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SAE J2807: Tow Capacity

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Even if most pickup owners never actually tow anything, they still pay attention to how much trucks can tow. It's an unofficial litmus test of strength, durability and plain ol' bragging rights.

The marketers of pickup trucks are all too aware of this. They have waged a seemingly never-ending arms race of tow ratings — particularly among the ultra-competitive Detroit Three automakers.

But since every automaker defines the parameters of its own towing capacity tests, the temptation is always there to "exaggerate" a bit, especially if it means beating the competition's latest model by a few hundred pounds or so.

For buyers, it can be misleading since a pickup truck that advertises it can tow 9,800 pounds isn't necessarily "better" than one rated at 9,500 pounds. Testing variations from one manufacturer to the next means most tow numbers are rarely ever comparable.

The Solution
With this in mind, engineers from the Detroit Three automakers and several Japanese truck makers got together with the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). The idea was to create a voluntary standardized testing procedure for tow ratings.

It took years, but by 2008 the cooperative developed SAE standard J2807: "Performance Requirements for Determining Tow-Vehicle Gross Combination Weight Rating and Trailer Weight Rating."

Finally, a 9,800-pound tow rating for a Ford F-150 would be the same as a 9,800-pound rating for a Chevy Silverado 1500 and any other truck certified to J2807. The SAE committee recommended that the new testing procedures be adopted by at least the 2013 model year.

Problem solved, sort of.

Marketing Roadblock
A predictable detour came on the road to standardized towing tests, though. Although the automakers' engineers toiled for years to create tow-rating commonality, the gang in marketing had a much harder time discerning the benefit. If everybody had to test to the same standards, tow-rating superiority would become much tougher to claim.

And perhaps equally alarming, it became apparent the new towing tests were going to lead to a significant tow-rating reduction for many models. Why?

Most manufacturer procedures generate higher tow maximum ratings because they assume that the truck has no options, you are alone with no luggage and you weigh 150 pounds (the average between a 50th percentile adult male and a 50th percentile adult female).

This matters because the tow rating is what's left when you subtract the curb weight of the truck and its occupants and their cargo from the Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) of the truck. Make the driver and truck weight smaller and the tow rating will grow in response.

There's only one problem — the extra weight of passengers, cargo and options matters even if they're not part of the trailer. The engine and transmission cooling systems can only handle so much weight and heat and these components don't know or care if that weight is in the truck or trailer.

The Result
With the possibility that implementing J2807 would reduce tow ratings, most manufacturers chickened out. When the 2013 model year rolled around, Toyota was the only manufacturer that had fully embraced the new towing capacity testing procedures. It currently lists J2807-derived tow ratings for the Tundra while the pickup segment's big dogs, Chrysler, Ford and General Motors, all refuse to dive into the pool and cede tow-rating valor.

Ford spokesman Mike Levine said that his company's reading of J2807 is that it should be applied in 2013 or after when a vehicle is all-new or significantly reengineered. As an example he said the new-generation 2013 Escape crossover's tow rating was derived under the SAE standard. Ditto for the 2013 Flex and even the 2013 Fusion midsize sedan.

Critically — and conveniently — that interpretation leaves a pickup-size loophole for Ford's market-dominating F-Series pickup line. The F-Series isn't due for a redesign until 2015 and Ford doesn't intend to deal with the likely lower SAE-generated tow ratings for the next-generation F-Series until it absolutely must.

The 2014 Chevrolet Silverado, launching this summer, is all-new and seemingly would be the poster child for J2807 applicability. But at a media drive event for the new pickup, Chevrolet engineers flatly told Edmunds that the new Silverado's tow ratings were not derived via the new SAE standard. GM sources have said elsewhere the company won't fall in line with the new standard until others automakers begin reporting J2807-compliant tow ratings.

A spokesman for Chrysler presented us with a succinct summation of the company's position regarding the Ram pickup line: "When the market leaders adopt J2807, Ram will as well."

In this theater of the absurd, the Big Three are all fighting for the lead role.

What's a Buyer To Do?
If tow ratings — standardized and comparable tow ratings — are important to you, right now there are a few options.

As mentioned, all of Toyota's light trucks have tow ratings derived under the new standard. Toyota spokesman Sam Butto admits the standard cost most Toyota models, on average, 300 to 400 pounds in tow-rating reduction. The highest tow rating for the Tundra full-size pickup dropped from 10,800 to 10,400 pounds under the new standard, for example. Models such as the Tacoma midsize pickup (max tow: 6,500 pounds) and the Highlander crossover (max tow: 5,000 pounds) were unaffected.

Ford's Levine said the J2807 test procedures are for "more than pickup trucks," but we all know this brouhaha is totally about pickup trucks.

So it's fairly simple right now: if you're in the market for a pickup and want one with a tow rating generated by the SAE method, the Toyota's Tundra is the only model complying with the new standard — and its tow rating subsequently is not the highest you'll find.

If you want a Chrysler, Ford or GM full-size pickup truck rated under the new towing standard, it appears you'd have to wait until 2015 when Ford launches the new-generation F-Series. That's assuming the three companies stick to their positions and all bite the reality bullet at the same time.

Until then, it's best to continue to view tow ratings skeptically, particularly when comparison-shopping.

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