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Looking for a Lower Cost Tow Vehicle

Note that the title did not say "Looking for a Tow Vehicle with better fuel economy." For the most part, this post is about a tow vehicle pulling a travel trailer.

How does an RVer escape a full-sized van or pickup truck, with its length, large turning radius, 6000 pounds of weight, and thirsty V8 engine? The simple answer is: don't. Stick with a brontosaurus and then drive it fewer miles per year.

My current brontosaurus is a 3/4 ton Ford Econoline 250 van, used to pull a 4000 pound travel trailer. The original engine and transmission still work well at 225,000 miles. What if I had purchased a lighter-duty vehicle at the beginning of my RV career, got slightly better fuel economy, but then needed to replace the transmission or engine at 150,000 miles? Would that have 'saved money?'

I used to drive about 15,000 miles per year. These days I've managed to cut that in half. I feel really good about that, because it's also beneficial from a safety and environmental point of view.

For this post, let's just admit that you can only go so far with "odometer downsizing". At some point it starts to subtract options from your lifestyle, and after all, we didn't choose a mobile lifestyle to be immobile. Thus we must now run to the other end of the basketball court and see if we can improve our game there.

In shopping for a new van or pickup truck to pull a lightweight trailer, the first thing you notice is how stupid it is that they no longer make small or mid-size vans (Chevy Astro) and pickups (Sonoma, S10, Ranger). I recently read an article explaining that this is a quirk of how the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) regulations are calculated. Whatever the reason, it is hard to work around.

In the old days you might have opted for a lackluster V6 engine in a so-called half-ton van or truck (i.e., Ford 150, Chevy 1500). This will only save gasoline when you are unhitched, which might be true for half the miles that you drive annually.

The good news is that there are some far more interesting V6s put into half-ton vans and pickups, these days. And the automatic transmissions have 6 or 8 speeds, and the gear can be selected manually when climbing hills. It's great that traction control is standard equipment on vans and trucks, since that obviates expensive, fuel-sucking, four-wheel-drives, at least for those with lightweight trailers.

This isn't mere speculation. I've done a lot of dispersed camping on public lands with a rear wheel drive van, over the last 16 years, and have only gotten stuck three times. Somebody who wants to unhitch and drive to the top of a mountain would not agree with me. But this is the advantage of being a mountain biker/walker who tries to start from the front door, rather than being a hiker-peak bagger-tourist who typically drives 20 miles to the trailhead.

More good news: as debauched as the modern pickup truck is (from pandering to suburban cowboys), the traditional entry-level "trim" is still available. The "work truck" trim means the plain vanilla jobs with vinyl seats and roll up windows, and without all the frivolous bells and whistles inside.

And even more good news: cargo vans seem to be going through a renaissance, with the new Nissan NV van on the market, as well as the RAM C/V cargo van, the new Ford Transit, and a new Chevy van in 2014. What's going on here? Again, it might be due to CAFE regulations coming down hard on pickups and vans over the next couple years. Heretofore, the buying public escaped unpopular CAFE requirements on cars by giving up on cars and running to truck-based SUVS and full-sized pickup trucks. That gig is up.

No matter how diligent and studious you want to be, is there any way to really know whether these possible improvements in engines and transmissions are really just false economies? Will the turbochargers on your new Ford Eco-Boost engine really last a quarter million miles? What about 8 speed automatic transmissions? And what will be the maintenance and replacement costs? Automobile reviewers at Edmunds or Motor Trend aren't going to tell you that -- because they don't know either.

Let's not get sucked into seeing fuel cost as the most important cost of transportation just because it is the most visible. Or in the words of Weaver in "Ideas Have Consequences": "the apparent does not exhaust the real." I admit to being a bit of a retro-grouch with new technologies that are mandated by politicians and bureaucrats. Their only concern is nominal success at 'protecting the environment'. The long term cost-effectiveness and headaches are the customer's problem, not theirs.

