Buying a decent tow vehicle doesn’t automatically mean you have to sell your house. There are plenty of good tow vehicles that will allow you to lap Australia with your van behind several times over, reliably and in comfort.
After a few arguments in the Caravan World office, we’ve settled on a list of our favourite tow vehicles that we think will provide an enjoyable caravanning experience while providing the best the market has to offer for reliability and towing performance. We chose a mix of vehicles that have good towing capacity, but not just because they can tow a full-size offroad 24-footer loaded to the gunwales.
Our list is mostly of 4WDs because they usually provide better towing capacity and performance, with the side benefit of being able to get to out-of-the way locations. We included one rear-wheel-drive car-based wagon – the Ford Falcon – because it is a very good tow tug and amazing value buying for $10,000.
1996-98 TOYOTA LANDCRUISER GXL 4.5P
The LandCruiser is the gold standard 4WD for many buying a used tow tug and it’s not too hard to see why. A powerful, torque-laden and smooth engine, comfy and spacious interior and a lush ride tied to great towing performance out of the box makes a compelling argument for this Toyota.
The 80 Series arrived in 1990 to replace the 60 Series and was a big step forward for Toyota’s offroad wagon, responding to the shift in buyers’ needs from a heavy-duty offroad work wagon to a family wagon used offroad. While it had improvements such as an all-coil live-axle suspension, full-time 4WD and three-row seating, it continued with the inefficient OHV 3F-E petrol six until 1994.
In 1994, the 4.5L 1FZ-FE was introduced, bringing a much more sophisticated level of technology for the big petrol six-cylinder: four valves per cylinder, twin overhead cams and aluminium cylinder head. In 1995, the dash was changed and in late 1996, the towing capacity was increased from 2500kg to 3500kg.
The LandCruiser diesel is still well over our $10K limit, so we’re looking at the 1FZ-FE twin-cam multi-valve petrol version here. LPG is a common fitment on these vehicles and reduces running costs significantly, although it increases fuel consumption and obtaining the fuel can be difficult and expensive in remote areas.
The GXL auto was the most popular model. It came with a 158kW 4.5L engine, a four-speed auto and full-time 4WD with lockable centre diff.
The 1FZ-FE is a strong motor and quite fuel-efficient when used for easy solo touring. Average consumption of around 14L/100km is possible but when towing you can expect a figure of 20-plus L/100km.
The eight-seat interior is spacious and comfortable and tends to still look good today if taken care of. The horizontal split tailgate is great for using as a picnic table, but does hinder access to gear stored towards the front of the cargo area. The side-folding third-row seats impede on cargo space.
The LandCruiser is not a particularly responsive vehicle; its steering is light and vague and it has lashings of bodyroll and understeer when pushed. Yet it is one of the most lush-riding vehicles in its class out on bush tracks. It’s no sports car, but it is a great touring vehicle. Offroad, the side steps and long rear overhang scrapes on undulating tracks, but otherwise the Cruiser is a strong and competent offroader.
As a tow vehicle, the LandCruiser petrol can get thirsty but takes on the weight of a caravan very well, with ample performance and good stability.
Not much goes wrong with the super-reliable Toyota if the owner or owners have given half a thought to maintenance. The front diff can be weak if driven hard offroad and the third window pillar has been known to develop cracks.
But for $10,000 or less, you will find a 1996-98 GXL with around 250,000-350,000km on the clock, in good condition and with plenty of life left in it. These are quality vehicles that will last a long time if looked after.
SPECIFICATIONS: TOYOTA LANDCRUISER 80 SERIES GXL
Kerb weight 2163kg
Fuel consumption (average) 14L/100km (solo); 20L/100km (towing)
Towing 3500kg/350kg (later models)
1995-1998 GQ NISSAN PATROL
Solid as an axe, the Patrol is the counterpoint to the LandCruiser and, like the Toyota, will see well over half a million kilometres before lying down to die.
The GQ Patrol arrived in 1988 with all-coil suspension for the first time on a Japanese 4WD wagon. This was the period when 4WD wagons were becoming less utilitarian and more family-friendly vehicles, although the Patrol wasn’t exactly what we would now call a soft roader – it had a separate chassis, live axles and dual-range part-time 4WD.
The best of the GQ Patrols was the 4.2L turbodiesel. It had plenty of power, a strong transmission and, like most Patrols, a more engaging drive than the LandCruiser 80 Series. While a four-speed auto was available, the five-speed manual was the better choice for its direct shifts and better gearing for slow offroad work.
Even though the Patrol arrived only a few years before the LandCruiser 80 Series, it was quite a bit narrower inside and felt behind the Toyota in presentation and fitout. Like the LandCruiser, the Patrol had three rows of seats but was a seven seater, not eight. The barn-door tailgate and tailgate-mounted spare were also considered old school features very soon after the Patrol was released.
