Weighing the Concerns of Towing a Camper

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Sep 27, 2016

Dear Car Talk:

I have a 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid. Two years ago, when contemplating purchasing an 800-pound camper-trailer rigged with a tent, I first checked my owner's manual. Toyota's official line is: "We do not recommend towing with this vehicle." Then I followed up with direct queries at my dealership and with the trailer manufacturer. Toyota stuck to the corporate line, but the trailer manufacturer said it had an employee who, in spite of a similar owner's manual statement, had been towing the same trailer for quite some time with a Prius.

So then I followed up with some web research, as well as with my car-savvy and mechanical genius friends. The consensus was that many people tow light-weight rigs with the Camry Hybrid and Prius, and perhaps Toyota sticks to the party line simply to protect the company under its warranty terms. My car was out of warranty at the time, so I had a hitch installed by U-Haul, bought the trailer, and have towed it over the Appalachians and elsewhere. The only thing I've noticed is that my mileage drops a few mpg when I tow the camper. My car is regularly maintained by the dealership where I purchased it, and not a single service manager has commented on the fact that a hitch is now on the car. What is your take on this? I am planning a six-week trip with the car and camper soon.

-- Leonard

Well, I'll start by stipulating that Toyota knows a lot more about this car than I do. Of course, that's also true of most third-graders. But I suspect Toyota has some legitimate concerns that are unique to its Hybrid Synergy Drive.

And had you towed this trailer under warranty and made a drive-train-related claim, Toyota would have been well within its rights to deny your claim. But since you're well out of warranty, Leonard, I'll consider myself off the hook, too. And hey, it's not my car, so go for it, Len. What makes me think you'll be able to get away with it is that the weight is relatively light. The 2007 Camry Hybrid is sold as a five-passenger vehicle. So if you have five people in the car, and two of them are mothers-in-law, you'd already be over 800 pounds.

You'll certainly use the gasoline engine more, which contributes to your lower mileage. But the same thing that applies to all cars applies to your Camry Hybrid: When you make the car work harder, you do shorten the life of its parts.

And by adding weight -- whether it's a camping trailer or your in-laws -- you're making the engine and the electric motor work harder. What effect that will have on the longevity of the car is hard to say. Maybe instead of 200,000 miles, you'll get 180,000 out of it? Who knows, exactly? So I would suggest that you take the same precautions that I'd recommend to any car owner who is pushing the limits of his or her vehicle: First, overdo it as little as possible. You're already carrying around an 800-pound trailer that the manufacturer recommends against. So don't throw your entire college Frank Zappa record collection in there, too (including your eight copies of "Peaches and Regalia"). Don't collect samples of igneous rock on your trip and try to lug them home. And don't take both mothers-in-law with you. Be reasonable.

And the same goes for your speed. Because the trailer not only adds weight but also adds a lot of wind resistance, take it very easy at highway speeds. Go 55, not 85. Leave plenty of room between you and the cars in front of you, because extra weight also affects your braking distances.

And while I'm not aware of any routine maintenance you can do for the electric propulsion system, you certainly can change the motor oil in the gasoline engine before and after your travels, or every 3,000 miles while you're on the road. These are things I'd recommend for anyone putting an extra load on his or her car. And I recommend them to you.

Besides, I know you're going to tow your trailer anyway, whether I say it's a good idea or not. So I hope to at least persuade you to be as gentle on the car as possible. Good luck, Leonard, and happy travels.

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