In the past I was forced to reject "egg" trailers (molded fiberglass), such as Casitas, because 5'10" is the maximum height of a person hoping to live in one, full-time. Too bad, because they are the only way I know of to keep the loaded trailer weight under 3000 pounds, unless you want to convert a small cargo trailer. That would be the maximum trailer weight for other categories of tow vehicles such as mini-vans or smaller SUVs. (The RAM C/V Cargo Van is a beefed up Dodge caravan minivan, with front wheel drive and low ground clearance. The Ford Transit Connect has no towing capability.)

But recently I learned of Parkliner (fiberglass molded) travel trailers. They have a nominal standing height of 6'5". It would be exciting to get away from 6000 pound trucks and vans as the tow vehicle. Alas, the lighter vehicles usually have car-style ground clearance. The world seems to be out to frustrate me!

In summary, think of how scissors work: a pair of blades is needed. Beating the high cost of transportation needs slicing from two directions: 1) fuel economy and, 2) more deliberate and selective driving habits. 


Bob Giddings said…
I'll tell you a little story about my attempt to downsize my tow vehicle. There may be a lesson in it somewhere.

Formerly I had a 2000 F250 V10 4x4. It was a great vehicle, that lasted 145K miles with minimal repair. It got 10 or 11 mph, pulling or empty.

When the Ford got to be 11 years old, I got antsy and started shopping around. In March 2012 I found a new 2011 Dodge Ram half-ton with a Hemi V8 engine. $21500. On paper the thing got great mileage and would still pull the world, due to an engineering scheme that cut off two cylinders when not needed. My towing capacity went down from around 11K pounds to a nominal 9K.

And it worked, in a way. Driving empty, with the cruise control on in flat country, I have gotten up to 19 mpg. But the minute you attach a trailer of any kind, the mileage goes straight to crap. Against a headwind in Kansas, pulling 4400 lb. at 70 mph, I got 6.5 mpg over one tank. The usual is 9-10.

So there it is. If you pull a trailer pretty constantly, you are better off buying big. Youl'll get the same or better mileage and much more capacity. If you just scoot around empty and unladened, you'll do better with a smaller truck. But if that is the case, you'll do even better with a Prius.

Only time will tell whether the Dodge will turn out as trouble-free as the F250. It will pull to the max indicated. But you will pay, pay, pay at the pump.
Bob, I agree that nominal fuel economy improvements (on the truck, proper) won't do you any good when you are towing. I don't have a pie chart that shows what fraction of my gasoline consumption is unhitched versus hitched, but it's the unhitched driving in town that is noticeably dreadful because of the stop and go.

I'm not too worried about hitched fuel economy since I restrict it to about 2000 miles per year and I never drive over 60 mph.
Tom said…
Maybe you should wait for the 2013 Ford Transit or the Sprinter. A new Sprinter High Top Cargo van can be had for around $37k MSRP. The Sprinter gets in the mid 20's mpg. You could do your own conversion since most TT's don't meet all your needs anyway. I recently met a couple that did their own conversion and later bought a Casita or similar to tow behind their Sprinter. They are full time and have traveled all over the country dispersed camping. They claim an average 20mpg towing the trailer. I sent you a pic of their rig to your email...
Tom, the Sprinter is too expensive, but the Ford Transit is an option. I checked the photo in the email. Thanks. Their solution would be similar to mine.

Say, they aren't in southeastern AZ right now are they. Would appreciate it if you put me into email contact with them.
Just so you will know my Chevy 2500HD truck completely disengages the 4x4 from the front wheels and the transmission when in 2wd mode. In other words none of the 4x4 stuff is turning. Thus when in 2wd mode I get the same mileage as a 2wd only truck of the same model. I do not know about other vehicles on that subject.
Thanks Barney, that helps to explain 4WD better. Actually the real reason I dislike 4WD is they package it up with other goodies and run up the price. I am austere with my automotive tastes: if it ain't there, I'll never have to fix it.
You have that packaging comment extremely correct. I have had this truck since 2005 and have used the 4x4 to play a little, but never have needed it. But if you buy a truck in Washington state you get 4x4. They did not have 2wd and really did not want my 2wd truck for a trade. I always buy used. Be safe.
Bob said…
Here's a link you might be interested in.