What Cars Can Be Flat-Towed Behind an RV?

Vehicle Owner's Manuals Are Key for Making the Right Pick


Motorhomes, also called RVs, 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. It can be anything but pleasant to drive that huge RV along narrow and twisty roads, navigate in urban traffic, find parking spots, and pay for the fuel it's consuming.

With a small car or truck available, however, motorhome 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, often in the form of a little SUV or subcompact car, makes it so much easier to get around.

The Jeep Wrangler has long been a popular vehicle for motor home owners to flat tow, meaning that all four of the Jeep's wheels are on the ground.

The Jeep Wrangler has long been a popular vehicle for motor home owners to flat tow, meaning that all four of the Jeep's wheels are on the ground.

Trailering Isn't the Ideal Solution

With two-wheeled tow 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 motorhome'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 at the campsite that such equipment requires when not in use, as well as the extra work needed to get the towed vehicle on and off them.

Flat or Dinghy Tow Your Car

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 RV 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.

Many 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.



Transmission Trouble

But the list of vehicles that can be flat-towed has dwindled over the past few years. The lack of manual transmission vehicles, plus an increase in the number of vehicles with continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) and front-wheel-drive and full- and part-time four-wheel-drive systems, have thinned the list to its lowest point in years. Vehicles with a CVT cannot be towed with all four wheels on the ground because it would damage the transmission.

Toyota, for instance, makes several vehicles that would seem ideal for flat towing. For hearty off-road adventurers, there are the Land Cruiser and the FJ Cruiser, the latter still popular although it's no longer in production. And 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. In fact, no automatic transmission vehicle from Toyota, Lexus or the discontinued Scion brand is suitable for dinghy towing.

It all has to do with transmission lubrication, according to Toyota. Some Toyota vehicles require continuous operation of a pump inside the transmission to keep the moving parts lubricated, and those cars 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 a car can suffer severe transmission damage if it is towed with the driven wheels rolling along the highway, turning the driveshaft or, in the case of front-wheel-drive cars, the half shafts.

So What Can You Tow?

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, according to Fiat Chrysler. The automaker'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 (check the towing or recreational towing section) 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.

For a more thorough list, MotorHome magazine publishes detailed lists of dinghy-towable vehicles on an annual basis. They are available for download at no cost, dating back to the 1990 model year.

Aftermarket Add-Ons

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. But the devices can be expensive and complicated to install and maintain. 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 already have 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's 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 what's out there, take a look at Edmunds' car reviews page to see a list of the best vehicles in every category and price range. It can help you create a list of candidates that meet your requirements and fit your budget.

Other Flat-Towing Tips

Dinghy towing makes things easier once you've arrived at your destination, but 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 and their transfer cases in neutral.

  • Vehicles with steering locks triggered by the ignition switch — and that's most of them — 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 model years were towable, this year's will be as well. For example, the second-generation Ford Escape was a popular dinghy-tow vehicle with the RV crowd. But if you're looking at the current fourth-generation model, only the hybrid and plug-in hybrid models are towable, according to MotorHome magazine's "Guide to Dinghy Towing."

  • Finally, the vast majority of states require most vehicles being flat-towed to be equipped with auxiliary brake systems that work in tandem with the motorhome's brakes. That's because flat-towed vehicles almost always exceed the various states' minimum towing weight requirements. Smart motorhome owners who tow a car or truck know that even in those states that don't require them, auxiliary brake kits should be considered essential for safety.

When in Doubt, Check the Manual

Once you think you've found a vehicle that will suit you, the best next step is to refer to the owner's manual. Often you can find the manual online.

Everything you'll need to know about pulling the car or truck dinghy-style will be in the manual, including detailed instructions on 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.