Towing with an electric car, hybrid or plug-in hybrid
Considering an alternative-fuel tow car? Read our guide on towing a caravan or trailer with a hybrid or electric car
An increasing number of motorists are these days considering either a hybrid, plug-in hybrid or electric model for their next car, replacing a diesel or petrol. While this can be a great move for cutting pollution and ensuring you have an affordable car to run, what if you often tow a caravan, horsebox or heavy trailer?
You may have read that some alternative-fuel vehicles like the best-selling Nissan Leaf electric car aren’t suitable for towing, but does that apply to all of them? And what about hybrid and plug-in hybrid models, many of which are tough-looking and powerful SUVs?
Read our guide and you’ll soon know which vehicles offer the best compromise between low emissions, excellent fuel economy and being able to tow a reasonable load.
Why can’t many electric cars tow a trailer?
Electric vehicles are currently the most limited when it comes to towing, particularly if you’re after a supermini or hatchback. When every car is designed and engineered, the manufacturer works out exactly how much it can tow and establishes a legal towing limit in a process known as homologation. For customers who want to tow, the two figures that matter most are the maximum weight limits for towing an unbraked trailer and a braked trailer. If a car doesn’t have these figures published, it usually means the manufacturer deems it unsuited to towing – and this is the case with most electric cars.
There are a few reasons why. Firstly, the battery pack fitted in an electric car is very heavy. As an example, while a 1.2-litre petrol Renault Clio supermini can weigh as little as 977kg, the similarly sized all-electric Renault ZOE weighs 1,468kg, with the battery pack coming in at 305kg alone. With this much weight on board, there’s less capacity to deal with the extra weight of a trailer, which could put too much strain on components like the brakes.
A second reason often cited by manufacturers is that towing could damage the electric powertrain itself. While the instant torque and impressive power of electric motors can be ideal for accelerating with a trailer, the main issue comes when slowing down. Unlike a conventional internal combustion engine, electric motors can instantly switch to become generators as you come off the accelerator pedal, converting kinetic energy into extra charge for the batteries and slowing the vehicle down. Towing a heavy trailer down a steep hill will provide lots more kinetic energy than normal, which could overwhelm the electrical system.
Lastly, many manufacturers don’t put electric models through the homologation process for towing, because the extra effort of towing a trailer can dramatically reduce the maximum driving range. As most EV manufacturers are already struggling to combat the stigma of ‘range anxiety’, the possibility that towing could leave drivers stranded is a big risk.
Electric models that can tow
For a while the Tesla Model X was the only electric car homologated for towing, but now it’s been joined by a handful of others - the Audi e-tron and Mercedes EQC can tow up to 1,800kg, and the Jaguar I-Pace manages 750kg. The Model X’s maximum towing limit is a substantial 2,270kg – easily high enough to haul a large caravan or trailer. Just be aware you’ll need to have passed your driving test before 1997 or have taken an extra car-and-trailer driving test if the combined weight of the car and trailer comes in at more than 3,500kg.
Once you plug a trailer’s electrics into a Model X, it enters ‘trailer mode’, disabling many of its driver-assistance features like automatic steering and parking, active cruise control and the rear parking sensors. The Model X also activates Trailer Sway Mitigation, where automatic braking of the vehicle’s individual wheels can prevent a trailer from swaying dangerously behind you.
But the Model X starts from around £83,000, a “distinctly premium price point, making it challenging for early adopters to buy them”, according to Martin Spencer, technical manager for the Caravan and Motorhome Club.
Plug-in hybrid cars and SUVs that can tow
Because plug-in hybrid models offer a combination of electric technology and internal combustion engines, many of the issues faced by pure electric models are less pronounced. For that reason, if you want to tow, protect the environment and lower your bills, a plug-in hybrid is probably your best option right now. The most affordable plug-in hybrid models are also less than half the price of the Tesla Model X, opening them up to far more customers.
