Whether you’re planning to tow a light trailer, a giant twin-axle caravan, or something in between, these are the models you should be considering
Choosing a car to tow with is a tricky business. If you want a car for long journeys, you’ll be able to test drive it on the motorway. And if you’re looking for a practical set of wheels for the school run, you can put the dealer demonstrator through its paces around town. But if you turn up at a showroom for a test drive expecting to hitch up a caravan or trailer, you won’t get very far.
That’s why the Tow Car Awards have become so important to tow car buyers. Caravanners and horsebox owners may not be able to tow with a car before they commit to buying it, but they can find out how well it tows by reading this annual feature. What Car? has been teaming up with Practical Caravan and The Camping and Caravanning Club to test tow cars since 2007, and there are now more than 500 reviews online at the towcarawards.com.
Every car goes through the same tough test regime. Each is matched to a Swift Group caravan (or a small trailer in the case of the lightest cars). The caravan is weighted to 85% of the car’s kerb weight or the legal towing limit – whichever is lower.
Car and caravan then head on to the test track to be assessed for stability at speed and in an emergency lane change. Data from the caravan’s Al-Ko automatic trailer control (ATC) system – essentially stability control for caravans – is recorded to complement the views of the test drivers. Plus, acceleration and braking are tested, and every car tackles a hill-start test on a one-in-six-slope.
As well as the tests on the track, experts from The Camping and Caravanning Club examine each car in detail, looking for practical features that make towing safer, easier and more enjoyable.
Unless you have the luxury of owning a car purely for towing, chances are it’s going to be your daily drive, too. So our testers also rate each model for everyday use, scoring for safety, reliability, standard equipment and value for money.
The cars are sorted into five weight classes, so it’s easy to find models that are suitable for towing your caravan or trailer.
*** Note : £1 = $1.33 (correct at time of post)
Up to 1400kg : Skoda Octavia 2.0 TDI 150 SE L DSG
- List price: £25,160
- Target Price: £22,911
- Kerb weight: 1352kg
- 85% match: 1149kg
- Max towing weight: 1600kg
- Towball limit: 75kg
Last year’s class winner takes the top spot once again; the Octavia really is an extremely capable small tow car.
Its 2.0-litre diesel engine is familiar from many Volkswagen Group models, and it’s predictably capable when towing. It produces lots of mid-range torque, which is just what you need to pull a caravan or trailer up to speed.
The Octavia is stable when towing, too, with very little movement at 60mph. In the emergency lane change, the caravan slid around during the fastest of three attempts at the manoeuvre, but the Octavia wasn’t dragged off course and pulled the caravan straight again.
Small cars can struggle with hill starts when towing, but the Octavia’s DSG automatic gearbox saves the driver from having to juggle clutch and accelerator, and the strength of the engine does the rest.
The Octavia is What Car?’s 2018 Family Car of the Year, because it’s good to drive and functional inside, with huge space for people and luggage and a 590-litre boot.
Tow Car Awards verdict: Stable when towing, practical and affordable
1400-1549kg : Skoda Superb 2.0 TDI 150 SE L Executive
- List price: £27,405
- Target Price: £24,882
- Kerb weight: 1485kg
- 85% match: 1262kg
- Max towing weight: 2000kg
- Towball limit: 90kg
As soon as you climb inside the Superb, you notice how huge its interior is, especially in the back, where there’s noticeably more head and leg room than you’ll find in most other cars of this type. The boot is huge, too, so there’s no need to pack light on your caravanning holiday.
But there’s more to the Skoda’s talents than just space. Stability is the quality we look for above all others when towing, and the Superb is settled and reassuring at motorway speeds. When the car was slowing down, the ATC sensors detected some slight movements from the caravan, but it was barely enough for the driver to notice in the mirrors.
The Superb is powered by the same 2.0-litre diesel engine as the Octavia, and despite the larger car’s extra weight, it can still easily tow a caravan up to speed.
The Superb isn’t the most exciting car to drive, but it is relaxing and comfortable. What’s more, it’s keenly priced and well equipped. It’s so good, in fact, that the estate version was named as What Car?’s 2018 Estate Car of the Year.
Tow Car Awards verdict: Lives up to its name as a tow car and an executive hatch
1550-1699kg : Peugeot 5008 2.0 BlueHDi GT EAT8
- List price: £37,620
- Target Price: £35,143
- Kerb weight: 1615kg
- 85% match: 1373kg
- Max towing weight: 1800kg
- Towball limit: 72kg
We had high hopes for the new Peugeot 5008. The petrol model was named Large SUV of the Year at the 2018 What Car? Awards, so there was every sign that this range-topping diesel would make a capable tow car.
