Best SUV for Towing 1400kg


Hi John,

I came across your site recently while researching new medium-size SUVs, and I'm glad I did. So much interesting content, even when not specific to my situation. Your 2UE segment is hard to catch from Melbourne, but not impossible. (Needs a podcast.)

Anyway, I am looking to update my 2006 Nissan X-TRAIL. Great car but some of the newer available features and more comfort would be nice. Specific requirements are full-size spare (as some longer trips likely) and electric driver's seat with memory (it's a pain when we swap cars - other car is a Mazda CX-9 Luxury). Are there any more that you know of?

The ability to tow a 1400kg boat would be a plus, but the CX-9 does that with ease.

Warwick's shortlist, above (L-R): Subaru Outback, Nissan Murano, Hyundai Santa Fe, Mazda CX-5 and Honda CR-V

My take on these vehicles is as follows:

  • Subaru Outback 3.6R - larger car, worried about CVT on longer trips towing (up to 3-4 hours each way, and it's ugly)
  • Subaru Outback 2.5i - too big if it's not going to tow
  • Nissan Murano - expensive, and has a terribly uncomfortable back seat
  • Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander - expensive for what it is
  • Mazda CX-5 - fully featured if a little sluggish, plus it has a space-saver spare
  • Honda CR-V (with ADAS) - dated but proven drivetrain, but drives OK, all the parking aids, cameras, sensors etc are impressive

I take on board your reservations regarding Honda's shortcomings, but your comments seem generally to be that they are dated but not reliability deficient. As much as I hate to say it, there seems to be a lot to like in the Honda.

Am I crazy to consider the Honda (my wife likes it more than any other SUV except the Mazda CX-5) or am I missing something?

Regards, Warwick


Yes, you are crazy - certifiably insane - to consider the Honda. I’m an engineer. ‘Outdated’ doesn’t mean last year’s fashion. (It's not like: This year we like ‘orange’…) It means ‘the Honda CR-V fails to deliver in substantive ways, compared with more contemporary entrants, which have moved forward thanks to R&D investment and technological improvement’.

2015 Honda CR-V


You’re going to tow a moderately heavy load (not that heavy, but still a reasonable load).  Do you suppose it will be pleasant revving a CR-V to 7000rpm to extract the engine’s maximum power? The Mazda 2.5 petrol engine, for example, delivers the same peak power as the Honda, but at 5700rpm. That essentially means the Mazda 2.5 is producing substantially more torque at all revs. It does that because it uses newer engine technology (direct injection for Mazda versus the Honda’s shitbox multi-point injection from the 1990s).

Honda has a 2.2-litre diesel. So does Hyundai, in Santa Fe. The Hyundai Santa Fe 2.2 makes 25 per cent more peak torque at lower revs than the Honda’s outdated 2.2. It also produces 32 per cent more peak power, at lower revs. Power equals torque times revs (don’t try it at home; you need to multiply revs by a bunch of physical constants that make rpm dimensionless). So, what that tells me is that the Hyundai engine is producing about a third more power across the entire useable spectrum of revs. I know which one would tow the boat better. (Certainly not the Honda.)

In fact, when you look at the specific power outputs (peak power divided by capacity, an index of thermodynamic efficiency) or even better, the ‘brake mean effective pressure’ of modern engines, you see engines like the Hyundai-Kia 2.2, the Mazda 2.2, the new engines in Triton and the NP300 Navara, and the 1.6 in the new Renault Trafic, and you really see how badly Honda has dropped the ball. Or, more correctly, how Honda has failed to keep up with improvements by other brands.

In fact, Hyundai-Kia does substantially better with a 2.0-litre diesel in the ix35 (and Sportage) than Honda manages from its 2.2-litre diesel in CR-V. And the Honda has only a five-speed auto (because they haven’t invested in the development of a six-speed like most other manufacturers) and this ratio deficit will only serve to highlight the considerable torque deficiency in its engine. Again, CR-V is a real dud deal for towing.

Buying a CR-V is like buying an eight-year-old brand new car. And it only has a 1500kg tow capacity. (Santa Fe: 2000kg) It’s unclear from your e-mail whether your 1400kg figure is the GVM of the boat + trailer. If it’s just the unladen weight of the boat, then the CR-V can’t tow it.


