I didn’t do much research on tow vehicles, or “TVs” as they’re often referred to on RV sites and forums, before getting a camper. In retrospect I should have done more particularly since I was purchasing a new car to replace an old Accord. Generally, I knew I wanted something with a) more cargo space for family trips, b) all wheel drive, and c) the ability to tow a trailer.
Having had good past experiences with Hondas and Toyotas, I decided on a Toyota Highlander XLE AWD, which offers lots of interior space, is all wheel drive, gets pretty good MPG, and can tow up to 5000 lbs (more on this later). However, to tow you need to install a bolt-on hitch receiver – the receiver isn’t integrated into the frame – as well as a wiring harness. More importantly, the stock wiring harness only supports a 4-pin trailer connection. A 4-pin connector does not support electric brakes which you need for all but the smallest of trailers. So you need to additionally install a 4-pin to 7-pin adapter kit along with a brake controller (I opted for a wireless controller) in order to connect a trailer with electric brakes.
Had I known (or learned) more about trailer wiring I probably would have opted for a TV with an integrated hitch receiver, both 4-pin and 7-pin connectors, and brake controller. It just makes things easier having all the components you need built into the vehicle from the start.
Back to the 5000 lbs towing capacity number from earlier. Toyotas have been tested against the SAE J2807 standard since 2011. From various things I’ve read this standard assumes both a driver and passenger each weighing 150 lbs and 10% of the trailer weight on the tongue. What this means for me is that the 5000 lb tow rating of the Highlander, while technically possible, isn’t realistic for a family with cargo in the vehicle.
To compute a more realistic towing capacity for my scenario I used the Cargo Carrying Capacity (CCC) of my Highlander, which is detailed on a sticker in the driver’s side door jamb. The CCC is the maximum load you can have in/on the vehicle.
For my Highlander, the CCC is 1300 lbs but there’s another sticker in the door jamb indicating additional equipment on the XLE reduces CCC by 23 lbs. So the overall CCC is 1300 – 23 = 1277 lbs.
To calculate how much capacity I have for towing I used a handy CCC calculator from towing planner. I plugged in fairly conservative numbers, which include:
- My weight
- The weight of my wife and kids (assuming my kids will get heavier as they grow up)
- The weight of my hitch equipment
- The weight of my running boards
- Some extra cargo in the Highlander rather than the trailer
The Highlander has a max tongue weight of 500 lbs and travel trailers should put between 10-15% of their weight on the tongue. So in the event that I had 15% of trailer weight on the tongue, in order to not exceed the limit, that would limit me to a 3300 GVWR trailer, which is less than many so called “ultra light” trailers. I could perhaps get away with a 3500 lb GVWR trailer as long as I was careful about tongue weight but that seemed like it might be cutting things a bit close for comfort.
After spending a lot of time researching campers, I got a Jayco Jay Sport 12UD. It has an unloaded vehicle weight of 2069 lbs (including a full propane tank) and a GVWR of 2750 lbs. With the trailer loaded to the max weight of 2750 lbs, at 15% tongue weight I’d have a little over 400 lbs added to the Highlander. In practice my camping gear, excluding food and water (of which the latter adds a lot of weight in a hurry!) clocks in at around 280 lbs plus I’ve got another 50 or so lbs for the battery. Using a Sherline tongue scale, the tongue weight of my loaded camper is right around 275 lbs, well within my tow limits.
To make this long story short, before I buy another TV I’ll be sure to closely check the vehicle specs and do the math up front to make sure I have ample capacity. But notwithstanding the need for some additional equipment, the Highlander should do well with popups and small campers and the nice thing is that when you’re not towing (the majority of the time for me) the highway gas mileage is between 25 and 30 mpg. And when I’m towing I still get around 18 mpg. With a few caveats, the Highlander is a decent tow vehicle as long as you stay small.