowd. But it was redesigned for 2013 and no longer is certified to be pulled along with all four wheels on the ground.
- Finally, all but eight states require most vehicles being flat-towed to be equipped with auxiliary brake systems that work in tandem with the motor home's brakes. That's because flat-towed vehicles almost always exceed the various states' minimum towing weight requirements. Smart motor home owners who tow a car or truck know that even in those states that don't require them, auxiliary brake kits should be considered an essential.
Check the Manual, Then Check Again
Once you think you've found a vehicle that will suit you, the best next step is to get a copy of the owner's manual. Often, you can find them online.
Everything you'll need to know about pulling the car or truck dinghy-style will be in the manual, including detailed instructions as to which fuses to pull (if any), the proper position for the transmission shift lever, which switches to leave on and which to turn off, and how often to run the engine for lubrication.
While you can probably make almost any vehicle four-down-towable with aftermarket equipment, you're better off using cars and trucks that are manufacturer certified for the job. As Toyota's Dave Lee said of his company's cars and trucks, "If it is listed as towable in the manual, we will stand behind it."
See you on the road!
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