At around £30,000, the facelifted Kia Niro PHEV is one of the cheapest plug-in hybrid models rated for towing. Earlier cars aren’t suitable but newer ones have a towing pack and can pull a 1,300kg braked trailer, making the Niro ideal for pulling a small to medium-sized caravan. The Niro also comes as a regular hybrid and is much cheaper than the PHEV, but still has the 1,300kg towing limit.
If you don’t want an SUV, but still want a PHEV that can tow, the executive saloon and estate class could provide the answer; the Volkswagen Passat GTE and Mercedes C350e can tow 1,600kg in comfort on the motorway. The Mercedes should be a particularly adept tow car, because not only does it have plenty of power, it’s also fitted with air suspension. The latter can help avoid the rear suspension sagging when towing a heavy load, improving ride quality and safety. With an even higher towing limit, the Volvo V60 Twin Engine estate impresses, with its ability to tow up to 1,800kg.
The Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine could be many caravanners' dream car. Towing up to 2,400kg, it should have more than enough capability. It pairs a slightly less exotic 2.0-litre petrol with its electric motor and produces nearly 400bhp. Charge up the battery pack and a 25-mile EV range helps the big Volvo achieve official figures of 100mpg and under 75g/km of CO2. The interior is quite spectacular, too, with a calming design and lovely materials, plus one of the best safety ratings of any model on sale. If your campsite DJ fails to show up, the optional Bowers & Wilkins stereo with 19 speakers could act as a handy stand-in.
For now, the undisputed heavyweight of plug-in hybrid towing is the Porsche Cayenne S E-Hybrid – if you can afford it. Starting from just under £66,000, the Cayenne can tow a 3,500kg braked trailer, which is the maximum amount legally permitted to be towed by any non-commercial vehicle, plug-in hybrid or not. This is largely down to its powerful 3.0-litre V6 petrol engine and electric motor combining to make 410bhp, plus its standard four-wheel drive. The Porsche also has enormous brakes and weighs a not-insubstantial 2.5 tonnes, so keeping control of a large trailer and stopping it should be easy enough.
Hybrid models that can tow
Despite the fact hybrid cars have been around for longer than plug-in hybrid models, the latter are now much more common. In fact, if you want a regular hybrid costing less than £30,000, you’re effectively limited to a Kia Niro or a selection of Toyota products.
For the first time in the model's history, the latest Toyota Prius Hybrid can be fitted with a tow bar, although its 725kg towing limit is fairly meagre. The same cap is placed on the Toyota C-HR hybrid crossover and it should be enough for anyone who wants to use a tow bar to mount a bike carrier, tow a small trailer or even a micro-caravan or lightweight trailer tent.
If you need to pull a heavier load, the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid and Lexus NX 300h are both small SUVs, using the same 2.5-litre petrol engine and electric motor. Both can tow around 1,500kg, bringing a medium-sized caravan into scope.
As you might expect, though, it’s the premium hybrid SUVs that can tow the most and have the highest price tags. The £52,000 Lexus RX 450h is the most affordable, with a towing limit of 2,000kg.
The future of alternative-fuel towing
Martin Spencer, technical manager for the Caravan and Motorhome Club, told us: “We’ll see a bit of a shift from diesel to petrol in the shorter term (next five to 10 years), but the main trend will be towards hybrids, with a smaller steadily growing proportion of electric cars.”
And while there’ll be a transition period, Spencer sees a bright future for towing heavy caravans with alternative-fuel vehicles. “They’re particularly good for easy low-speed manoeuvring, hill starts, acceleration and hill climbing," he said. "Hybrids enable you to have a combination of the performance of a larger conventional engine with the economy and low emissions of a smaller one – a great benefit all round.
“The range of more affordable, towing-capable hybrids is increasing almost every month. Those hybrids with an electric-only mode often have very limited electric-only range, especially when towing. Electric range is also likely to increase with new technology developments before very long, though”.
Check out our list of the best cars for towing.
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