Beasts of Burden: Top Pickup Trucks for Towing

People buy pickup trucks for many reasons. Some of those reasons are strictly sensible; others lean more toward vanity and fashion.

This hasn't always been true. A few decades back, pickups were strictly utilitarian vehicles that people purchased to do work. Owners were willing to put up with certain discomforts as long as the truck performed its assigned tasks without balking.

Today, fewer private truck owners haul gravel or crates with their vehicles. Those who buy a pickup for its practical merits are likely more interested in its towing capacity. Outdoorsy families may need a truck to haul a camper trailer or boat on summer vacations or weekend journeys. And if that trailer or boat is heavy, only a pickup with serious towing capacity can handle the job.

Top Pickup Trucks for Towing
The maximum towing capacity ratings below are supplied by the respective manufacturers. All models are from the 2005 model year.
Full-Size PickupMax. Towing Capacity*List Price
Ford F-350 Super Duty  19,200 pounds$23,525 - $38,855
GMC Sierra 3500  16,800 pounds$29,155 - $41,705
Chevrolet Silverado 3500  16,700 pounds$28,665 - $41,345
Ford F-250 Super Duty  16,500 pounds$22,780 - $36,990
Dodge Ram 3500  16,400 pounds$26,625 - $38,545
Compact PickupMax. Towing Capacity*List Price
Nissan Frontier  6,500 pounds$15,500 - $26,750
Toyota Tacoma  6,500 pounds $13,415 - $25,250
Ford Ranger  5,980 pounds$14,425 - $26,205
Mazda B4000  5,580 pounds$21,895 - $26,440
Chevrolet Colorado  4,000 pounds$15,095 - $28,550

*The maximum towing capacities listed represent the highest rating for each model. Ratings will vary according to a pickup truck's drivetrain, cab and cargo-bed configuration, axle ratio and trailer hitch type.

Each manufacturer issues ratings for towing capacity, measured in pounds. Ratings for a given truck model may vary according to several factors:

Tonnage designation: Half-ton, three-quarter-ton or one-ton.

Engine size: If a pickup is available with a choice of engines, the larger-displacement version typically has greater towing capacity.

Engine type: Diesel engines typically have greater capacity than gasoline power plants.

Transmission type: A truck with an automatic transmission may be capable of hauling more weight than an equivalent model with a manual gearbox.

Pickups with dual rear wheels, like this GMC Sierra 3500, tend to be wider than their single-rear-wheel siblings.

Rear-wheel configuration: Heavy-duty trucks may be available with a choice of single or dual (dualie) rear wheels. This means there could be one or two wheels and tires on each side. Typically, additional tires translate to greater capacity for hauling cargo, though not necessarily a significant increase in towing capacity.

Two-wheel drive versus four-wheel drive: Towing capacity often differs, though not necessarily by much, between otherwise identical two- and four-wheel-drive trucks.

Cab and cargo-bed type: Picking a regular cab versus a crew cab, or a long cargo bed rather than a short bed, can alter maximum towing capacity by several hundred pounds. Regular-cab models are usually able to haul more.

Axle ratio: Only a few manufacturers specify this figure, but if given a choice, towing capacity could vary between available gear ratios.

Trailer hitch type: As a rule, a fifth-wheel hitch located in the cargo box of a pickup truck is capable of towing more weight than a simple ball hitch located near the rear bumper.

Complete data on towing capacity is available from each manufacturer, and is usually set up in chart form. Some charts spell out dozens of combinations of engine, transmission, cab, bed, trailer hitch and other factors.

Full-Size Domestic Brands Top the Towing-Capacity List
When you need to tow a trailer or boat that weighs more than 4 or 5 tons, you have few choices besides a heavy-duty truck from Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford or GMC. These are the only trucks that offer towing capacities above the 10,000-pound mark. As a rule, you'll have to turn to a one-ton model — Chevrolet Silverado 3500, Dodge Ram 3500, Ford F-350 Super Duty or GMC Sierra 3500 — to get the peak capacity, but a three-quarter-ton truck might suffice for slightly reduced weight requirements.

