Advice on towing vehicle

Late last year, my beau and I got a deal on a small (16’, 2200#) camping trailer which we figure will be great for some far-afield (and even not so far) kayaking trips. The appeal of having a place to shower and change and pee, and even eat and sleep, at any take-out is hard to beat.

However, we need to get a “new” used vehicle to tow it. Himself needs a new truck for his little “ranch” anyway, gotta be 4 wheel drive to get up the two-tracks in the adjoining hills to reach good astronomy sites and to tow horse trailers down to the lower pasture. And has to be a pickup to haul bales of hay and the little tractor. We’ve been told that an automatic is better for trailer hauling on highways --is that true? We both prefer manual but are not adamant if that’s not the best choice.

We plan some extended road trips with this thing – hauling the trailer plus bikes and 'yaks and gear it will probably be around 3000 lbs. His old 4-banger Toyota truck is really too wimpy, but we’d like to be as reasonably gas-efficient as possible. We’ve sorta been looking at 4 liter Ford Rangers and F150’s in the early 2000’s. Any alternate model/year suggestions from Pnet folks who regularly haul stuff?

Any half-ton truck will be perfect

– Last Updated: Apr-20-11 3:09 PM EST –

3,000 pounds of trailer is well within the capability of any half-ton pickup. The same will be true of half-ton SUVs (fewer choices). The exact brand and model would be your preference based on whatever else you want to consider.

A Ranger with a 4.0-liter engine might be okay, and lighter SUVs might too. They'd probably get the job done but not as easily, and if by chance any of that horse-trailer work you mentioned is highway travel, that pretty much rules out a mini pickup or mid-size SUV, in my opinion.

Automatic transmissions are easier on the whole drive train than manual transmissions as a rule, but I think that "rule" is in consideration of the fact that few people use manual transmissions anywhere nearly as gently as what is possible (for some reason, most people drive a lot more aggressively and rev the engine much more than necessary once you put a shifter in their hand). The biggest advantage of an automatic for pulling trailers is that they do well at slow speeds and during hard-pull startups. For a manual to shine in those situations requires a creeper low and creeper reverse, and true creeper gears are no longer available on manual transmissions for light trucks, as far as I can tell. The transmissions I've seen which are billed as having such capability are pretty marginal, as extra-low gears go, and reverse gear seems particularly poorly suited for handling heavy loads at slow speeds (backing with a trailer WILL require extra-slow speed, probably much too slow to accomplish much of the time without clutch-slipping). You may research this and find exceptions, but based on what I've seen, manual transmissions suitable for trailer-pulling (other than strictly-for-highway use), are no longer made for pickups. Some people don't mind slipping the clutch though, and if that's you, go for it.

With an automatic, you might want to consider an auxilliary oil cooler, especially if you pull the trailer a lot or if you deal with a lot of hills. If so, make sure the cooler is installed "upstream" of the factory cooler or the transmission oil will end up being too cold much of the time. Sine the factory oil cooler is bathed in engine coolant, putting the auxilliary cooler upstream of it will allow the factory cooler to function as an "oil warmer" during low-load conditions when the auxilliary cooler isn't needed and provides too much cooling.

Lbs is less than most ski and fishing boats on their trailer. Just about any V6 would be fine for towing it.

Ryan L.

I don’t get that last part about …
… the oil cooler being upstream vs. downstream. Whay would it matter? Unless there is a thermostat of some sort to actually by-pass the aux cooler, wouldn’t it work just the same no matter where it is installed in the loop? If it can lower the temp 10 degrees it will do that anyway, wouldn’t it?

Sorry, can’t comment on the rest of the topic but would be interested in the reasoning on the cooler.

Here ya go.

– Last Updated: Apr-20-11 10:53 PM EST –

Even though you don't want your automatic transmission oil to be too hot, there's a limit to how much you want to cool it. It's supposed to be quite warm while in use.

First, here's how it's originally set up:
The factory oil "cooler" is within the coolant in the radiator. Thus, as designed, the transmission oil will never be any colder than the coolant in the radiator, and apparently that's for good reason (I'm just trusting the experts on this). However if the transmission works very hard, the factory cooler may not succeed in cooling the oil to a temperature near that of the engine coolant. The oil may return to the transmission still too hot. That's the situation addressed by an auxiliary cooler.

An auxiliary transmission oil cooler radiates heat to the air. It is normally mounted in front of the radiator so it's exposed to air at ambient temperature, and thus it has the potential to do more cooling on a cold day than on a hot day, but all things being simple (which they are not, but we won't talk about specific heat or conductivity), even on a very hot day it has greater cooling ability than the factory cooler because the outside air temperature is always a lot colder than 190 degrees (the temperature of engine coolant, and thus the temperature of the factory cooler).

