Data Sheet

#24 Choosing a tow car - which transmission for towing?

#24 #24 Choosing a tow car - which transmission for towing?

WEB Subaru Forester XT with Lineartronic

Transmission options - manual or automatic which is better for towing?

There are pros and cons to manual, automatic and semi-automatic gearboxes when towing. Let this guide help you choose. Benefit from free tow-matching when you join the Club.

One of the most important decisions to make when choosing a tow car is the type of gearbox. Provided you have well-matched car and caravan (see the Matching Car and Caravan Data Sheet at, and decided whether a petrol, diesel or hybrid engine best suits your needs (see the Which Fuel? Data Sheet), choosing between a manual and automatic transmission is probably next on your to-do list.

The choice you make may alter the car's kerbweight, legal towing limit and noseweight limit. Fuel economy will be affected, too, as will the ease with which you can start a car on a hill. In some cases, your choice of gearbox could mean it is wise to check with the dealer whether any additional cooling is required while towing to avoid overheating.

With some vehicles, the decision making does not end with the gearbox. It may be that your chosen tow car is available in two-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive versions, in which case you will need to decide which suits your needs. Four-wheel drive may seem the obvious choice for towing a caravan or trailer, but the reality is not necessarily so straightforward.

Why choose a manual gearbox for towing?

The majority of new cars come with manual gearboxes. An automatic - if one is available - will usually be an extra, costing around £1,500.

So, a manual gearbox has the advantage of being cheaper to buy.  As a rule, it is usually cheaper to run, too, with better fuel economy than an automatic version. For example, a 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe 2.2 CRDI seven-seater returns 46.3mpg on the combined cycle, according to the official figures. The automatic achieves 41.5mpg. That is enough to make a difference of £131.85 for every 10,000 miles driven (based on a diesel price of 116.1p per litre), on top of the £1,545 difference in the purchase price.

As well as being more fuel-efficient, cars with a manual gearbox usually emit less carbon dioxide (CO2) than autos. In the Hyundai's case, the manual is given as 159g/km, putting the car in Band G for Vehicle Excise Duty (VED). The auto emits 178g/km, a difference that pushes the car up to Band I for VED. That means a £45 increase in the annual standard rate at 2014/15 prices.

There are sound reasons to prefer the way a manual drives, too. It gives the driver direct control over the gearbox, so he or she can always select the appropriate ratio at the bottom of a hill or before overtaking. This control over gear selection also means drivers can use engine braking to control the outfit-s speed when towing downhill.

Some automatics hunt around between ratios when towing, which can be annoying. With a manual gearbox, the driver is always in charge so this cannot happen.