If you’ve followed our journey on the TAXA Trailer Owner’s Facebook group, you’ll probably know we’ve struggled a bit with our tow vehicle. What you probably don’t know is how painful this decision process has been. We started the search in February, well before our Mantis was delivered, so we had plenty of time. We went to look at and test drive vehicles on 3 different occasions over that time. We researched, debated, created market analyses, mapped out potential cost over time and loan comparisons. In short, we overanalyzed the forking shirt out of this decision. (If you’re unfamiliar with the term “forking shirt,” go watch The Good Place. Worth your time.)

Were money no object, our choice would have been easy. We knew exactly what we wanted, a Ford F-150 Lariat SuperCrew with Pre-Collision Prevention with Automatic Emergency Braking. What an awesome truck that is! We rented an F-250 to tow our Mantis, and we loved how solid it felt. Sadly, with all the safety and family features and even the bare minimum comfort features we wanted, an F-150 was well outside our price range.

So, we started to explore mid-size truck options. The Toyota Tundra had been eliminated early due to less than awesome crash test ratings and a meager 15 mpg (according to Consumer Reports). One of our main requirements in a new vehicle was a suite of advanced collision prevention features, the most important of which was forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking. IIHS and HLDI have found that feature reduces front-to-rear collisions by 50% and reduces injuries from such collisions by 56% (from “Real-world benefits of crash avoidance technologies“). This immediately cut down our choices to the Toyota Tacoma and Honda Ridgeline. The Tacoma was too unrefined a driving experience, and the Ridgeline was essentially a mid-size SUV in truck format. It had the advantage of a flexible truck bed, but the disadvantage of very tight second row seating.

So down to just the Ridgeline, we decided it was worth exploring the mid-size SUV category. In this category you have the Kia Sorrento, Hyundai SantaFe, Maxda CX-9, Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, and the soon to be released Subaru Ascent: a new entry from Subaru in the third row mid-size SUV category.

Comparison chart of pros and cons of trucks vs. SUVs

We love our Subaru Outback. The adaptive cruise control is the best in the class with low-speed follow (yes, it will bring your car to a complete stop). It also promised to be very roomy inside without being overly cumbersome to drive. And it included trailer stability assist, something that did not come in other cars in its class. It included Apple Car Play, a feature we installed aftermarket in our Toyota Prius, and love. And in only two years, we felt a sense of loyalty both to Subaru and to our dealer, Carter Subaru. However, dreams of the preorder arriving by April soon got pushed back to late July and possibly even late August. Honestly it was one of the hardest things we had to do, letting go of the Ascent, but with the new trailer already in hand, looking at $300–400 in extra expenses to rent a truck with towing capabilities for a weekend, and summer plans already beginning to build, we eventually stepped away from that dream. Honestly, had it already been out, we may well have chosen it as our tow vehicle.

Moving on, we ruled out the Pilot due to its lack of good tow package options (although we later discovered that the dealer may have just not had many in stock at his store and the cost to add one after market was far more than on comparable vehicles), and because as the largest and least maneuverable SUV, we felt it lost something of the smaller form factor and SUV might bring. We ruled the Mazda CX-9 out due to a limiting 3500 lb tow capacity (our lower limit was 5000, although we did flirt with the idea of the Hybrid Highlander). That left the Sorrento, SantaFe, and Highlander. The SantaFe topped the charts on IIHS, but the Sorrento and Highlander were not far behind. The Highlander, however, clearly led the pack in reliability and overall score on Consumer Reports. Already Toyota fans, we started—and ended—there.

Market Analysis of several different tow vehicles

Although somewhat smaller than all the other tow vehicles we looked at, the Highlander is much roomier than our Outback despite being only 4 inches taller, 4 inches wider, and barely more than an inch longer. (How the back seats are roomier and the trunk is bigger while only being 1 inch longer, I still do not understand. It’s like the Tardis!) And we appreciate it’s smaller footprint in the city.

It’s also nice now to have two cars that function very similar (our 2018 Highlander pairs well with our 2010 Prius). Same brake mechanism, same cruise control stick (though the Highlander has adaptive cruise, a huge improvement over conventional cruise).

Comparison chart of rate Highlander XLE, Limited, and Platinum models

So, I introduce to you, our new Mantis Tow Vehicle: a 2018 Toyota Highlander Limited, AWD. (Thank you Ford for throwing off our expectations on price. Otherwise, we would have stuck with the XLE, though we do really appreciate some the additional features, and Amy certainly appreciates the look and feel.

2018 Toyota Highlander in front of Mantis Camper

Sadly, we did not get a factory-installed tow package (that was only available on a few cars, which limited our choices significantly), but that is easy enough to add after. I will note that our camper does pull down quite a bit on the back of the Highlander, so we will be glad to be replacing our old hitch setup with a Blue Ox SwayPro weight distribution hitch.

The only two complaints we have about the vehicle are the infotainment system and it’s cruise control. Having aftermarket CarPlay in our Prius, Entune is a pain by comparison. The voice activation seems to miss what we say with surprising consistency. The maps are horrid, and without being able for my passenger to enter addresses manually and voice activation not working at all, it’s pretty much useless. The one nice thing about it is that it is not device-dependent. CarPlay in our Prius seems to overtax my older iPhone 6 Plus (geriatric in phone years).

And having had low speed follow cruise control on the Subaru Outback (it will literally bring you to a complete stop in traffic), we greatly miss that feature. Unfortunately, Toyota cuts that off at the Rav4, so our Highlander stops using Cruise Control under about 30 mph.