What is Flat Towing?
Flat towing, also called four-down or dinghy towing, simply means that the vehicle is towed with all four of its tires on the ground. A vehicle must be capable of flat towing, with the ability to unlock the steering wheel, and in some way disconnect the transmission.
A special tow bar must be used, and that requires mounting brackets on the vehicle. In some cases, a brake system can be added so that the vehicle's brakes can be activated by the tow vehicle's brakes, combining the stopping power of the two vehicles.
Whether you just retired and you're taking life on the road, or you purchased a motorhome for weekend adventures, you're probably going to want to bring along a smaller vehicle for daily trips. Big luxurious campers are great, with all of the comforts of home, but they are difficult to maneuver, hard to find parking for, and sometimes not allowed on certain roads.
Towing a smaller vehicle behind your motorhome means you don't have to unhook from power, water, and sewer connections each time you want to leave your RV site.
Flat towing is the most convenient way to bring along a "dinghy" vehicle because you don't need to also have a trailer. Only certain vehicles are capable of flat tow, and even those vehicles must be properly set up to do so.
Incorrect flat towing of your car can mean extensive damage to the powertrain, and in some cases, those failures can be so violent as to destroy other parts of the vehicle.
Why Flat Tow?
Flat towing eliminates the need to own a trailer and lowers the total weight of the tow rig. Aside from the initial expense of purchasing a tow-dolly or trailer, they also need maintenance, registration, in some cases insurance, and have to be stored when not in use. Disconnecting the tow bar is easier and quicker than loading and unloading a tow vehicle from a trailer.
What Vehicles Can be Flat Towed?
This is where things get complicated. As automatic transmission, continuously variable transmissions, and complicated AWD systems become more popular, fewer vehicles can be flat towed. Making it even more difficult, different trims, options, and model years of the same vehicle may be a great flat tow vehicle, while others are not capable of being towed. It is also important to know the towing capacity of your motorhome and pick a vehicle that falls below that number.
If a vehicle is a two-wheel drive with a manual transmission or a four-wheel-drive with a manual transfer case, there is a good chance it can be a flat tow vehicle. The only way to be sure is to check the vehicle's owner's manual and verify its ability to be a flat towed vehicle. The gear selector or shifter, key position, and transfer case selection needed for towing should also be spelled out in the manual.
Some vehicles that aren't factory rated for flat towing may be modified to allow it to be possible. This would include driveshaft disconnectors, and possibly aftermarket lubrication pumps to keep transmission parts from spinning or keep spinning parts lubricated without running the engine. This is the most complex, expensive, and risky route to flat tow, and it may be less hassle to get a trailer or tow a different vehicle.
Most Popular Flat Tow Vehicles
RVers are prolific as forum writers, and motorhome magazines delve deep into the topic of which vehicles make the best cars to be a dinghy for your big rig. We'll list some of the most popular vehicles in different categories and why they are so loved by the Class A community.
Compact cars are great for towing, because they are small and light, making it easier on your rig to tug them along. These three front-wheel-drive vehicles can be flat towed when properly set up. The discontinued Ford Fiesta and Ford Focus can be flat towed, and are great options for affordable and economical tow vehicles. The Chevrolet Spark can also be flat towed, and can still be purchased new. The Chevy Spark can only be dinghy towed when equipped with a manual transmission. The hatchback configuration means a little extra room for passengers and cargo, to shuttle you around at your destination.
Off-Road Tow Vehicles
The Jeep Wrangler is one of the most popular flat tow vehicles for RVers. Both new and used Wranglers can be flat towed in most configurations. The Jeep Wrangler is also lighter than many larger SUVs and is a great adventure vehicle if your RV trip involves off-roading. Two- and four-door configurations also offer flexibility for everyone from small families to retired couples or individuals.
