While those who tow caravans, boats and trailers are rather fond of big off-road-focused SUVs, the popularity of large, more-suburban-focussed SUVs as tow vehicles of choice is rapidly growing – and understandably so.
As well as being spacious and generally more family-friendly than their 4WD counterparts, these vehicles are versatile – comfortably straddling the great divide between being a competent dirt-track adventurer and a slick city-savvy family mover – without doing away with any claims to towing ability.
Sure, they won't haul 3500kg like some of the big gun wagons and utes are claimed to handle, but for a family with modest towing aspirations (say, topping out at 2000kg, braked), city-friendly soft-roaders hold ample appeal.
Generally, diesel-engined SUVs make for better towing vehicles than petrol-powered models because they produce more torque in a low-to-medium rev range and are more fuel efficient. However, we've thrown a petrol-only Mazda CX-9 into our list because, well, this is our list.
Note: Don't be bamboozled by a vehicle manufacturer's claims; always keep in mind a vehicle's real-world capabilities, including its towball download, GCM (Gross Combined Mass), GVM (Gross Vehicle Mass) and braked tow rating, and remember to factor into your equation that your vehicle will be fully loaded with driver, passengers, camping gear etc.
Tip: use your local weigh bridge and always err on the side of caution, i.e. don't load up so you're close to the manufacturer's listed towing capacity limit – if it's 2000kg, load up 1800kg. If you plan on towing regularly, before you tackle any trailers or such, if available, add the carmaker's load assist pack to your load-hauling arsenal. Better safe than sorry.
These are our picks for the top five family SUVs for towing. (Head to the comments section and agree or disagree. Either way, we'd love to hear from you.)
1. Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander
The seven-seater AWD Santa Fe is one of the few SUVs that manages to pack a lot of gear into a neat, nice-looking package and is also supremely capable at everything it is claimed to be good at, even towing. This is a rare case of marketing hyperbole almost ringing true.
The upper-spec Highlander ($57,090, plus on-road costs) has a 2.2-litre common-rail direct-injection (CRDi) engine (147kW@3800rpm and 440Nm@1750-2750rpm), mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. It is 4700mm long with a 2700mm wheelbase and has a kerb weight of 1857kg.
This Santa Fe is a solid tow vehicle with a gutsy engine.
The auto-only Highlander has a GVM of 2600kg, towing capacity of 2000kg (braked), 750kg (unbraked). It's towball download limit is listed as 100kg but that can be bumped up to 150kg with the addition of a genuine Hyundai load-assist kit.
Claimed fuel consumption is 7.8L/100km (combined).
It has a five-star ANCAP rating and a five-year/unlimited km warranty.
2. Mazda CX-9 GT
Mazda's petrol engines perform so well and are so fuel efficient that it doesn't even bother making a diesel CX-9 option. No matter, because this big seven-seater wagon is a real goer when it comes to tackling daily duties as well as weekend towing missions... but that comes at a price. Literally, because the second-from-top-spec GT AWD is $61,390, plus on-road costs.
It has a turbocharged 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine (170kW@5000rpm and 420Nm@2000rpm), mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. It is 5075mm long with a 2930mm wheelbase and has a kerb weight of 1974kg.
The GT's GVM is 2575kg (AWD; 2505kg for the FWD version). It has a towing capacity of 2000kg (braked), 750kg (unbraked), and a towball download limit listed as 100kg.
This CX-9 is a great family all-rounder.
Claimed fuel consumption is 8.8L/100km (combined).
It has a five-star ANCAP rating and a three-year/unlimited km warranty.
This CX-9 is a great family all-rounder, a supremely comfortable tourer and a more-than-capable towing vehicle. It is big (the biggest in this group, so far) and long and low, which is handy for load-hauling but can make bush adventures, along bumpy and narrow windy tracks in between trees, a white-knuckled affair.
