Why Your Pickup Truck’s Tow Rating is BS

Why Your Pickup Truck’s Tow Rating is BS

Trucks are big profit generators for automakers. The half-ton and heavy-duty pickup segments are probably the most fiercely competitive categories in the industry. Brands fight tooth and nail for every sale they can make. To move the metal they’re willing to leverage any and every competitive advantage no matter how small. Not surprisingly this winner-take-all mentality is delaying common-sense reform that benefits truck buyers.

SAE-Tow-Ratings-05.jpgWhen it comes to towing nobody seems to agree on anything. Getting automakers to cooperate on this issue has been like herding a clowder of water-logged cats – lots of hissing and scratching but no meaningful progress.

Right now a universally accepted methodology outlining how maximum tow ratings are derived is not in place. Every manufacturer seems to follow its own test procedure. As a result, tow ratings for a Chevy and a Ford aren’t comparable, meaning consumers shouldn’t be swayed by an extra 1,000 lb rating one way or the other.

In an effort to alleviate this confusion SAE International, a professional engineering association that sets technical standards for the automotive industry has an answer, and it’s called J2807.


“All the manufacturers got together and worked to formulate this new standard,” said Sam Butto, a Toyota Representative. “It’s been a fairly hot topic since it’s been initiated a few years ago.”

Keeping this issue on the boil Butto said “We’ve been complying with it for many of our vehicles since 2011.” Toyota took a leadership position on J2807, adopting it two years ahead of when competitors said they’d comply with it.

Without diving into the details, which are about as dry as stale saltines, the proposed test outlines myriad procedures for automakers to follow. For instance, to be certified to tow a certain weight a vehicle must successfully accelerate to a certain speed in a given amount of time; it has to be able to tackle specified grades (hills) without overheating; and be able to bring its load to a safe stop in a given distance. There are literally dozens of other tests aside from these. It’s all very thorough, and probably things automakers already do, but getting everyone to follow the exact same procedure is key to delivering a meaningful rating.

SAE-Tow-Ratings-03.jpgTom Wilkinson with Chevrolet communications said, “We were prepared to start it in the 2013 model year under an understanding that our competitors were going to follow it,” but that didn’t happen. He also said “Ford had decided not to go in for ’13,” but that their next-generation truck, which is expected to come out around 2015, should comply with J2807.

“We’ve already said we’d apply the testing standards on our all-new vehicles,” said Mike Levine, Ford’s Truck Communications Manager. He pointed out the 2013 Escape crossover and Fusion sedan both follow SAE towing guidelines. However, Levine also mentioned that even though the procedure takes effect this year it’s, “Not a mandatory standard.”

SEE ALSO: Tow-Rating Standoff Continues

When asked whether J2807 would negatively impact Ford’s trucks Levine said, “I would say stay tuned and see what we do with our all-new vehicles.” He did not say when any new truck could reach the market.

Ford is a powerhouse in the pickup segment. Its F-Series is the best-selling truck in America and has been since Jimmy Carter lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s interesting that they’re waiting to adopt the SAE standard. It’s possible their trucks could face a large decline in towing capability.

“I think a lot of people out there are speculating as to why they [Ford] won’t adopt something they sat at the table to help create” said Butto. “We can only speculate like anyone else.”

SAE-Tow-Ratings-10.jpgLike quarreling siblings Chevrolet and Ford have been going back and forth, but what about Chrysler? “Our position on the half-ton piece of it is… others should be leading the way on it,” said Nick Cappa of Ram Truck Communications. According to him, larger competitors in the pickup segment should step up and adopt the standard first.

His pride in Chrysler’s offerings is obvious; Cappa said, “We have the best truck out there in the half ton market.” The 2013 Ram 1500 is the freshest full-size pickup available today, offering an available eight-speed automatic transmission and an innovative air suspension system.

“We’re working closely with SAE to fine-tune those standards,” said Cappa and, “We have done a really good job of anticipating and engineering those standards into our future products.” As a result they’re “seeing the potential for less change in our trucks than our competitors.” He described the potential difference as negligible.

Echoing Cappa’s comments Wilkinson said “In some cases they [tow ratings] won’t change much. In other cases they’ll change more,” though he stopped short of mentioning any specifics.

SAE-Tow-Ratings-06.jpgDetroit automakers may dominate the truck segment but they’re not the only game in town. Toyota fields a capable vehicle in the form of its Tundra. And just like a third-party political candidate the Japanese company has been taking a very different approach to the SAE standard.

“I’m sure that each manufacturer has their reasons for not adopting it” said Butto, but Toyota management decided to stand by J2807 because they believe in it. “The customers deserve it,” he said.

“We would like to see everyone adopt it, it’s good for manufacturers and it’s especially beneficial for consumers” said Butto, noting that industry protocols can be advantageous for everyone.

SAE already set the standard for measuring engine output. This ensures a GM horsepower is the same as a Chrysler horsepower, which is in turn identical to a Toyota horsepower. For instance, this prevents one automaker from testing and rating an engine without an air filter or exhaust system, which would artificially boost the output of the powerplant, giving them a spec-sheet advantage. Following a standard and agreed-upon protocol ensures a level playing field.

Here’s another way to think of it. A yard is 36 inches long, three feet. Using the metric system it’s a little more than 91 centimeters, which probably sounds more impressive since it’s a bigger number. In reality of course they’re the same distance, just measured in different ways.

At this point things are kind of deadlocked. Ford won’t adopt J2807 until its next-generation trucks come out, which is probably in a couple years; likewise it appears GM won’t comply with the standard for at least that amount of time; and Chrysler’s not going until others lead the way. It’s like a group of friends that decided to go skydiving. Everyone is in the plane, has their parachutes on and is standing at the open door but no one wants to jump first, except Toyota, who leapt out when the aircraft was too low.

SAE-Tow-Ratings-02.jpgWill automakers ever bury the hatchet and adopt SAE J2807? Wilkinson said “I think it will happen at some point but I’m just not sure when.” No one wants to sacrifice a potential sales advantage. As long as consumers compare spec sheets maximum towing figures matter. Summing things up Cappa said “It’s a competitive market.”

However, real-world usage and numbers on paper are often very different things. How many truck owners ever come close to the limit? “Our guess is that very few people either with a light duty or a heavy duty tow near the maximum,” Wilkinson said, noting that any changes brought about by J2807 will probably impact a very small number of customers.

At this point no one can directly compare tow ratings until all the players involved release figures that are derived from testing that complies with the SAE standard. Ultimately it boils down to bragging rights and whose pickup has the burliest numbers, something no manufacturer wants to yield to the competition.

GALLERY: SAE J2807 Tow Ratings