The Wrangler's newest competitor on the market, the Ford Bronco, can also be flat towed. Both automatic and manual Broncos can be flat towed by following the instructions in the owner's manual. Notably absent are the Toyota 4runner and Land Cruiser, as no automatic transmission Toyota vehicle is capable of being flat towed, due to limitations on the lubrication system.
Crossover and SUV Tow Vehicles
Older versions of the Honda CR-V are popular tow vehicles mentioned on blogs and in magazines, but the owner's manual for the 2021 CR-V says that the vehicle is not designed to be towed behind a motorhome, and should only be towed by a professional as needed for an emergency. You will have to carefully select the year, trim, and equipment if you want to tow a Honda CR-V.
Jeep has another popular option for RVers, the more luxurious and street-oriented Grand Cherokee. Not all versions of the Jeep Grand Cherokee can be flat towed. It depends on the four-wheel-drive system the Grand Cherokee is equipped with, so be sure to check the owner's manual before buying a wrangler as your tow rig.
The Dodge Durango is related to the Grand Cherokee and can make a great tow vehicle for families needing a third row of seating. Rear-wheel-drive versions and some AWD Durangos can't be towed. Only AWD models equipped with the two-speed transfer case can be flat towed, so again consult the owner's manual before attempting to tow.
Flat Towable Trucks
The Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon are popular mid-sized trucks for towing. Like many vehicles, only the four-wheel-drive version with neutral and low options on the transfer case can be flat towed. These mid-sized trucks weigh slightly less than full-sized counterparts and are easier to park and maneuver if some of your destination driving includes busy cities. Four-wheel drive Rangers are also towable if you are a fan of the Blue Oval, wanting a mid-size tow vehicle.
Speaking of Ford, the Ford F-150 is the most popular truck in the United States, and it is also a popular tow vehicle. F-150 models equipped with four-wheel-drive can be flat towed by engaging the truck's Neutral Tow Mode. Even the venerable F-150 Raptor can be your flat tow vehicle. Weighing in at nearly 6,000 pounds, make sure your RV is capable of towing the hefty Raptor.
Flat Towing and Electric Cars
If you want to commute in the emission-free silence once you pull up to your camp spot, we have some bad news for you. There is currently no electric vehicle that can be flat towed on the market. Unfortunately, if you want to bring along your Tesla or Fiat 500e, you will not be able to flat tow. Electric vehicles available today can only be towed on a flatbed truck or trailer. If eco-friendly and flat towable are top priorities, you may be able to find a hybrid that you can tow. Some years and configurations of the Ford Escape hybrid SUV and hybrid Fusion sedan can be flat towed.
What Else Do You Need?
Now that you have selected a flat towable vehicle, you are going to need to make some minor modifications. The first thing you need to do is verify that your motorhome has the towing capacity to pull the dinghy vehicle you have selected. Next, your vehicle will need to have a base plate installed. The base plate is the attachment point for the tow bar. Next, you will need a tow bar. These range from simple to complex, some have integrated braking systems which can apply the brakes when the vehicle's inertia pushes against the bar. You may also choose to use a stand-alone braking system.
A brake-away kit is likely also required by law. This kit applies the brakes in the event that the towed vehicle becomes detached from the towing vehicle, hopefully stopping the vehicle before an accident or major damage occurs. A wiring harness to run the towed vehicle's lights is also required. You need taillights, brake lights, and turn signals to safely tow anything.
Lastly, before towing, ensure the vehicle is properly set up. Closely follow the instruction in the owner's manual to select the correct position for the transmission, transfer case, and key. This may seem confusing, as some vehicles will be towed with the transfer case in neutral, some in a specific range, and in some cases, the transmission may need to be left in park. The vehicle may also need to be run for a period of time before, during, or after towing to maintain proper lubrication.
Hopefully, this guide is helpful in selecting the best vehicle to tow behind your RV. It is worth saying again, the ultimate resource when towing a vehicle is the owner's manual. Severe damage to your vehicle may occur from improper towing, and it is not likely to be covered by your warranty. Here's to happy trails and safe towing the next time you hit the road.