All that didn’t stop the Patrol being a solid, tough tow vehicle and offroad tourer, though. Built like a brick outhouse, the old GQ may not be fancy but it has rounded up many a fancied competitor just based on its almost unburstable powertrain and body.
Over the years, the Patrol has shown a remarkably clean record for extra-curricular repairs. A few problems have shown up, such as chassis cracking around the steering box, which suggests heavy offroad use, seizing rear brake calipers and rusty rear window frames.
There are not too many GQ Patrols around for sale, so you have to cast your net widely over the model’s years. At this price point, you’ll be sliding into a 1990-1996 Patrol ST 4.2 manual with around 250,000km on the clock. Although that sounds like a lot of kays, like the LandCruiser, that mileage represents not even half of a well-maintained Patrol’s lifecycle.
SPECIFICATIONS: GQ Nissan Patrol
Kerb weight 2100kg
Fuel consumption (average) 12L/100km (solo); 15.5L/100km (towing)
1997-2000 XJ JEEP CHEROKEE
Not all used Jeeps come highly recommended, but one that can’t be ignored is the XJ Cherokee. For bang for your buck and overall towing and touring ability, this is one heck of a truck.
Although a turbodiesel with five-speed manual and part-time 4WD was available from the 1997 update, you really want to be smart with the spanners to keep it fettled. The diesel only had a 1400kg towing capacity, too. The much better choice is the 4L 136kW OHV inline petrol six with four-speed auto and full-time 4WD.
The XJ Cherokee was well-and-truly an old model before it arrived in Australia in 1994; the basic shape had been on sale in the US for 10 years by then. Yet it was one of the first-ever 4WDs to have a car-like unitary body, and it also had an advanced full-time/part-time 4WD system
The model we’re looking at here is the facelift XJ Series, which arrived in 1997. It features a new nose and tail and a fresh interior. There were several other changes under the skin but the basics of the powertrain remained mostly unchanged through the years it was available in Australia.
The XJ wasn’t rated as one of the better vehicles of its time. Its interior packaging wasn’t great, its brakes were pretty ordinary and fit and finish wasn’t quite what you’d expect after dropping $40K to buy one new.
The Cherokee has matured with age, though. It might’ve been a bit basic and seemed old-tech when new, but as a used vehicle, its old-school simplicity makes it a better vehicle to maintain than most.
Even though the XJ Cherokee went on into 2001, the 2001 model-year had a different cylinder head that after time can be prone to cracking and allowing coolant to leak into cylinders. Not all ’01s do this, but anything built from August 2000 is a ’01 model and you should be aware of this potential problem area.
Otherwise, the big old AMC-derived 4L is simple, cheap to fix and just about bullet-proof. Its sensors will become faulty – especially the crank angle sensor – around the 150,000km mark, and for towing the biggest problem the 4.0 has is overheating. Even when new, towing or hard-core offroading would send the temperature needle into the red. The way around it appears to be checking that the cooling system is in top shape – the belt-driven fan’s viscous coupling is a regular culprit – and installing a copper/brass radiator and an override switch for the thermo fan (to switch it on manually if temperature rises).
A bigger external transmission cooler should be fitted for towing, and cracking exhaust manifolds, brittle heater taps and failed headlight switches can also be problems with the Cherokee.
If you stay away from official dealer parts counters, the XJ can be incredibly cheap to maintain. Parts from wreckers, local aftermarket suppliers or US-based suppliers are freely available, and can make Falcon or Commodore parts seem expensive.
You’ll pay around $7000 for a 1997-2000 model Classic or Limited with around 100,000km and have more than enough money left over for all the accessories and maintenance improvements you’ll need.
SPECIFICATIONS: XJ Jeep Cherokee
Kerb weight 1634kg
Fuel consumption (average) 12L/100km (solo); 16L/100km (towing)
1999 LAND ROVER DISCOVERY II TD5
Even though Land Rover was known as the farmer’s favourite early in its history, by the late 1990s the brand was already on its march upmarket.
With the addition of a renewed interior, exterior, and features such as traction control, self-levelling rear suspension and active cornering control, (and no centre diff-lock operation), the Disco was becoming more like a luxury vehicle than a simple offroad wagon. The Discovery II’s longer tail section meant it could have forward-facing third-row seats instead of the centre-facing seats of the Discovery I.
The Discovery II was also given a pull-through in the engine compartment – a newer version of the 4L all-alloy V8 (with new inlet runners) was offered as well as an all-new Td5 turbodiesel.
The seven-seat model had air spring self-levelling rear suspension, while the five-seater had coils (some came optioned with air suspension).
The DII has had a few problems but most will have been sorted by now, or owners have found cheap fixes where, once, it was very expensive.
A DII with a service history is a must and, better still, have a Land Rover specialist inspect it. Oil in the injector wiring loom is a main diesel complaint, as is broken studs on the exhaust manifold. Uni joint failure in the front propshaft, weak second-gear synchromesh, ABS sensor or ABS block failure are other possible problems and engine oil leaks are common.