Wrong way - Auxiliary cooler downstream of factory cooler:
If the transmission oil passed through the factory cooler first, and the auxiliary cooler second, everything COULD be okay in some situations, but in other situations the oil would be cooled too much. An "okay" situation would be when the transmission is working very hard and the factory oil cooler fails to cool the oil all the way down to its ideal temperature. In that case, the auxiliary cooler would cool it some more, perhaps even the right amount, before the oil returned to the transmission. By contrast, in a low-load situation like normal driving, the oil would exit the factory cooler already cooled to the proper temperature but now the auxiliary cooler would cool it again, causing the oil temperature to drop well below its design temperature before it returns to the transmission. This would be at its worst during light-load driving on a cold winter day.

Right way - auxiliary cooler upstream of factory cooler:
If the auxiliary cooler is upstream of the factory cooler, all is well no matter what the driving conditions, and no matter what the weather. When the transmission is working extremely hard and the factory cooler would not be able to cool the oil enough all by itself, the auxiliary cooler gets first crack at the job and cools the oil as much as it can. If the oil is not cooled enough, either because it was super hot to begin with or because it's a hot day (this cooler won't work as well in hot air as cold air), the factory cooler can easily finish the job when it gets its turn. On the other hand, during normal driving, the auxiliary cooler is likely to cool the oil way too much because the oil isn't very hot to begin with, but that won't matter because next the oil flows through the factory cooler before returning to the transmission, and in THIS case the factory "cooler" will warm the oil to near the temperature of engine coolant, rather than cooling the oil even more. Thus you can't over-cool your oil with the coolers arranged in this manner. I believe there might be another advantage to passing the oil through the auxiliary cooler first which applies in extreme-load situations, but that starts getting into the efficiency of heat transfer across temperature gradients so let's ignore that for now. The main thing is that in various extreme weather and driving conditions (both ends of the spectrum), the oil will get the extra cooling it needs IF it's needed, but it won't ever be cooled too much when extra cooling ability is not needed.

With all that said, "proper" installation of the auxiliary cooler may not be as important as it sounds, but that's the working principle behind this often-recommended method.

no to Ranger
We got several new Rangers in our fleet last year. They are noisy, uncomfortable, and the fit and finish of the interior is poor.

I remember years ago when they advertised new Rangers for $9,995. I would not pay that much for one even in today’s economy.

Base it on your horse trailer & tractor
The camper is fairly light. The other stuff, maybe not so light.

If I were going to pull a horse trailer or “little tractor”, especially in hilly county and/or off paved roads, I’d go straight to a V8 or a diesel truck. That’s regardless what the glowing ads brag about how much V6 trucks can tow.

The smaller the engine, the harder it has to work when loaded. You might start off with better mpg but that could go way down if you’re working it hard. Most V8s have more torque than V6 engines, which is what matters when you’re driving uphill and/or towing a lot of weight.

I don’t think Ford makes the 4.9L I6 that was common in the F150 trucks. That might have been a candidate, if you could get past the problems that were also common.

Automatics are what most people pulling horse trailers use. They’re easier to back the trailer with. But there are (were?) some heavy-duty manuals that, if you can get a low enough 1st gear, might be an option. Not sure if these are offered in anything but the most expensive lines of trucks anymore (e.g., I know someone who bought a V10 pickup with a heavy-duty manual transmission).

thanks and clarification
Excellent and helpful advice so far so thanks very much. On the horse trailer – that’s a rare event, maybe twice a year, and is a single horse, being taken less than 30 miles. And the tractor is quite small, an older 1,500 pound Ford 1220, and would only be hauled occasionally for similarly short distances. All of the distance towing will either be the mini-camper or a 12’ box trailer full of rock band gear.

We realize a big V8 would make hauling the trailer a breeze, but we plan to do long road trips (like to the West Coast and up to the Canadian Northwest) and with gas approaching $5 a gallon, a V8 is out of the picture. Diesel is not attractive any more, since prices for it have outstripped gas, at least in this area. And it gets damned cold in the northern mountains where he lives.

I’ve got mixed feelings about the Ranger – some of the older ones were great. We had mid to late 90’s models in the fleet of electrical service trucks at the company I used to work for and they outperformed the 1/2 ton Fords and Chevys. There seem to be wild variations in reliability from year to year with them, though. We’d like to keep the purchase under $10K so we are looking at older trucks. We’ve looked wistfully at Honda and Toyota 1/2 tons but they are 20% to 30% more than similar domestics. I’ve never liked Chevys (had Silverados and S10’s as company trucks and hated them) and himself dislikes Dodge products (except his beloved '93 Caravan and vintage Le Baron.)

I think we are leaning towards the 4 liter F150 4x4 automatic now – if only because the F150 is the most numerous vehicle on the roads in the US and himself prefers to get used parts and do his own repairs. We’ll definitely go for that oil cooler mod. Any recommendations for suspension enhancements for towing?

For hauling
Generally, the older 4 cylinders are just geared too high to pull a load up a hill and maintain speed.

Most 6 cylinders do pretty well.