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End in Sight for Pickup Towing Claim Game

The dramatic video that shows a 2015 Ford F-150 beating Chevrolet Silverado and Ram 1500 pickups in a towing test should include an asterisk.

Ford aced the test — but it also wrote the questions and graded the exam.

It’s the last gasp of automakers’ old way to evaluate trucks’ towing ability. Each company created its own test and reported how its vehicles did. There was no independent oversight or standard test procedure.

“The old system was the Wild West. Everybody decided the rules they wanted to follow,” Edmunds.com senior analyst Bill Visnic said. “Car shoppers couldn’t count on a level playing field for comparison.”

Towing capacity is a vital statistic for pickup and SUV shoppers. It measures how heavy a trailer a vehicle can safely tow. The consequences of towing too heavy a trailer can be grave. They range from extra wear on your vehicle to breakdowns or the inability to steer or stop.

The way automakers used to report their towing capacity “was not particularly useful to the consumers,” said Eric Evarts, autos editor of Consumer Reports magazine.

The 2015 Ford F-150’s performance pulling a 7,000-pound trailer up Arizona’s grueling Davis Dam incline was impressive, but it’s not the last word.

That will come shortly when all automakers adopt a standardized towing test.

Few things matter more to truck buyers than towing capacity, but until recently, there was no generally accepted test for it. Each automaker tested towing however it liked. The result was that whenever a new pickup claimed best-in-class towing capability, other manufacturers’ truck ratings would magically rise to match it.

“It was all about truck makers’ marketing and bragging rights,” Evarts said.

There’s no evidence the practice was unsafe, but it fed skepticism about one of the key measures consumers use to evaluate trucks.

“There are remarkable differences between trucks’ towing ability,” said Aaron Bragman of Pickuptrucks.com.

Engineers hated the game playing. They live in a world of measurables and standards. Meaningless numbers are anathema to them, so Ford, Chrysler, GM, Nissan, Toyota and the Society of Automotive Engineers created a standard towing test in 2008. SAE standards are the automotive equivalent of the Underwriters Laboratories mark. They guarantee a product passed an independent test.

Engineers loved the standardized test, but marketers recoiled from it. They preferred negotiable performance figures. They felt the same way about fuel economy claims before the government set up the EPA fuel economy test procedure to generate numbers customers can use to compare one vehicle to another.

To its credit, Toyota quickly applied the SAE standard, which is called J2807, to the Tundra full-size pickup. The Tundra’s maximum towing capacity fell, and the other automakers looked at their shoes and mumbled that they’d adopt J2807 at some point.

Some point arrives with the 2015 model year, largely thanks to Ford. The F-150 is America’s best-selling vehicle. It defines the terms on which pickups compete.

The radical new 2015 F-150 that goes on sale in the fourth quarter of this year will certify its maximum towing capacity with J2807. In response, Chrysler’s Ram truck brand just applied the standard to all its 2015 pickups. Chevy and GMC will use it for 2015 light-duty 1500-series pickups. The Nissan Titan will use J2807 when a new model arrives next year as a 2016 model.

“Now we’ll have a way to compare pulling, handling, braking, everything that matters to towing performance across all automakers,” Evarts said. “It’s a much better situation for consumers.”

Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at mmphelanfreepress.com.