Best Mini SUVs for Towing Pontoon Boats
Before you purchase a rig for towing your pontoon boat, you need to know exactly what you're up against. A 16' fishing pontoon boat will require much less muscle to tow than a large 24' pontoon boat.
I've written about pontoon and trailer weights before with lots of examples for toons and trailers so you can get an idea if you haven't yet purchased your toon.
While most people use a full-size truck to pull a large pontoon boat, there are some smaller SUVs that are up to the task. Consider the following options.
The Durango is a beast when it comes to towing. Depending on whether or not you get the tow package, and on your engine size, you may find that it can tow up to 7,100 pounds (3,220 kilograms).
When I hook up my 2012 Dodge Durango Crew with the towing package, it barely feels like there is anything behind me. When towing my 22' pontoon boat strapped to the trailer (package weight of over 3,600 pounds or 1,634 kg), I can go up any wet or steep boat launch ramp without any trouble.
In fact, I've never even seen the wheels slip once. Going up hills is a breeze. On the freeway, I find that I can go up to 78mph comfortably. When I pushed it to 82 just to see if it could handle it, there was a slight jitter in the trailer, but that's without a sway bar installed. Suffice it to say, that it'll do just fine.
One nice feature of the Durango is that it has a slightly longer wheelbase than some other small SUVs. This makes a big difference when going down hills. You don't feel like you're getting shoved around by the trailer.
The Dodge Durango is all-wheel drive, and you can shift it into low gear when you're going up a steep boat ramp (under 4 miles per hour), but again... I've never seen the tires slip even once, so I've never felt the need to use low gear.
My 2012 Durango Crew with a ridiculous amount of options and 30,000 miles on it cost $26,000 (purchased in Aug 2014).
It was an easy sell to the wife because she gained third-row seating, which she likes for hauling kids around the neighborhood.
Nissan Pathfinder (Before 2013)
The Pathfinder used to be a very popular towing rig, but the new 2013 body severely crippled its utility as a towing vehicle for boats.
I was within minutes of buying a Pathfinder (in fact, I was sitting down at the dealership ready to buy) when I stumbled on a few forum threads of Pathfinder owners who were using them to haul. Nothing but complaints.
Although the Pathfinder is rated to haul up to 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg), the real-world owners of the Pathfinder said it really shouldn't be considered for towing anything over 2,500 pounds (1,100 kg).
However, the older model Pathfinders before 2013 do a great job with towing.
The difference is that the older Pathfinders had a body-on-frame construction that was rugged and tough. The 2013 and newer body style is a unibody construction that is not nearly as tough (even though it looks like a million bucks). Looks don't pull boats. Remember that.
The Honda Pilot can be a good towing rig for pontoon boats, but you really have to check the specific model you're getting.
From personal experience when looking through the lot, I found a dramatic difference in terms of what each model would tow, depending on options.
The Pilot is a beautiful (and pricey) car, but you're also getting Honda quality, which I know as a former Honda CRV owner ... is significant.
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If you don't need third-row seating as I did, the Xterra is one of the most popular options on the boat ramp. It tows a ton of weight easily, is rugged, does pretty well on gas, and isn't terribly expensive even brand new (around $24,000 depending on options).
There are a few snags with the Xterra that made it not a good option for me.
One, as I mentioned, is no third-row seating. The other seems trivial unless you have kids and realize what a pain this is. The rear doors don't have a door handle in the normal location. It's up very high on the side of the door and is a latch that's pulled.
The problem is that the latch is way too high for my kids to reach, and this car is going to be my wife's daily driver. So, unless you want to walk around to both sides and open the doors for the kids every single time you get in the car ... this isn't a great option.
If you don't have kids to worry about and just want a small SUV for towing a toon, then the Xterra is a fantastic choice.
The Honda CRV is just too small for towing a big pontoon boat strapped to the trailer. Depending on your options and the inclusion of a towing package, it usually only tows around 2,500 pounds.
That isn't even in the neighborhood of what a pontoon boat needs, especially when you consider that most car manufacturers are very optimistic in their towing capacity numbers. I usually recommend getting a vehicle that can tow at least 2,000 pounds more than your boat weight.
Aside from that, most CRVs are only four-cylinder engines, so it's not enough juice to get you going from a stop, which is an important safety feature if you live near lots of two-way stops as I do.