Race cars and boats don’t share too much in common. However, their inability to get from their storage locations to their places of use requires some vehicular assistance. Pickup trucks are great for towing; it’s partly what they’re made to do. But they can be overly big and don’t function the best as family haulers. On the other hand, wagons are great at carrying the family and their gear, but few have the towing ability for a couple of jet skis. Fortunately for us, there are more than a few European SUVs with plenty of towing capabilities to haul your boat and your family down to the water for a summer of fun. These are our picks of the best SUVs for towing right now.
Mercedes-Benz M-Class W164 (2006-2011) 7200lb Towing Capacity
European SUVs are expensive and luxurious when they are being sold in dealerships. They carry cutting-edge technology and high-quality materials to achieve a level of fit and finish seldom found from manufacturers from other continents. However, all of that technology can make them tough to service and expensive to repair. Plus, their owners have the means to upgrade quickly, leaving plenty of used examples to flood the market at depreciated prices. Benz’ are no strangers to that depreciation, and relatively new models with little miles on them can be had for significantly less than what they commanded when new.
The M-Class’ second generation, the W164, is a great example of that depreciation. The midsize SUV from Mercedes was offered with a few different ML models, though the most popular, by far, will be the ML350. The used market is filled with ML350s with between 40-80,000 miles, with asking prices between $10,000 and $15,000. Look around, and you’ll find some ML500s or ML550s as well, though they’ll likely have more mileage than a similarly priced 350. For the money, they make a great everyday tow vehicle.
The W164 generation of M-Class debuted for the 2006 model year. It features a unibody construction with an independent coil or air suspension at each corner. Under the hood of the ML350 was the M272 3.5-liter V6 that produced 272 horsepower and 256 lb-ft of torque. The 2005-2007 ML500 uses the older M113 5.0-liter V8 with 306 horsepower and 299 lb-ft of torque, while the updated ML550 from 2008-2011 uses the M273 5.5-liter V8, making 382 horsepower and 391 lb-ft of torque. Both the V6 and the V8 options will be fine for towing; they both carry a 7200lb towing capacity with a braked trailer. However, if you need the best towing capability and fuel mileage, you’re going to want one of the diesel-equipped models.
American MLs with diesel engines came as the ML320 CDI/BlueTEC or the ML350 BlueTEC. Both models use the OM642, a turbocharged 3.0-liter diesel V6. The ML320 diesel was initially called the “CDI,” but that changed to BlueTEC in its last model year in 2009. After that, it became the ML350 BlueTEC, though the engine size and power stayed the same. Both models put out 211 horsepower and about 400 lb-ft of torque. It’s all that torque that is going to make towing anything a lot easier. However, any of the engine choices, gasoline or diesel, will be able to handle up to the factory specified capacity.
The W164 received an update halfway through its production run, for the 2009 model year. The interior received revised controls and an updated COMMAND system, Mercedes’ multimedia interface from that era. Exterior updates included new headlights, a larger grille, new bumpers, new mirrors, and revised wheel choices. The two best options to look for if you plan on towing are the factory tow package and the AIRMATIC suspension. That tow package includes a trailer hitch and the requisite wiring for the trailer. It also includes a revised rear signal acquisition module, or SAM, that engages a different setting for the transmission and air suspension once it sees that a trailer is attached. The AIRMATIC air suspension features automatic self-leveling, so mitigating the suspension sag caused by the trailer’s weight.
Ten-year-old German cars aren’t lauded for their world-beating reliability and cheap fixes. However, the W164 is relatively affordable to maintain. The M272 V6 and M273 V8 have some minor issues but are generally seen as very reliable. The early engines, produced between 2004 and 2008, had a problem with balance shafts and idler gear sprockets that could wear quickly, causing the engine to be out of time. That is the only possible catastrophic issue these engines suffer from, though failure typically occurs between 60-80,00 miles. Engines with mileage beyond that have likely had the issue repaired or won’t suffer from it. There are a few other things to look out for, but they’re minor issues, like seals or oil leaks. For a full breakdown of the M272 and M273, check out this guide. Proper maintenance of the ML’s fluids, especially engine and transmission, is critical to a lasting tow-capable drivetrain. Fluid changes can get expensive, but we know a place with a Lifetime Guarantee that’ll make them a whole lot easier on yourself.