2015 Mazda CX-5


On your comment that the Mazda CX-5 being "sluggish": It’s not, comparatively. It’s the same weight as a Honda CR-V, only the CX-5 comes with more powerful engines and a better transmission. And much more low-rpm power delivery.

This means the Mazda CX-5 cannot be comparatively sluggish (unless you drove 2.0-litre Mazda CX-5 against 2.4-litre Honda CR-V.

There’s a big and a small petrol engine in both vehicle ranges, and it’s always a good idea to drive an ‘apples for apples’ comparison).

Full 2015 Mazda CX-5 review >>

2015 Hyundai Santa Fe


On Santa Fe being "expensive": It’s not. It’s exceptionally good value, especially compared with a Honda CR-V. A Hyundai ix35 would be a more direct CR-V competitor though (Santa Fe is a seven-seater. CR-V is five. ix35 is five.)

Against measurable, objective criteria, a solid case could be put that a $45K range-topping Honda CR-V is a card-carrying shitbox compared with a $41k range-topping Hyundai ix35.

Just to clarify: ‘shitbox’ means the Hyundai ix35 would do most things that really matter, significantly better, basically.



Finally, on the memory seat thing: nice to have, but really, how hard is it to get the seat right? How often do you swap cars? (You’re talking to someone who drives different cars all the time.) Put the seat base in the right position to reach the pedals, and adjust the backrest rake. All you have to do is flick a few microswitches on the side of the seat, and electric motors do the heavy lifting. If it is a pain when you swap cars, trust me, it’s a very ‘first world’ pain. (Hardly landing on the beach at Gallipoli in the early 20th Century.) I’d be more concerned about warranty, service interval, spare tyre, and what powertrain is going to drag the boat effectively uphill. I'm funny like that...


Honda and Subaru have a six monthly service interval (Hyunda/Mazda: 12 months.) Honda has a three-year warranty. Hyundai: five years. This really is a no-brainer.

I don’t mean to be quite so dismissive of your assessment of Honda, but the facts are the facts, and I think you’ve missed the point. Reliability is not the only issue. Buying a Honda is like buying a standard definition TV when everyone else is watching HD. It’s impossible to make the positive case for the Honda - except if it were $10k cheaper. Sorry - this is not what you want to hear, I know.


Hi John,

Many thanks for your extensive reply. You don't mince words. OUCH!

This car will be used for extensive touring so I would think a full-size spare is a must. I thought it was one of your pet hates too.

You didn't make any comment on the Subaru, in particular the CVT. You seem to be a fan of the CVT in the WRX. Does that extend to the CVT in Outbacks? The sales guy (yes, I know) assures me that I can permanently tow 1800kg up hill and down dale for the entire warranty period/distance and all will be covered. So will choosing this restore my sanity?

(FYI: The North America owners manual reads like a liability waiver. "SUBARU warranties do not apply to vehicle damage or malfunction caused by trailer towing." So do they see a tow bar and wipe their hands of any drive train issues?

"Legacy - NEVER TOW ANYTHING." - Must be VERY different to the Liberty. Outback 3.6 - When towing a trailer with brakes. 3,000 lbs (1,360 kg) On a long uphill grade for over 5 miles (8 km) 104F (40C) or above - 1,500 lbs (680 kg) Towball 90kg max. Different factory I realise (Indiana) but same heritage. So that's my reason for seeking assurance.

To clarify some points I didn't make clear: Boat is around 1400kg all up, but I wouldn't attempt to use a car with under 1800kg tow limit. Except maybe a local trip to the ramp etc.

The CX-9 tows it like it isn't there, and would continue to do so if needed. If the new car won't tow it I'll replace the CX-9 with one that will when the time comes. I have excluded diesels as this car would not regularly get enough of a run to clear the DPF.

I felt the CX-5 was sluggish at low speeds unless pushed. Maybe ‘hesitant’ would be a better word. Maybe I should have just pushed down harder. It was the Akera 2.5. (Your Test DriveRule #1)

Regards, Warwick


I do hate space saver spares - especially for highway use. I agree wholeheartedly with your decision there (which is why I didn’t take you on over it). Mazda’s space-saver policy is a joke in Australia.