And so it proved. For most people, the 1.2-litre Puretech petrol engine is better value, but anyone who tows will appreciate the extra power and torque of the 2.0-litre BlueHDi diesel. It really shifts, even with a caravan behind it, towing from 30-60mph in 12.5sec. That might sound ponderous compared with the way a car accelerates when it’s unladen, but trust us, that’s not hanging around when pulling an extra 1.4 tonnes down the road.
More importantly, the 5008 is composed at speed and during emergency manoeuvres. It was bordering on brilliant in the lane change test and more than happy to cruise at 60mph.
The seven-seat 5008 is also practical and roomy, while its interior has a premium feel and is very well equipped, with a configurable digital instrument display coming as standard.
Tow Car Awards verdict: A stylish, practical and stable seven-seater
1700-1899kg : BMW 5 Series Touring 520d xDrive M Sport
- List price: £45,335
- Target Price: £42,253
- Kerb weight 1810kg
- 85% match: 1539kg
- Max towing weight 2000kg
- Towball limit 90kg
The 5 Series Touring has nearly every base covered. It’s engaging and relaxing to drive, luxurious inside and hugely spacious. Try to find a serious fault and you’ll really struggle.
As a tow car, it’s swift and stable. The 188bhp 2.0-litre diesel engine in the 520d performs so strongly that there’s really little need to look at one of the more powerful and expensive models. And with BMW’s xDrive four-wheel drive system, the car doesn’t become unruly in bad weather.
At motorway speeds, the 5 Series Touring feels unshakeable, and even our most aggressive emergency manoeuvres were shrugged off with ease.
Our test car’s suspension was fitted with adaptive dampers (£985), and that’s money well spent in our book because it helps the 5 Series Touring to be sporty and dynamic one minute then serene and comfy the next.
As an everyday estate, the 5 Series Touring is great to drive and very practical, with generous space for passengers and luggage.
Tow Car Awards verdict: Brilliant, with or without a caravan behind it.
1900kg+ : Land Rover Discovery 3.0 TD6 HSE
- List price: £61,355
- Target Price: £59,384
- Kerb weight: 2298kg
- 85% match: 1953kg
- Max towing weight: 3500kg
- Towball limit: 195kg
The Discovery holds an almost perfect record in the Tow Car Awards, winning at least one award in 11 years out of 12. And despite some capable opposition from the Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupé and Range Rover Velar, the large SUV’s victory in the heaviest weight class never looked in serious doubt.
It tows beautifully, feeling secure at speed and dismissing the emergency lane change test as if it were no test at all.
The hill-start on a one-in-six slope was so straightforward that we tried the same manoeuvre on a one-in-three slope, yet the big Land Rover still coped with ease.
It helps that its 3.0-litre engine has 443lb ft of torque. And our test car was one of the last Td6 models; if you order a six-cylinder diesel Discovery today, it will come with the uprated Sd6 engine, which has a whopping 516lb ft of pulling power, so it should tow heavy caravans and trailers with even greater ease.
As an everyday car, the Discovery is refined and supremely comfortable, and its seven-seat interior is spacious and luxurious.
Tow Car Awards verdict: Practical and can tow with incredible ease
Tow Car of the Year 2018 – BMW 5 Series Touring 520d xDrive M Sport
This is the first time BMW has won the overall title at the Tow Car Awards, but if future models live up to the standard set by the 5 Series Touring, it won’t be the last.
It’s the best of the 2018 contenders to drive, with or without a caravan, not to mention frugal, torquey and hugely practical. In short, it delivers everything you’d want from a tow car.
The best of the rest
Best Ultralight Tow Car : Volkswagen Polo 1.0 TSI 115 SEL DSG
A very grown-up small hatchback, and a great choice for towing small trailers and micro-caravans.
Best Petrol Tow Car : Kia Stinger 2.0 T-GDI GT-Line
A left-field choice for towing, but very effective. This five-door coupé is more practical than you’d expect, too.
Best family SUV : Volvo XC40 D4 AWD R-Design Pro
Our 2018 Car of the Year also makes an excellent tow car. The XC40 is stylish, spacious, capable and safe.
Fuel economy award : Hyundai i30 Tourer 1.6 CRDi 110 Premium
No car we economy-tested could match the i30 Tourer’s 24mpg when towing, and it’s stable while doing so.