BMW X5 F15 (2014-2018) 6000lb Towing Capacity
The BMW X5 was never supposed to be like a Land Rover or the Cayenne. BMW wanted an SUV built specifically for on-road use rather than a dual-purpose design that could tackle the rough stuff. It isn’t difficult to see that BMW achieved that, as the X5 has gone on to become one of their best-selling models, and not for its off-road abilities. The third-generation X5, carrying the F15 chassis code, exemplifies that design concept to a T. By 2013, the X5 was already a contender for the best midsize SUV available. With the writing on the wall for the future of internal combustion engines, BMW set out to refine the X5 for better economy and efficiency. Advanced plastics, high-strength steel, aluminum, and magnesium make up the chassis and its body panels. The aerodynamic shape of those panels dropped the F15’s drag coefficient from 0.36 to 0.31, while the materials used shed almost 200lbs from its predecessor. However, its new efficiency objective didn’t take away from its SUV qualities, especially when it came to towing.
There are two kinds of F15 X5 that you’ll want for towing; either the diesel variant or the V8. The base model xDrive35i with the N55 inline-6 will do a fine towing job but will struggle at the upper end of the BMW’s 6000lb towing capacity. Considering the F15 is still pretty fresh to the market, prices are higher than anything else on this list. With that said, the F15 is also significantly newer and carries a lot more tech, so you get what you pay for. Both the diesel and V8 X5 can be had in the upper $20,000-range with 60-75,000 miles on the odometer. The lower the miles get, the more options fitted, and the newer the model is, the higher the price gets. Under 30,000 miles and M Performance parts will bring the price tag right up to the $50,000 mark.
The key to effortless towing comes down to how much torque an engine can produce and where/ how long it produces that torque. The undisputed king in tow vehicles is the diesel engine, and luckily, America was given a diesel-powered X5. The xDrive35d, as it’s called, uses the N57, a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6 which throws out 413 lb-ft of torque between 1500-3000 rpm, right in the middle of its rev range, along with 255 horsepower. The twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V8, the N63, puts out 444 horsepower and 479 lb-ft of torque between 2000-4500 rpm. Both engines are mated to ZF’s 8HP 8-speed automatic transmission. The gearboxes are incredibly stout and can handle the stresses of towing with ease.
Unlike several other models on this list, the F15 X5 was never offered full self-leveling air suspension. However, self-leveling rear air springs could be optioned on every model. For an SUV dedicated to on-road comfort, that may seem a little counterintuitive, but it works out as a benefit. Air suspensions, while versatile and advanced, tend to fail with age. Bags leak and compressors burn out. Rear-only sir springs cut down on the number of suspension components that may go wrong and still provide the sag-preventing benefits when it comes to towing. Upfront, the double-wishbone suspension provides plenty of good handling characteristics that make the X5 a nicer SUV to drive on the street than the more off-road capable choices.
For enhanced comfort and agility, BMW also offered adaptive dampers and active sway bars. Called Dynamic Damper Control, that option added electromagnetic dampers that work with various sensors in the X5 to adjust the firmness of the dampers to the condition of the road ahead. According to BMW, the sensors read the changing conditions 400 times a second to accurately adjust the suspension for maximum comfort or agility. Drivers could choose between the COMFORT and SPORT settings with the Driver Experience Control, which also recalibrated the transmission shift points and throttle sensitivity based on what is required. The suspension settings also adjusted BMW’s Dynamic Drive active roll stabilization system, if fitted. That system uses hydraulically controlled sway bars to adjust the amount of roll resistance based on what the situation requires. Both of these systems were available in their own suspension packages and together in others.
The standard equipment included Xenon headlights with LED accents, LED taillights and fog lights, Servotronic variable steering, front and rear parking sensors, dual-zone automatic climate control, and the Driver Experience Control. Optionally, adaptive cruise control, lane change warning, a Harman Kardon surround system, rear-seat entertainment, soft-closing doors, and adaptive LED headlights could also have been fitted. In terms of luxurious options, there isn’t another model in this list that will come close to the on-road manners, available safety, and entertainment technology that the F15 offers.
There shouldn’t be a lot to worry about with the F15 X5. Examples at the higher end of the range are likely to carry part of BMW’s original warranty. You’ll get to choose from certified CPO options too, which will also hold a warranty. On the lower end, repairs are going to be up to your wallet. Thankfully there isn’t much to write home about. The N57 engine is a peach, offering non-BMW-like engine reliability. With simple maintenance, they’ll last well upwards of 100,000-miles. The N63 V8s, on the other hand, aren’t so bulletproof. Small things like spark plugs and ignition coils must be changed regularly around every 40,000 miles or so. They also have issues with their timing chains and consuming oil. BMW addressed the timing chain issues and offered all of the replacement parts for any engine found to have a prematurely-stretched timing chain while still under warranty. BMW tried to offer solutions for the oil consumption problem by fitting completely new long-blocks, but many owners have reported that the updated engines consume oil just the same. The V8 is cool, fast, and has plenty of towing grunt, but the diesel just might be the way to go.