Expect to pay about $8000 for a tired, early DII Td5 with 250,000km-plus, but with $10k you can afford a tidy 1999-2001 model with as few as 160,000km.
SPECIFICATIONS: Land Rover Discovery II Td5
Kerb weight 2017kg
Fuel consumption (average) 10L/100km (solo); 14.5L/100km (towing)
2008 BFIII FORD FALCON XT WAGON
If you want the freshest metal for your tow vehicle money, then the Ford Falcon wagon is the best-value passenger-based towing rig that money can buy.
The Falcon’s rear-wheel drive and leaf-spring live axle rear suspension are both advantages for towing. The Falcon also has about the best towing capacity of any car-based passenger vehicle. The Ford’s 2300kg maximum is enough to tow a modern 19-20ft tandem, and the big Ford will do it with ease.
The BFIII Series is loosely based on the 1998 AU Falcon, which was significantly revised for the 2002 BA Series. The BF is a tweaked version of the BA. The Falcon wagon had the basics covered in terms of features: air-conditioning, single CD/radio, four-speed auto, traction control and power windows and mirrors.
The Falcon’s running costs – aside from fuel – are low as there is a plentiful supply of parts and the simple mechanics mean servicing won’t be too expensive.
Differential noise and driveline backlash is a common complaint, the four-speed auto can fail up near the 200,000km mark and front disc rotors are prone to warping from new. Other than that, the BF (especially early ones) have suffered their fair share of teething problems, ranging from coolant leaks to electrical problems, but given the oldest car is now seven years old, most errant cars should’ve been repaired by now.
A BFIII Falcon 4L petrol six-cylinder will consume about 9-10L/100km during easy highway driving when not towing and up to 16L/100km in stop-start traffic. When towing, around 14-16L/100km is typical.
The only downside with towing with a Falcon is that Ford disallows speeds of greater than 75-80km/h at the maximum towing capacity of 2300kg. Ford also says you have to use load levellers.
There was a LPG-only model Falcon wagon, too, but they mean less cargo space as the spare tyre was fitted in the cargo area. Fuel consumption is up by about 30 per cent.
Expect to pay as little as $8000 for a high-kilometre BFIII wagon at auction, but for a good BFIII wagon with less than 120,000km, you should really budget for a $10,000 spend.
SPECIFICATIONS: BFIII FORD FALCON XT
Kerb weight 1684kg
Fuel consumption (average) 12L/100km (solo); 15L/100km (towing)
THE RUBY CRUISER: MAX TAYLOR’S LANDCRUISER GXL
I haven’t towed so much as a box trailer with it yet – heck, it’s not even registered – but my just-purchased 1994 LandCruiser GXL, Ruby to you and I, is a beauty. With around 237,000km on the odometer, there’s plenty of shine left in this old gem.
She needs new shockers, new discs, and a few other bits and pieces, but considering I picked her up for around $8000, I’m pretty happy. Ruby’s bodywork is immaculate for a truck that’s pushing 20, and her interior is sensational. My wife insisted on some seat covers but, underneath, the cloth trim is in terrific condition – save for a small cigarette burn in the rear seat. Speaking of which, it’ll be months before I get the smoke-smell out of her. She really does reek.
The 1FZ-FE engine is a pearler, too, though mine is idling quite high – one of the issues on my to-do list – and the auto transmission is faultless. Since she’s unregistered, I can’t report yet on her fuel economy (she also runs on gas), but I don’t have unrealistic expectations.
Stay tuned: I’ll have plenty more to say about Ruby in future issues as I get her back on the road. Meanwhile, does anyone happen to have a spare electric window regulator for the front right-hand door of this model? Mine’s gone kaput. – Max Taylor, editor
BIG CHIEF: PHIL LORD’S XJ
When you test vehicles for a living, it is really hard to recommend one. “What should I buy?” is a question I have been asked a million times over the 20 years I have been testing vehicles.
When I started testing 4WDs, the XJ Jeep Cherokee had just been released in Australia. It was 1994, a good 10 years after the vehicle had been released on its own turf, and here I was, a fresh-faced new 4WD writer given an XJ Cherokee to look after for 12 months as a long-term tester.
I loved that Jeep. It was suitably retro; as an HQ-WB Holden man, this thing was right up my alley. For a 4WD of its time, it went like stink, handled well and could be knocked around offroad with the best of them.
Fast forward 20 years and I have just bought an XJ. A 2001 model, and I love it. It is probably the only recent-model Jeep I would buy; simple, cheap to maintain and not too harsh on the fuel for a big 4L petrol six. Yes, the cooling system and various sensors need money thrown at them, but sort these small issues out and you’re set. – Phil Lord
Originally published in Caravan World #514, May 2013.