2016 Jeep® Grand Cherokee SRT

BUYER’S GUIDE: Best SUVs for Towing a Boat

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While towing boats may largely be thought of as a “truck job,” many SUVs will handle the job just fine, while providing the benefit of keeping your cargo clean and dry.

In fact, compared to some pickups, certain SUVs may do a better job towing. It is all in which one you choose. Here is what you need to know.

Many choices in SUVs

Before we dive into specific SUVs, it is worth stating the choices these days are plentiful.

There are large SUVs like the Chevy Suburban, a range of mid-size SUVs like the Dodge Durango and a variety of small SUVs like the Honda CR-V which will all tow a boat (depending on the size of the watercraft).

Also, there is a slew of different powertrains like turbocharged gas engines, turbocharged diesel engines, hybrids and large V8 engines like those found in full-size trucks. Each of these engine choices has pros and cons, depending on your needs.

Finally, SUVs come in either the body-on-frame variety (think truck-based platform) or a uni-body platform (think car-based platform). These choices break down pretty simply with the body-on-frame SUVs towing better than the unibody ones, however, the uni-body SUVs offer a smoother ride than a body-on-frame.

Full-sized SUVs

Starting with the largest SUVs, this group of models is dominated by the Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Chevy Suburban offerings.

Each of these SUVs is a body-on-frame vehicle with a large V8 engine. Standard on most of these vehicles is GM’s 5.3-liter EcoTech V8. These SUVs have been around for decades and these days feature a lot of interior upgrades for comfort and technology for families on road trips like 4G LTE Wi-Fi. You could even go really luxurious with the Cadillac Escalade, which is basically the highest trim level of a Chevy Tahoe.

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Besides GM, other models come to mind like the Ford Expedition and Excursion, Toyota Sequoia and Nissan Armada. There is also luxury models in the form of the Lincoln Navigator, Lexus LX 570 and Infiniti QX80.

All of these models, like the GM offerings previously mentioned, are body-on-frame vehicles with large V8 engines.

The 2015 Lincoln Navigator has won the Vincentric Best Value in America™ award for Premium Large SUV. Lincoln Navigator offers best-in-class towing capacity of 9,000 pounds, when properly equipped.

Towing capacity for many of these models tops out at 7,000 pounds, and fuel economy ends up around 20 mpg overall.

Buying one of these models is all about space, comfort and towing a boat or camper for the weekend. If you are looking for a fuel efficient SUV, it is better to look at a smaller model.

Mid-sized SUVs

Next up for SUVs are the mid-size variety with a range of differences. In this class, you will find body-on-frame and unibody construction, along with a variety of engines and a choice of two or three rows of seats. 

A good example of the differences can be seen between the Toyota Highlander and Toyota 4Runner. Both of these SUVs are about the same size, yet that is where the similarities end.

The Highlander has a unibody, and it offers the choice of a hybrid and a third row. For the hybrid, towing capacity tops out at a only 3,500 pounds, while fuel economy hits 28 mpg highway.

On the other hand, the 4Runner can tow up to 5,000 pounds, while fuel economy drops to 22 MPG highway.

That 1,500-pound difference can be quite significant for those wanting to tow a boat or a camper, since the maximum towing capacity is reduced with the amount of cargo and people you have in the vehicle. In other words, seating seven in a hybrid Highlander with camping bags and suitcases pretty much means you can’t tow a boat, since you have used up all your towing capacity on payload.

2016 Jeep® Grand Cherokee SRT

Consider also the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Among the Grand Cherokee’s engine options, the best one for towing is the 3.0-liter diesel V6 engine mated to a eight-speed automatic transmission.

The diesel has a massive 420 lb-ft of torque – which is akin to that of a full-size truck –  while returning 30 MPG highway for the Grand Cherokee’s two-wheel drive models.


The Ford Explorer is another possibility, with its 3.5-liter EcoBoost turbocharged V6 gas engine rated for 5,000 pounds of towing while returning a high of 28 mpg highway fuel economy.

Compact SUVs

Finally, compact SUVs, or crossovers as they’re also called, are the smallest offering among SUVs. While many don’t come equipped with a receiver for towing, third-party towing receivers can be installed.

Compact SUVs include the Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4. While not known for their towing capacity, these models can tow a smaller, fiberglass boats relatively easily.

In fact, if you need a thrifty commuter with towing capacity for weekend trips, then a compact SUV might be just the ticket.

2015 Honda CR-V.The top selling Honda CR-V – it’s the favorite in its segment among Milennials – returns fuel economy of 33 mpg highway, and it can  tow upwards of 1,500 pounds when properly equipped.

The CR-V’s tow rating may not seem like much, but many pop-up campers, small boats and tear-drop campers fit into its capacity.


For a bit more fun behind the wheel, you’d look to the Ford Escape and its turbocharged EcoBoost engines, which come in two sizes, 1.5 liters and 2.0 liters. Towing capacity on the 1.5-liter is 2,000 pounds, and 3,500 pounds with the 2.0-liter.

Fuel economy differences between these Escape engines are small, with the 1.5-liter topping out at 30 mpg EPA highway.  The 2.0-liter is just one mpg less in all its EPA ratings.

Also check out the Toyota RAV4. Like the CR-V, the RAV4 tops out at 1,500 pounds of towing capacity and returns 31 mpg EPA highway. 

Whether you go large, medium or small, towing a boat with an SUV is a good option for many families. Not only can you lock up your cargo at night, your items will stay dry from any passing storm system.

Just make sure you buy the right tool for the job, and get the SUV that fits all of your towing and family needs.

Tim Esterdahl

Tim Esterdahl

Hailing from Western Nebraska, Tim has covered the automotive industry for many years. He has written for a variety of outlets including Truck Trend, Pickuptrucks.com, Tundraheadquarters.com and others. He is a married father of three and an avid golfer.