Porsche Cayenne 955 & 957 (2003-2006 & 2007-2010) 7700lb Towing Capacity
The first generation of Porsche Cayenne saved the company from folding. The Boxster had done a fine job of injecting cash from new buyers into the sinking company, but the cost of developing LeMans dominating race cars was too much for the roadster alone. The Cayenne was an instant success and immediately became their best-selling model, doubling the sales of Porsche’s sports cars in its first year alone. While people griped about its looks upon its debut in 2003 and still do to this day to some extent, the Cayenne was an overbuilt 4x4 that excelled at just about everything that came its way, in true Porsche fashion.
The first-generation Cayenne can be broken down into two chassis codes; the 955 is the early model range from 2003-2006, while the 957 covers the 2008-2010 models. They share the same chassis and utilize many of the same mechanical components. Rather than two separate models, they should be viewed as the pre and post update of the first generation. Good condition examples with under 75,000 miles are more accessible than you might think, with asking prices under $20,000. Typically you won’t find many over the $20,000 mark, and when you do, they’ll be low mileage and special models, like the GTS or Turbo S.
The basic Cayennes both carry a VW-based VR6 engine, displacing 3.2-liters in the 955 and 3.6 in the 957. They’re fine for standard use but struggle with trailers. What you really want is one of the V8-equipped models. The 955 Cayenne S uses a 4.5-liter normally aspirated V8, while the 957 uses an enlarged 4.8-liter version. The 4.5 puts out 335 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque, while the larger engine produces 380 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque. For around the same money as a well-kept S, you could find yourself in a higher mileage Cayenne Turbo. The 955 Turbo and 957 Turbo used turbocharged examples of the V8s found in the S models, but with the requisite modifications making them suitable for boost. The early Turbos pump out 444 horsepower and 457 lb-ft of torque, while the later trucks push 493 horsepower and 516 lb-ft out of the 4.8L.
The overbuilt and overengineered drivetrain separates the Cayenne from other early-millennium midsize European SUVs, like the M-Class and X5. Porsche set out to build the best 4x4 on the market, which meant fitting it with a drivetrain capable of tackling tough off-road terrain. All Cayennes had their 6-speed automatic transmission drive through a dual-range transfer case that utilizes an electronically activated clutch to distribute the power between the front and rear wheels. An optional off-road pack was also available for the Cayenne. It added an auto-locking rear differential and an electronic rear sway bar disconnect system, allowing more rear suspension travel and more side-to-side articulation.
A factory trailer hitch was an option, and every Cayenne is prepped for it. Also shared between each model is the 7700lb towing capacity with a braked trailer. The Cayenne Turbos all had full air suspension as standard, while every other model received it optionally. With that said, it isn’t too difficult to find an S or even base model with air suspension. It was a pretty popular option in its day.
As with many European SUVs from the early 2000s, you need to be careful about some areas of the engine and drivetrain. As with any VAG product of that era, electrical gremlins exist but don’t typically affect the Porsche SUVs. Though many will have had these issues resolved, all engines have some issues with old and crack-prone plastic pipes. The transmissions are generally reliable, but improper servicing can cause the valve bodies to develop faults. Perhaps the most common drivetrain issue on the Cayenne is the failure of the driveshaft’s center support bushing. While this may seem a bit rushed, we’ve gone over the first-generation Cayenne’s specs and quirks in an individual engine guide, suspension guide, and transmission/drivetrain guide. These SUVs are well-proven tow rigs and family haulers. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better value for money.
Volvo XC90 (2003-2014) 5000lb Towing Capacity
Just about every European manufacturer was debuting their first SUV in the early 2000s, and Volvo was not an exception. Their first SUV, the XC90, debuted in 2003 and ran until 2014. The eleven-year model run is a testament to just how well the original car was engineered, as Volvo only ever had to update its engine and technology packages. In true Swedish fashion, Volvo’s SUV exemplified all of its safety values while introducing several advanced safety features during its production while offering luxury comparable to the best of the Germans. They can tow, too, rounding out its family-oriented approach.
