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Standardized Tow Rating Procedure Finally Gaining Traction

(updated March 16th, 2015)

A pickup's rated towing capacity often looms large when the average truck buyer is in decision mode, even among shoppers who don't plan to tow much. That's because many have come to see tow ratings as an extension of a truck's overall strength, capability and durability.

Truck manufacturers fuel this perception with advertisements that imply their truck is superior to the competition because it can tow or haul more. Thing is, until very recently the tow ratings used to make such claims were not based on any sort of standardized tow rating procedure.

Towing ratings instead emerged from a murky cloud of undisclosed internal test procedures that each manufacturer developed on its own. This handy state of affairs provided cover to an internal tug-of-war between the engineering and sales departments, with one side concerned with durability and warranty costs and the other focused on marketability. When a competitor came out with a higher rating, it was common to see the "loser" respond with a higher counter-rating despite zero mechanical changes.

In the midst of this chaotic backdrop we conduct our own tow testing, which has shown on more than one occasion that lower-rated trucks can sometimes outperform competitors that claim a higher tow rating. Tow ratings were never truly comparable, and many claims of towing superiority that were based on them were mostly just hype.

Until now...sort of.

A New SAE Standard
Back in the 1990s the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) assembled a towing committee tasked with creating the very sort of standardized tow rating method that would give these figures the comparability and credibility they needed. The committee's members came from the Detroit Three automakers and the more prominent Japanese truck sellers, along with other interested parties.

The pace of their work was glacial, but in April 2008 the SAE finally unveiled a voluntary standard known as SAE J2807: "Performance Requirements for Determining Tow-Vehicle Gross Combination Weight Rating and Trailer Weight Rating."

The new standard lays out minimum performance standards for acceleration, braking and handling. There are parking brake tests and grade-launch standards. The trailers used to conduct all such tests are spelled out specifically, and they must be ballasted and connected in a specific way.

And J2807 sets a minimum speed for the truck-trailer combination when climbing a specific mountain grade — the so-called "Davis Dam" grade that climbs eastward out of the Colorado River valley at Laughlin, Nevada. Cooling systems must bear the strain of the 11-mile trip when the outside temperature is at least 100 degrees and the air-conditioner is set to full blast.

All the unrealistic test weight practices of the past that led to asterisks and fine print have been eliminated. Maximum tow ratings can no longer be based on a stripped base-model truck with a 150-pound driver traveling alone. Test trucks must now be equipped with popular options found on 33 percent (or more) of the configuration being tested. The 150-pound test driver is now accompanied by a 150-pound passenger.

Unsteady Rollout
Toyota was the first to begin certifying vehicles to the new standard beginning in the 2011 model year. It went all-in, too. Every model in the Toyota lineup has been rated according to J2807 since then.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Three dragged their feet. They initially agreed to start using the standard beginning with the 2013 model year, but for the most part that milestone came and went.

It became a game of who would blink first. Ford stated that it would adopt J2807 on new vehicles beginning in 2013 when each model underwent its next full redesign. It soon became obvious that Ram and GM were waiting for the new 2015 Ford F-150 before they acted.

The 2015 Ford-F-150 is now on sale, and its tow ratings are indeed certified to the J2807 standard. Ram and GM 1500-series pickup trucks were certified to SAE J2807 as soon as it was clear that Ford was going to follow through.

Nissan is the only holdout in the so-called "half-ton" pickup segment, but a new Titan is just around the corner.

Heavy-Duty Hodgepodge
Heavy-Duty pickup tow ratings are still in flux. The first published version of J2807 caused arguments that led to an immediate revision that exempted most of them. But a new draft version now covers pickups with Gross Vehicle Weight Ratings as high as 14,000 pounds, which brings them back in again.

Ram has certified its 2014 and 2015 Ram 2500 and 3500 products to J2807, but General Motors has not done the same with its 2015 Chevrolet and GMC 2500 and 3500 HD models.

Ford went ahead and certified the 2015 F-450's tow rating using J2807 because of its upgraded engine and substantially upgraded underpinnings. But it decided not to do the same with the carryover F-250 and F-350 lineups, which will be fully redesigned next year.

GM's new Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon were certified to the new standard, so their tow ratings can indeed be compared with the Toyota Tacoma, which has been in compliance for four years. But the carryover Nissan Frontier is expected to remain outside the standard until it is redesigned.

Toyota's Sequoia SUV is J2807 compliant, but the new-in-2014 Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban and GMC Yukon/Yukon XL are strangely not. It seems that they, too, are waiting for Ford, which won't roll out a new Expedition for a year or two.

It's harder to pin down the crossovers, minivans and cars, though. SAE J2807 test procedures apply to all of them, but these vehicles were never embroiled in the same sort of towing arms race that gripped the pickup and full-size SUV segments. Their ratings were never pushed to the absolute limit, so it's hard to imagine them changing much even when they do get rated according to the new procedure.

No More Guesswork?
At long last, SAE J2807 is well on its way to universal adoption. The few remaining holdout models should come into compliance as the current generation gives way to all-new replacements. By 2016 or 2017 this should no longer be a topic of discussion.

Is that going to be the end of towing controversy? Is the need for independent testing going to disappear?

Not likely. There is still room for differentiation.

The standard sets minimum performance levels, but automakers can always decide to trade away the highest possible rating in favor of more performance or ride comfort. Nothing in J2807 says you can't under-rate your SUV or truck on purpose.

Anyone who tows frequently would prefer a truck that can hold a higher gear longer and resist back-and-forth transmission dithering when climbing a grade. And most would rather not have to pin the accelerator to the floor for the duration of a particularly long climb. The J2807 standard says nothing about interior noise when under load, and towing fuel economy is still a vast unexplored territory.

But at least the bases are now covered. Everyone is playing by the same rules, and those rules contain much less fine print. Truck buyers with a specific trailer in mind are in a much better position to make a sound decision when the pickups they are considering are SAE J2807 certified.

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