I can’t make an educated comment about the longevity of CVT in Subaru, or for towing generally. There’s no evidence of unreliability that I am aware of. (Nissan has had a horror run, however, with Renault-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn blasting 75%-Nissan-owned Jatco for building a tsunami of unreliable CVTs. Google the keywords there, if you like. It certainly made the news.) The US Subaru position is interesting, however. I'd need to know more about the specs and regulatory regime in the US before passing judgement on that. Certainly Subaru in Australia wouldn't make a rod for its own back by courting a spate of failures spurred on by getting the tow specification wrong. There might be key differences between the products sold here, and those in sold in North America.

I like how the CVT drives in the Subaru WRX - they’ve done a great job with the software to deliver a (non-CVT-like) engaging drive experience. But I don’t know about its longevity (I don’t think anyone does, yet). CVT in Outback drives quite well - I had one for a week recently (2.5i Premium). Longevity: unknown. The sales guy will say anything to secure your deposit, obviously. I’m not aware of any specific differences between North American spec and Australian, or perhaps the Americans are being ultra-conservative (or anti-litigious).


You said below the vehicle would be used for extensive touring. You also said the vehicle wouldn’t get enough of a run to clear the DPF. These statements aren’t mutually exclusive, but they’re close. If extensive touring means four times a year, then you need to realise that the minimun for DPF operation is 20 minutes of 80km/h every three weeks. When you’re not off extensively touring.

More information in my petrol versus diesel report >>

So we’re basically talking about a run on the highway once every three weeks. This is a small price to pay for three or four times the power of a 2.5-litre petrol engine at 2000rpm. And anyway, the Hyundai Santa Fe doesn’t have a DPF and its diesel has (about) the same brake mean effective pressure as the Mazda 2.2-litre diesel - so it’s very thermodynamically efficient. In practice if the DPF in the Mazda CX-5 becomes partly backed up, the engine check light comes on, and you either go for a half-hour drive on the freeway, or you drive to the dealership and they manually regenerate the filter. (And Santa Fe doesn’t have one - so the regular running on the highway caveat is a non-issue for the Santa Fe.)


I’m going to make some more comments on your short-list:

  • Nissan Murano - CVT. (even worse: Nissan CVT.) Maximum tow capacity: 1500kg. It’s a scratching on both these criteria. (At least it has a full-sized spare)
  • Mazda CX-5: Space saver. It’s a scratching, based upon your 'no space saver' criterion, despite good petrol- and diesel-engine performance.
  • Honda CR-V: Joke (as discussed). Plus it has only a 1500kg tow capacity.
  • Petrol Hyundai Santa Fe: You can’t get a petrol Highlander or Elite (why would you even want one???). I'm not convinced that petrol engine is a winner in Santa Fe Active - quite the opposite. The Santa Fe Elite is almost the same as the Santa Fe Highlander. All it misses out on are the big glass roof, the automated reverse parking system, and it has 18-inch alloys instead of 19-inch alloys - for $5000 less. It’ll tow 2000kg with a 100kg ball load std, and 150kg with the genuine load assist kit, plus it comes with five years’ warranty (which the others don’t) and 10 years of roadside assist, and a full-sized alloy spare, and capped price servicing for life. (Is it any wonder they’re number three in the market for passenger vehicles?)
2015 Hyundai Santa Fe


The Hyundai Santa Fe will certainly out-perform the Mazda CX-9 as a tow platform. Mazda CX-9 makes about the same power as Hyundai Santa Fe at 4000rpm (when was the last time you revved yours to 6250 - where its peak power occurs?). In practice, Hyundai Santa Fe makes a lot more torque (two to three times more) than a Mazda CX-9 at 2000rpm.

In my view there’s a pretty clear choice here. It’s the Hyundai Santa Fe by a mile. The Santa Fe Elite is in the pricing ballpark of the Subaru Outback/Nissan Murano, and it’s a lot cheaper than a Mazda CX-9.

My broker can save you substantially on the recommended drive-away price if interested. Please let me know. (He won’t care what you buy. I’m the one who wants to see you in the right vehicle for the job at hand.) Click the red link below to enquire about that.