Although the XC90 was offered for over a decade, only two engine choices make sense when towing near the chassis’ limit. You want to look for a 2003-2005 T6 model or the 2005-2011 V8 model. The turbocharger of the T6 and the large displacement of the V8 give them the torque required to tow without a fuss. The V8s are far more abundant, with many more used examples to choose from. Expect to pay between $8,000 and $15,000 depending on the condition and mileage. Sub-100,000 mile examples are out there in decent numbers, but you shouldn’t be too concerned about the mileage with that engine. The T6, on the other hand, was only produced very early for a short time. Finding them can be tricky, and they’ll be quite a bit older than the V8s. They’ll go between $7,000 and $11,000.
The two engines that are best capable of hauling that 5000lb towing capacity are the B8444S V8 and the B6294T2 Inline-6. The former engine was engineered in part by Yamaha. It displaces 4.4-liters and produces 315 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque through normal aspiration. The latter engine is a Volvo-designed 2.9-liter twin-turbocharged inline-6 that puts out 268 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. Both models were available only with all-wheel-drive, though their transmissions differed. The earlier T6 XC90s used a modified GM 4-speed automatic transmission. The V8 models all used an Aisin-built 6-speed automatic transmission.
Volvo has built its brand around safety, and the XC90 was just another exercise for the Swedes. Upon its debut, the XC90 used Volvo’s proprietary Roll Speed Control system and was fitted with curtain airbags. The Roll Speed Control system, an industry first, used a gyro-sensor to calculate the roll speed and roll angle. If it sensed that the vehicle got too close to those numbers, it activated the stability control system to regain control. If a rollover did occur, curtain airbags were there to prevent injuries. Those safety features, along with a front end designed to have pedestrians roll over the hood instead of under the car, helped the XC90 win the IIHS Top Safety Pick Award for 2003. The occupant focused didn’t only extend to the safety features, though. Inside, standard leather and dual-zone climate control kept the occupants comfortable at all times. How many occupants it kept comfortable was up to the spec-sheet. The XC90 could be had in two-row, five-passenger, or three-row, seven-passenger configurations. Both seating arrangements featured an integrated booster seat for the middle seat in the second row, but the three-row models were able to move that middle seat up between the two front seats.
2007 brought about an update to the aging XC90. Painted door handles and wheel arches donned the refreshed exterior along with optional adaptive headlights and a blind spot monitoring system. A V8 Sport trim was also available that gave the SUV a unique exterior treatment, larger wheels, stiffer sport suspension, a quicker steering rack, and sport seats with extra bolstering. Post-2009 V8 Sports were given the R-Design badge instead and continued on with luxurious options like massaging front seats, heated front and rear seats, real wood trim, and special leather upholstery.
Even today, seven years after production ended, the B8444S remains one of the most reliable European V8s of the last twenty years. Their one design flaw comes from a partially exposed balance shaft bearing. As water collected near the bearing, it would get through the bearing’s seal and destroy it. That usually caused the engine to jump time and kill it completely. Beyond that, they tend to run through power steering pumps and alternators more than other Volvo engines. Standard maintenance goes a long way for them; many owners have reported well over 200,000 miles without major issues. The T6 engine is nearly as reliable as the V8, but its 4-speed transmission is often the culprit of larger issues. It is a modified unit from GM, so parts are easy to come by in the states, but repairs can be expensive.
Land Rover Discovery LR4 (2010-2016) 7700lb Towing Capacity
Without the OG, the mac-daddy, Europe’s first SUV, the Land Rover, it’d be impossible to have a list of tow-capable European SUVs. The model in question here is the fourth-generation Discovery, badged as the LR4 in the states. It carries the lineage of supremely on and off-road capable SUVs that span as far back as 1948 and have carried explorers, doctors, and camera crews all over the globe. Its off-road prowess makes it a capable overlander in stock form and its on-road civility makes it just as capable as a mall-crawling grocery getter. Did I mention it can tow with the best of them, too?
The LR4 was available for the 2010 model year, received an update for 2014, and ended its run after 2016. The earlier pre-facelift models are the most available at reasonable prices without crazy mileage. A few different trims were offered, so the price will vary, but an LR4 in great shape with around 70,000 miles should run you around $23,000. Colors, trims, options, and mileage will all affect the asking price, so be sure to read over its features carefully to ensure you aren’t overpaying.
