Best small cars under $20,000
The good news is, while your money might be buying you a smaller car, it will...
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It’s generally agreed that, when it comes to towing, the bigger, heavier the car doing that job, the better.
Which is fine if you’re a regular tower of a three-tonne caravan, but what about the car owner who only needs to tow a box trailer to the tip now and then or even a small camper trailer at holiday time?
To be honest, most vehicles that fall into the official government (VFacts) definition of small, really aren’t up to the job of towing at all. They’re simply lacking the footprint, engine performance and kerb mass to tow safely and competently.
You really need to look at the mid-sized SUV class for vehicles that can, indeed, perform towing duties, so that’s what we’ve attempted to highlight here. Small, compact, mid-sized, the name is up to you, but these are the SUVs that make any sort of sense with a tow-bar fitted.
Given this is our call on the best compact SUV for towing, we should lay down some general attributes before we get into specific vehicles: What are the general ground-rules for a family SUV that can cope with a bit of towing now and then?
To start with, the preferred powerplant for this sort of work is – for many families – the turbo-diesel option.
Plenty of carmakers offer both petrol and diesel power for their SUVs right now, so there’s lots of choice. While a good (preferably large-capacity) petrol engine will also do the job, the effortless torque of a turbo-diesel is a great way to get a towed load moving from the lights.
The fuel economy advantage of diesel is magnified once you hitch up a trailer, as well. That said, modern, turbocharged petrol engines have never been so good and lack the potential DPF issues involved in mainly urban running. So we won’t rule out a really good petrol engine, either.
In the transmission department, again there’s a clear favourite. While manual transmissions are now increasingly rare in this market segment, neither are they perfect for towing.
A two-pedal car is much easier to get moving smoothly with less wear and tear on the driveline, and reversing a trailer is a lot easier with an automatic gearbox doing some of the thinking for you.
Within that, however, there are other considerations. Broadly (and we mean very broadly) the preferred form of automatic gearbox is the original, conventional torque-converter type.
While dual-clutch and CVT transmissions offer the same simplicity of operation, those who tow for a living agree that they don’t have the durability of a torque-converter transmission when the chips are down and you’re towing in hilly country or at highway speeds into a stiff headwind.
It’s not a hard and fast rule, but a general guide and one we’ll stick to here as a means of erring on the side of reliability.
Again, this isn’t for everyone, but in terms of a car for towing duties, the extra grip of all-wheel drive equals greater stability at speed when towing, and better grip at all velocities, especially on a wet grass surface at a caravan park or a slippery camping ground.
The extra mass of the all-wheel drive system doesn’t hurt in a towing sense, either. So, again, we’ll restrict our choices to vehicles that offer that platform.
The good news is that carmakers tend to package up all-wheel drive and a turbo-diesel engine fairly commonly. The downside is that these variants of a particular car tend to be the more expensive ones, but you will get a better standard of convenience, comfort and safety features as part of the deal, so there’s a pay-off.
We’ve also stuck to relatively new vehicles as these offer by far the best safety features a family needs. Which means there’s nothing under $10K here, but plenty between there and $30K. And, in no particular order, here are our top five picks.
South Korea’s carmakers are rightly famous for the reliability and durability of their small-capacity turbo-diesel engines. Such powerplants have been a staple of manufacturers like Kia for decades, and it shows.
The current shape Sportage was facelifted in 2018 and with that came a new eight-speed automatic transmission for the turbo-diesel model.
There’s nothing wrong with the older six-speed automatic, but the newer transmission will be more frugal. Either version has a braked towing limit of a handy 1900kg.
All turbo-diesel versions of the Sportage in question featured all-wheel drive, but the good news is that you can get that driveline even in the entry-level model.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for the Kia is that any of the Sportage models we’re talking about here should still have at least a sliver of the factory seven-year warranty remaining, provided they’ve been maintained correctly.
Category: Mid-sized SUV.
Pros: Great reputation for reliability, good value second-hand.
Cons: There’s a new model just around the corner.
Cost new: $37,890 (S AWD); used from: $19,000
Here’s the vehicle that bucks the turbo-diesel trend so effectively that it gets a mention in this list. With a full two litres of turbo-petrol stomp, the Escape pumps out a handy 183kW and 387Nm at a very campervan-friendly 3100rpm. It’s good for a braked load of up to 1800kg, too.
The Escape also has some of the best dynamic habits of all the smaller SUVs and, in fact, drives more like a conventional hatchback which is a huge compliment. It steers and rides better than most and is sharper in dealing with emergency situations where evasive action is required.
Category: Mid-sized SUV
Pros: Great power from turbo engine, sharp road manners.
Cons: Will be thirstier than a turbo-diesel with a load attached.
Cost new: $40,990 (ST-Line AWD); used from: $30,000.
Mazda really struck a chord with SUV buyers with its extensive range that includes an SUV for pretty much everybody. But for the purposes of this feature, it’s the CX-5 that best fits the bill. Specifically, the turbo-diesel CX-5 which is available in all-wheel drive trim in all but the most basic versions of the car.
Mazda has gone its own way when it comes to engine technology, but it’s SkyActiv-D 2.2-litre turbo-diesel is right up to the job with a relatively (for a diesel) revvy feel that hasn’t forgotten about bulk torque produced early in the rev range.
As such, you’re dealing with 140kW of power and a thumping 420Nm of torque at just 2000rpm. Throw in all-wheel drive and a six-speed automatic transmission and you have a vehicle well capable of tackling its 1800kg braked-trailer capacity.
Category: Mid-sized SUV
Pros: Extremely torquey engine feels effortless, quality build.
Cons: More expensive than some of the competition.
Cost new: $42,690 (Maxx Sport AWD); used from: $26,000
Mitsubishi has been building the ASX in its current form for more than a decade now, but the one that appeals to somebody looking for an occasional tow-vehicle is the turbo-diesel model built between 2014 and 2018.
That’s because this is the era where the turbo-diesel was available in the cheaper, LS model, featured all-wheel drive as standard and also got a torque converter automatic with six ratios.
The engine was no world-beater in isolation with just 110kW of power, but as a tow-car, it makes more sense with a big lump of torque (360Nm) available from as low as 1500rpm.
The catch is that Mitsubishi rated the car to tow only 1050kg (braked) but for a lot of weekend towers, that will be enough.
Category: Small SUV
Pros: Turbo-diesel engine is well suited to towing, cheap now.
Cons: Limited towing rating, old design generally.
Cost new: $from $32,500; used from: $15,000.
Mitsubishis we’d rule out: Eclipse Cross with CVT transmission.
The sister car to Kia’s Sportage, the Hyundai Tucson shares many mechanical details and that’s a good thing. Included in those is the terrific turbo-diesel engine which produces 136kW of power and an even more impressive 400Nm of torque from as low as 1750rpm.
Prior to the 2018 upgrade, the Tucson got a six-speed automatic transmission, while post-facelift cars used a new eight-speed auto.
Either is fine, but the latter will make for slightly better fuel economy. In towing terms, there won’t be much to separate them.
Like the Kia, the Tucson came with a great warranty (six years in this case) meaning there are plenty of second-hand examples out there with factory cover still applicable. For some reason, the Hyundai, at 1600kg, doesn’t have the same towing limit as the Kia, but it’s still more than enough to be a contender.
Category: Mid-sized SUV
Pros: Excellent reliability track record, some will still have warranty.
Cons: A bit forgotten by local consumers, bought to work, so some have high kilometres.
Cost new: From $37,440; used from: $17,000