you can tow a lightweight trailer with a four-cylinder
of years ago, we took a 4200 kilometer trip through
Europe. I was surprised to see that there were far
more trailers on the road there than is usual in
North America. Most of the trailers we saw were
20-24’ long and most were being towed by four
Obviously, the European RV market has adapted to
the fuel situation, and the prevailing trends in
family transportation. Trailers in Europe are very
light, with good suspensions. European RV manufacturers
neither understand nor use equalizing hitches, and
believe it or not, they still use mechanical brakes.
The four cylinder cars were cruising without difficulty
at highway speeds, and they seemed to be handling
the aerodynamic drag of their trailers without a
problem. Even more interesting was the observation
that the RV enthusiasts we encountered were towing
on roads that were generally more challenging than
The North American
Over the years we have set up plenty of four cylinder
tow cars, starting with Volvos in the mid-70s, but
until two years ago we had never actually toured
to any great extent with the smaller engine options
and lightweight trailers. Following our European
adventure, we decided to add a four cylinder tow
vehicle to our corporate fleet, and we currently
have two vehicles in our fleet that have very different
personalities, but tow suitable trailers very nicely.
The first of our four cylinder tow vehicles is a
2005 PT Cruiser convertible, which we have been
using to tow lightweight 7.5’ wide aerodynamic
trailers and Airstreams up to 22’ long. The
PT Cruiser has a turbocharged 2.4 litre four cylinder
engine and the same transaxle is the one used in
Chrysler vans with V-6 engines, so it has plenty
of extra capacity. There are a few special considerations
to keep in mind when towing with high output small
displacement engines. When towing with a turbocharged
engine, it is important not to operate the engine
under boost for long periods of time. It is fine
for entering an expressway or passing slower traffic,
but not to climb a five mile mountain pass or drive
all day at the speed limit, into a strong headwind.
To prep the PT for towing we added a transmission
cooler, vacuum gauge to measure boost, and the hitch
and wiring. There is not enough room under the back
of the car for both a solid hitch and a spare tire.
Fortunately, the spare fits easily in the trunk
with plenty of room left over. The body structure
is surprisingly strong for a convertible and easily
handles the torque from the 550lb. torsion bars.
The PT Cruiser has what would seem to be a short
103” wheelbase, but the rear overhang is only
37”, or 36% of the wheelbase. The rack &
pinion steering is very precise, and the 205/55HR
x 16” tires have virtually no side sway. At
highway speed with the Airstream the combination
is rock solid and passing trucks and cross winds
have no effect on handling. The lightweight trailers
are barely affected by passing trucks or cross winds
however there is some buffeting when following a
Performance with the PT Cruiser is excellent and
few RV combinations are as much fun to drive. 0-100
KPH takes only 23 seconds with a 19’ Airstream.
As you might guess, maneuverability is excellent,
and you can easily whip in and out of tight spaces.
We have 60,000 kilometers on the PT now, with 16,000
of that logged while towing trailers. It has been
completely reliable and has never had a warranty
claim. While solo fuel efficiency is quite good,
towing with the PT Cruiser produces mileage data
not much different than a larger tow vehicle. Towing
an Airstream at 100 KPH the PT Cruiser can deliver
16.4 miles to the Imperial gallon or 17.2 L/100km.
If you are looking for an economical day to day
vehicle that can tow a small trailer for your annual
vacation it is a good choice, I think it is the
only convertible available that can carry four adults
comfortably. The sedan version offers more interior
space than many small SUVs and is quite reasonably
Diesels Are On The
In the near future, the most efficient tow vehicles
for travel trailers and smaller fifth wheels will
be powered by very efficient, high-torque small
displacement diesels. Last August, we decided it
would make sense to gain some experience with these
new diesels. At the time, the only modern diesel
available in North America was in the VW Jetta.
Our Jetta diesel is mated to a 5-speed manual transmission.
So far, we have logged more than 13,000 kilometers
while towing 25¡¯ and shorter Airstreams as well
as a range of aerodynamic lightweight trailers less
than 26¡¯ long. We use our Jetta to tow new trailers
from the factories back to our dealership. The fuel
economy is amazing: 50 - 55 MPG is very easy to
attain on a solo highway trip. Towing Airstreams
the Jetta runs easily at 27-32 MPG, and we regularly
log 24-28 when towing the conventional lightweight
trailers. While the Jetta easily handles 22¡¯ Airstreams
& lightweights, we would not recommend it for
towing trailers this large over mountainous terrain.
Like all diesels, the acceleration is not blistering,
but the torque pulls steadily and once up to speed
it holds it easily. Amazingly it tows in fifth gear
most of the time.
When I mention that we are towing with a Jetta Diesel
the first assumption is that it is a very small
car to be towing with. Most people don¡¯t realize
that the Jetta grew up a couple of years ago, and
it is now a far more substantial vehicle with independent
rear suspension. As well, the Diesel engine grew
to 1.9 litres with 100 HP and 177 lbs ft of torque
at just 1600 RPM.
The Jetta¡¯s wheelbase is 101.5¡± and the rear overhang
is 45¡±, or 44% of the wheelbase. This is more of
an overhang that we would normally like, but combined
with the independent suspension and the very tight
tire and wheel combination it handles very well.
It is not quite as stable and aggressive handling
as the PT Cruiser, but if you did not do the direct
comparison you would find it excellent. The ride
is neither harsh nor soft, just a nice balance.
The Jetta is a comfortable car to drive long distances.
It is also very quiet, with the diesel only noticeable
during cold starts.
Interestingly, in Europe, where they don't use equalizing
hitches and unbelievably still use mechanical trailer
brakes, the Jetta has a 3000 lb. towing recommendation.
In North America it is rated at only 1000 lbs.,
likely because they don¡¯t see the towing capability
as a marketing advantage. We were able to install
a very solid hitch platform on the Jetta that reaches
forward of the rear wheels - we use a 550lb. Eaz-Lift
hitch with a welded ball mount.
The Next Wave Of Tow
Hybrid cars have been getting a lot of attention
lately, but I worry about the current longevity
of the battery technology. The TDI engines deliver
fantastic economy and performance, and they have
a long track record, lasting hundreds of thousands
of kilometers. It will take a lot of driving to
offset the additional cost, but the payback will
no doubt be there.
If you would like to try either of these vehicles
in a real-life situation they are available for
test drives at Can-Am. Simply call ahead to ensure
they are not off on a trip to pick up another new
lightweight trailer! (Page Top)