On the whole, import-brand pickups trail the domestics where heavy-duty towing is concerned. Only the Nissan Titan vies with half-ton pickups from Detroit's Big Three.

With a 9,500-pound rating, Nissan's Titan has the highest maximum towing capacity of any import-brand pickup truck.

Import-brand models have simply made little attempt to capture the heavy-duty end of the market. In its strongest form, the Toyota Tundra can tow up to 7,100 pounds. Honda's new Ridgeline pickup, introduced in spring 2005 as a 2006 model, has a more modest 5,000-pound maximum towing capacity.

Special Features for Towing
To get the highest towing capacity possible, a special towing package usually has to be installed on the pickup. This could include heavy-duty cooling components to reduce the risk of overheating, heavy-duty brakes, a transmission oil cooler and a heavy-duty suspension. Automatic transmissions on heavy-duty trucks often include a Tow/Haul mode, which alters the shift pattern for greater efficiency when pulling a trailer or boat.

Ford's F-Series Super Duty trucks now offer a Tow Command System, which includes an integrated electric trailer-brake controller. All large trailers must have their own brakes, which are typically actuated by the driver using a separate control unit. Ford claims that its integrated system works with a "special trailer-brake strategy" when the antilock braking system detects poor traction.

Certain versions of GM's full-size pickups can be equipped with Quadrasteer four-wheel steering, which can make highway maneuvers easier and safer, especially under high wind conditions. Quadrasteer also makes it easier to back up and take corners with a trailer under tow. Once you've tried Quadrasteer, there's a good chance you won't be satisfied with a pickup that doesn't have it. In February 2005, however, Automotive News reported that GM will drop Quadrasteer as an option after the 2005 model year, citing slow sales.

Lightweights Can Tow, Too
Compact pickups have lower towing capacities — not specifically due to their size, but because they can't hold the biggest and most-powerful engines. Like their larger siblings, these pickups have a variety of towing-capacity ratings depending on their powertrains, cab style and bed length.

The redesigned 2005 Dodge Dakota's 7,150-pound maximum towing capacity is 550 pounds more than its predecessor's.

Larger than a traditional compact truck, Dodge's Dakota can tow up to 7,150 pounds, while Nissan's Frontier can be equipped to tow as much as 6,500 pounds. Ford's compact Ranger has a maximum towing capacity of 5,980 pounds. Toyota's 2005 Tacoma can be fitted to tow up to 6,500 pounds.

Maximum towing capacities for the Chevrolet Colorado and its GMC Canyon cousin are lower, topping out at an even 2 tons with the 3.5-liter inline-five-cylinder and an automatic transmission.

When choosing a pickup based on its towing prowess, you need to allow some leeway. If the heaviest trailer you expect to tow weighs 6,000 pounds, it's wise to select a truck with a capacity somewhere beyond that figure.

Still, it doesn't pay to buy more truck than you expect to need. Heavier-duty trucks are almost sure to burn more fuel and may be less pleasing to drive during those periods when no trailer is attached. Compact models can be a lot more satisfying for regular driving.

If you never intend to pull a fifth-wheel camper trailer, why buy an oversized truck that can handle such a task? And if you're not going to tow anything heavier than a snowmobile or small utility trailer, a compact pickup might be sufficient.

At the other end of the spectrum, if you have to haul a trailer that weighs even more than the one-ton pickups can handle, there are options.

Need More Towing Power?
The major domestic automakers produce commercial-level trucks as well as pickups aimed at the family market. Ford's F-Series, for instance, goes all the way up to F-750. A Ford F-550 can tow as much as 24,800 pounds.

More semi truck than pickup truck, the 2006 International RXT will be available in fall 2005.

International, which manufactures primarily commercial trucks, has decided to dip its toe in the heavy-duty end of the family-truck market. At the Chicago Auto Show in February 2005, International introduced an RXT model that's considerably larger than a typical pickup and can tow as much as 12 tons. Still not enough? International also has a CXT truck that's even more gargantuan and has a maximum towing capacity as high as 22 tons.