It's a victory for truth, justice and anybody who ever towed a trailer up a steep hill.
The leading makers of big pickups have agreed to a standard test to determine their towing capacity. By the end of the 2013 model year, most truck buyers should know — for the first time — how their vehicle performs vs. the competition.
"We wanted our customers to know that 10,000 pounds of towing capacity means the same things for all trucks," said Robert Krause, the General Motors engineer who chaired the Society of Automotive Engineers committee that created the new standard.
This is a really big deal for millions of drivers. Towing capacity measures how heavy a trailer a vehicle can safely haul.
The rating is as important to many pickup and SUV buyers as fuel economy or horsepower are to minivan or sports-car shoppers.
The big difference, and the reason the SAE standard is a breakthrough, is that, until now, automakers could pretty much make up the numbers they claimed for towing capacity. Each company designed its own test, and — surprise! — their trucks always aced the tests. Imagine the Environmental Protection Agency didn't exist, and car companies could make up fuel-economy figures to boost sales.
It was caveat emptor, and catch me if you can.
Manufacturers would boast about the amount their pickups and SUVs could tow, and the exhaustive engineering and testing used to determine the towing capacity.
When a new truck claimed a higher, more impressive, number, the other manufacturers would rewrite the spec sheets. Their trucks' towing capacity — amazingly, coincidentally . . . magically! — increased to match or beat the new kid on the block.
It was a farce, but there was nothing a customer could do about it, short of bringing a 10,000-pound trailer to their test-drive.
The new standard solves that problem. Created with input from leading truck, trailer and hitchmakers, it assures that every truck tested fulfills the same performance requirements.
The test includes real-world tasks like acceleration, braking, towing up a steep grade in 100-degree temperatures, understeer and stability. In addition to validating a truck's working credentials, it assures a basic level of safety for the driver and for others on the road.
The test is demanding. Automakers expect their tow ratings to decrease by anything from a few hundred to more than a thousand pounds. They're willing to take the hit, because it's in their interest as well as the customers' to have credible towing figures.
Toyota is the first to use the standard. It already applied it to the Tundra. The Tundra's claimed towing capacity decreased, but its credibility grew.
Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford and GMC full-size pickups are expected to adopt the test during the 2013 model year, which begins Jan. 1, 2012. Nissan will use the standard someday, but won't say when or on which vehicles.
Every truck tested to the standard can say its towing capacity is SAE-rated. The SAE is the leading independent body for vehicle standards and tests.
The towing standard is not mandatory. No manufacturer has to use it. If they don't, though, the figures they claim for towing capacity will be less credible and more open to challenge than their competitors'.