3. Kia Sorento Platinum
Kia Sorento is another excellent Korean offering; a good-looking seven-seater 4X4 full of standard features and very handy at all of those things owners expect of a large SUV: moving people, as well as lugging the groceries, camping gear, muddy mountain bikes, that sort of thing.
The Platinum ($56,590, plus on-road costs) has a 2.2-litre CRDi engine (147kW@3800rpm and 441Nm@1750~2750rpm) and a six-speed auto. It is 4780mm long with a 2780mm wheelbase and has a kerb weight of 1985kg.
The Sorento makes for a stable and comfortable towing platform.
The Platinum has a GVM of 2660kg, towing capacity of 2000kg (braked), 750kg (unbraked). It's towball download limit is listed as 100kg.
Claimed fuel consumption is 7.8L/100km (combined).
It has a five-star ANCAP rating and a seven-year/unlimited km warranty.
The Sorento makes for a stable and comfortable towing platform; it's packed full of active safety gear (blind spot detection etc) and inspires plenty of confidence on the road and under load. A great warranty doesn't hurt either.
4. Toyota Kluger Grande
Where would any Top Five vehicle list be without a Toyota? Well, the Kluger, despite its hefty price tag ($69,906, plus on-road costs, for the top-spec Grande!) rightly deserves its spot here. Why? Read on.
The Grande, another petrol-only offering, is a seven-seater wagon with a 3.5-litre V6 engine (218kW@6600rpm and 350Nm@4700rpm) and is teamed with an eight-speed automatic transmission.
This Kluger is 4865mm long with a 2790mm wheelbase and has a kerb weight of 2060kg.
It has a GVM of 2760kg, towing capacity of 2000kg (braked), 700kg (unbraked). It's towball download limit was unconfirmed at time of writing, but reckon on it being 100kg or so.
This is a large SUV with a big engine, yet it's as capable slotting into city life as it is towing a load around the countryside.
Claimed fuel consumption is 9.5L/100km (combined).
The Grande has a five-star ANCAP rating and even more safety tech (including panoramic camera view, rear cross traffic alert, and improved lane departure control with sway warning) was added as part of the most recent model upgrade. It has a three-year/100,000km warranty.
The Kluger range is nothing spectacular - there's no 'wow!' factor here – but Klugers do the jobs asked of them and they do everything rather well.
The Grande, while on the wrong side of expensive, is the pick of the bunch, largely because of its comprehensive list of safety gear – it's the only Kluger to get AEB as standard. This is a large SUV with a big engine, yet it's as capable slotting into city life as it is towing a load around the countryside.
5. Nissan Pathfinder Ti
It's a workmanlike vehicle but the seven-seater Pathie, with the biggest towing capacity of this bunch (2700kg, braked) and armed with 'Tow Mode' (claimed to guarantee smooth, constant acceleration at the push of a button), still has an ever-growing fan base.
The Ti 4WD ($66,190, plus on-road costs) is the second-from-top-spec Pathfinder, under the top-shelf Ti 4WD Hybrid.
The Ti has a 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine (202kW@6400rpm and 340Nm@4800rpm) and a CVT auto, claimed as an improvement over the previous model's transmission which had been, anecdotally, cited as a source of strife.
It is 5042mm long (the second longest wagon in this mob) with a 2900mm wheelbase and has a kerb weight of 2070kg, the heaviest here.
The Pathie is an old-school fighter in a market full of ever-more sophisticated SUVs.
It has a GVM of 2715kg, a towing capacity of 750kg (unbraked), and a towball download limit listed as 100kg (if loaded vehicle mass is 120kg below GVM), 150kg (if loaded vehicle mass is 210kg below GVM), or 200kg (if loaded vehicle mass is 300kg below GVM).
Claimed fuel consumption is 10.1L/100km (combined).
It has a five-star ANCAP rating and a three-year/100,000km warranty.
The Pathie is an old-school fighter in a market full of ever-more sophisticated SUVs, but sometimes a no-nonsense hard worker is all you need.