Optimizing Your Fifth Wheel Tow Vehicle

In the realm of diesel trucks on dealership lots, the price tag often raises eyebrows, prompting the question: Is an expensive truck the only route to a superb towing experience? Let’s delve into the considerations and explore whether a pricier diesel option is truly a necessity.

While my columns often spotlight vehicles for trailer towing, it’s been a while since we discussed the unsung hero – the fifth wheel tow vehicles. Throughout the years, our fleet has seen a mix of gas and diesel trucks. Currently, our go-to pickup is a Ram 2500 featuring the 5.7 Litre Hemi, a 4.10:1 axle ratio, and a 5-speed automatic transmission. Surprisingly, our choice to forego a diesel pickup in our dealership fleet raises eyebrows, with skepticism about whether the Hemi can muster enough power to tow sizable fifth wheels.

The diesel race among the big three has been ongoing for years, resulting in more expensive and less efficient diesel options. Despite their ability to deliver colossal towing power, the decision between gas and diesel often boils down to the need for diesel power in handling massive fifth wheels or traversing mountainous terrains, coupled with the mileage required to justify the initial vehicle cost.

Our pickup clocks around 30,000 kilometers annually, with 50% dedicated to towing new trailers sans any loads. For us, the decision to bypass a diesel is purely financial; the savings in fuel costs wouldn’t offset the additional expenses associated with purchasing and maintaining a diesel truck.

While I’m generally a proponent of diesel power, especially the 3.0 Litre diesels for towing travel trailers, the current large truck diesels tend to be overkill for the average RV owner. A 4.0 Litre diesel, leveraging contemporary technology, would likely suffice for most trucks and their towing needs.

In the early ’90s, when fifth wheels in the 12-16,000 pound weight range were prevalent, our customers towed them with trucks boasting 454 cubic inch gas engines or 6.5 Litre Turbo Diesels. These engines, with 230 horsepower and 385 ft. lbs. of torque for the 454 and 215 HP and 440 ft. lbs. of torque for the diesel, had 4-speed automatics. Despite a power difference, these trucks traveled extensively across the continent. Comparing these engines to current gas options reveals equivalent torque but significantly higher horsepower in newer engines. Equally critical, the Ford and GM engines now come with 6-speed transmissions, while Dodge opts for a 5-speed.

Our Hemi-powered truck, towing a 36′ Mobile Suite fifth wheel weighing 15,000 pounds, accomplishes 0-100 KPH in 34 seconds – an impressive feat for its size. It’s only 6 seconds slower than the V-10 Dodge we had in 1999. While its fuel economy lags behind current diesel trucks by 2-4 MPG, the gas truck gets the job done with minimal hassle. Solo, the gas truck offers a more responsive city driving experience, thanks to its lighter engine, balanced weight distribution, and increased payload capacity. Though it lacks an exhaust brake, a gas engine can deliver substantial engine braking without one, especially with modern trucks boasting additional gear ratios.

Savings on truck purchases can also be achieved by scrutinizing the model and options. While dealership lots often feature either plain work trucks or fully-loaded prestige models, there are enticing options in between. The Ram SLT model with the d├ęcor package option, for instance, provides an array of features without the hefty price tag. Similarly, Ford’s LT model and GMC’s SLE offer similar perks at reasonable costs.

Opting for a two-wheel-drive truck, sufficient for most towing scenarios, offers additional savings. Drive wheels for a fifth wheel experience ample weight and traction, negating the need for a 4×4. Additionally, two-wheel drives generally use less fuel and incur lower maintenance costs. Though solo winter driving might warrant consideration for 4x4s, enhancing on-snow traction with limited slip axles and quality snow tires on a two-wheel drive is often sufficient. Moreover, 4x4s tend to compromise handling and ride comfort due to a bulkier straight axle, and the higher center of gravity could pose clearance issues with fifth wheel goosenecks. GM trucks, however, maintain independent front suspension with four-wheel drive.

While most of these trucks might need to be factory-ordered to include the necessary towing packages and preferred options, the potential savings make the wait worthwhile. To get a firsthand experience of these trucks’ capabilities, feel free to stop by and test our Dodge – just give us a heads up to ensure it’s not out on the road, picking up and delivering fifth wheels.