How much weight can I tow with my Volvo?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Oct 01, 2001

Dear Tom and Ray:

I'm planning to take a trip. The only thing holding me back is that I can't get a straight answer about how much weight my car can handle while towing. Please help me find out if I will be having the time of my life, or if I will be rolling backward down the Cascade mountains!

I own a 1991 Volvo 240. I am interested in a trailer that will weigh 3,000 pounds by the time my gear is included. The owner's manual says the car can tow 3,300 pounds, yet the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating on the side of the car door says it can handle 4,030. Does this mean I can only handle 700 pounds more than the trailer, or is the tow weight different from the GVWR? Is towing a trailer on the Volvo asking for trouble or just lots of fun? -- Jocelyn

TOM: Well, I think this is a pretty lousy idea, Jocelyn, but let's start by sorting out the terms.

RAY: The towing capacity and the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating are two different things. The GVWR is the total amount of weight you can rest on those tires, including the weight of the car itself, your passengers, their cargo and the tongue weight of the trailer.

TOM: The tongue weight of the trailer is the vertical weight with which the trailer pushes down on your rear bumper or towing hitch.

RAY: So, since this car itself weighs about 3,000 pounds and your GVWR is about 4,000 pounds, you can, for example, carry two mothers-in-law. Or one mother in law, 400 pounds of her luggage and a trailer with a 100-pound tongue weight for the rest of her stuff.

TOM: Then there's towing capacity. Towing capacity is how much the car can safely PULL without either croaking the engine, frying the brakes, getting pushed off the road or pulling the chassis off the frame.

RAY: So you still need several pieces of key information, Jocelyn. You need to know the tongue weight of the trailer. And then you'd need to be sure that the tongue weight plus any passengers and cargo you're planning to carry IN the Volvo don't push you over your GVWR.

TOM: And then, finally, you need to call your Volvo dealer and ask how much it will cost to rebuild your transmission ... and get towed in from the Cascade mountains. And make sure you have that much room on your credit card.

RAY: The Volvo can, theoretically, tow 3,300 pounds. But if you're towing almost that much up and down mountains, you're really taking a serious risk. Not only are you risking the key components of your car -- the engine, transmission and brakes -- but you're also risking your life. I'm assuming you're not a trailer-towing expert. And to start with a trailer that's pushing the very limits of your car's ability on, of all things, mountain roads, is kind of foolish. Don't you think, Jocelyn?

TOM: So I'd recommend that you throw a tent and a camping stove in the back of your Volvo and rough it. But if you absolutely must do this, look into renting a tow vehicle (a truck or SUV) with a much higher towing capacity. And get some instruction and some practice in before you hit the mountains, OK, Jocelyn?

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