Every pre-facelift LR4, regardless of trim, uses the AJ133 normally-aspirated 5.0-liter V8. The third-generation Jaguar V8 makes a square 375 horsepower and lb-ft of torque. That engine is mated to a ZF 6HP 6-speed automatic transmission. Facelifted models ditched the V8 and six-speed gearbox for a supercharged 3.0-liter V6, making 340 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque, and ZF’s new-at-the-time 8HP 8-speed automatic transmission. Both engine and transmission packages feature a two-speed transfer case, optionally on the V6 models, and electronically-controlled center differential with full-time four-wheel-drive for maximum off-road capability. The center differential and four-wheel-drive work with the “Terrain Response” system, which provides five different drive settings for drivers to choose from. When one of the modes, like “Rock Crawl” or "Mud & Ruts" is selected, different throttle, suspension, brake, and four-wheel-drive settings are activated to give the LR4 maximum performance in the selected terrain. Those electronics make the Discovery just as at home schlepping your two kids, dog, and 20’ Crownline up to the lake for the weekend as it is barreling through the Gobi Desert, exploring for petroglyphs.
The LR4 is unashamedly built for its off-road capabilities. It won’t handle, stop, or accelerate like an X5 or a GL450, but it’ll outpace them everywhere else. Part of that off-road optimization comes from the Integrated Body Frame chassis that it uses. Rather than use a unibody chassis like its European rivals, or a body-on-frame design like the first two generations of Discovery, the LR4 uses both. The double chassis design makes it very heavy, killing its on-road manners and fuel economy. However, the unibody is great for comfort and safety, while the ladder-frame makes it very strong and capable of pulling significant loads.
The LR4, with either engine/gearbox, delivers a 7700lbs towing capacity. Assisting with the towing duties are the standard air suspension and the Trailer Stability Assist system. The latter system activates when it senses that a trailer has been attached. Through various sensors, it will change the throttle and brakes at any given time to prevent your trailer from passing you or causing a roll-over. Air suspension is standard on every LR4 and works with the TSA and Terrain Response systems to ensure a controlled ride over any terrain. The different Terrain Response settings will automatically raise or lower the suspension based on the selected terrain, but when left alone, the suspension is automatically self-leveling.
The air suspension helps on the road, too, adding luxury-like comfort to the big off-roader while compensating for the trailer’s weight. The luxury feeling extends to the interior, regardless of trim, with plenty of upmarket accouterments included as standard, including 19” wheels, leather upholstery, dual-zone climate control, a Harman/Kardon sound system with touchscreen display, BlueTooth connectivity, and rear parking sensors. Stepping up to the HSE package/trim, added front parking sensors, a back-up camera, a third row of seats, rear-seat climate control, and LED running lights. The top-spec HSE Lux package/trim tacked on front and rear heated seats, a heated windshield, adaptive headlights, improved leather upholstery, a center console cooler box, and a more powerful Harman/Kardon sound system. No, it isn’t going to be as comfortable as a similarly priced Mercedes SUV, but to scoff at its luxurious offerings would be a mistake.
You shouldn’t feel bad about having concerns about owning a used British vehicle like you shouldn’t about having concerns about owning a new British ride. Historically, the Brits have made some beautiful and defining vehicles, but like Italian cars, their reliability hasn’t been their best feature. However, the LR4 breaks from that stigma by being a generally reliable SUV. The 5.0-liter V8 has two main issues to worry about; the water pump and the timing chain guides. Typical of many engines from this era, water pumps and plastic coolant components fail with some regularity. Water pump replacement on the V6 and V8 are manageable in your driveway, and the parts aren’t mind-bendingly expensive. The timing chain guide issue is fairly significant but hasn’t affected every model. A specific grade of oil needed to be used to prevent the soot from low-speed pre-ignition entering to oil and clogging the timing chain tensioner passages. Replacement of the chain, guides, and tensioners is the only remedy to that issue if it occurs. Other than that, you’ll need to look out for air spring failures. Any air suspension system is prone to leaking bags, and the LR4 is no stranger. Coil spring conversion kits are available, as are less expensive aftermarket air spring replacements.
For an all-in-one family hauler and tow machine, it’s incredibly tough to beat an SUV. Their spacious and often luxuriously appointed interiors are occupant-focused and carry the tech one would need for good safety and lavish comfort. On the other hand, their beefy drivetrains and chassis allow them to handle the significant towing weight. From mall-crawling to rock crawling, to boat towing, there is a European SUV best suited to your needs. So which one works best for you? Let us know in the comments, as always, and be sure to follow along with the blog for more great content!
Car and motorsports-obsessed writer/editor for FCP Euro's DIY Blog. Constantly dreaming of competing behind the wheel or searching for another project. Owner of a turbo Subaru Forester and a ratty Porsche 914, neither of which are running.