Towing and the taboo of using an EV electric car (2023)

The BYD Atto 3 electric car has gained a Kiwi-sorted special skill that could even go global with a breakthrough option. The local distributor has won factory sanction to put into the market, three months on from the car’s release, the ability to officially tow.

An increasing count of local EV owners are deciding to tackle towing – including, worryingly, cars not rated to tow, including NZ's favourite. It's not about an EV's lack of ability to tow, it's more about the factory sanctioning and approval, along with the official stamp of approval around the safety aspect, relating to if and how they tow.

Towing and the taboo of using an EV electric car (1)

Nissan’s position on the Leaf, the national favourite by volume as a result of its wildly used import success since its launch in 2010, is that it's not suitable for towing. This has not stopped owners from trying.

The Atto 3 had the same caution, but Kiwi creativity, via Auckland firm Best Bars, looks to have even changed the Chinese parent company's mindset.

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The $1199 (plus fitting cost) kit that BYD China has stamped as a safe choice meets New Zealand (NZS 5467 and SAE J684) standards and Australian (ADR 62) protocol.

Owners of the compact crossover, which achieved 689 registrations as of last week, have just been alerted about it and orders are already coming in.

“It is likely we are the first market in the world to fit a tow bar [to an Atto 3],” says BYD Auto NZ brand manager Warren Willmot.

Towing and the taboo of using an EV electric car (2)

“It is a car designed for China and they don’t tow things up there. The car has not been designed to tow.”

The Kiwi effort to convince the factory it was a little car that could be a stringent process.

Though the head office in Shenzhen, China, didn’t require a test item, approval required the submission of numerous CAD drawings, all carefully scrutinised by factory engineers who were involved in every step.

“We are one the very first Western markets for this car so we have a very good working relationship with the team up at Shenzhen, where everything has been signed off and approved.”

The kit includes a bespoke wiring loom and will entertain 750kg braked and unbraked – as per BYD’s engineering instruction - and a 75kg tongue download, an NZTA best practice requirement.

It should be perfect for a light trailer but, more potentially, as the mounting point for a bike carrier, Willmot says.

“Our customers are not buying the Atto 3 to tow… a big boat.

“The types of customers wanting this car will want it to tow something like a small garden trailer and, the majority of them just want to take e-bikes. It would cope with a couple of those.”

One point often made is that, with their instant torque from powerful electric motors, EVs are conceivably perfect tow vehicles. The Atto 3 joins an NZ new-EV towing club, in which there are now 19 EV members, another being the Tesla Model 3.

The others comprise a diverse selection, spanning high-end European fare from Audi, BMW, Jaguar and Mercedes Benz through to other products from China – MG, Polestar and LDV included – and Korea’s big hitters, Hyundai and its subordinate, Kia.

But not the Leaf. Nissan remains adamant the hatchback that really kicked off battery car interest in NZ and maintains the spotlight as the top used choice for spendthrift buyers is not engineered to tow.

Towing and the taboo of using an EV electric car (3)

The handbook for the just-refreshed 2022 New Zealand-new model states: “your vehicle was designed to be used to carry passengers and luggage” and, in bold type adds: “Do not tow a trailer with your vehicle.”

Expert opinion is that if electric cars are determined to be unable to tow, it’s usually because of several reasons, usually related to weight, chassis or drivetrain stress.

The battery pack fitted in an electric car is very heavy. It can influence to a point where a maker believes there’s insufficient capacity to deal with the extra weight of a trailer, as it could put too much strain on components like the brakes.

Manufacturers also fear issues when the car is slowing and regenerative braking. Towing a heavy trailer down a steep hill will provide lots more kinetic energy than normal, with potential to overwhelm the electrical system.

Willmot suggests quality of components and installation was a factor with the Atto 3 process: “Anyone can get a tow bar for $800 from a second-tier manufacturer.” But, he added, there are no guarantees thereon.

“Who knows what can happen if you fit an aftermarket tow bar and do it by drilling a hole through a chassis … having chassis cracks is a very expensive repair.

“Safety is our number one priority. All the steel we use in the tow bar is high-grade virgin steel. We have a wiring loom that is plug and play, designed to work with all of the safety equipment on the car.”

BYD provides a lifetime functional warranty on the bar, on the understanding of ‘sensible’ usage. “Basically, they [the owner] is using the tow bar correctly, within its specs.”

Data about capabilities, braked and unbraked maximums, and pricing of EVs with towing capability has been collated on EVDB.nz, an NZ-specific resource to help EV owners created by Tauranga EV enthusiast and computer programmer James Foster.

Many are in the same lightweight division as the Atto 3. A growing count, though, will cope with up to 1.6 tonnes.

Just a handful are brawnier still. BMW’s iX, which starts at $163,900, stands as the towing king, with a 2.5-tonne capacity, though Tesla’s Model X is not far behind.

Foster has owned several Leafs, one of which came with a tow bar he only used it for a bike rack, never towing, because he was aware of the maker’s concern. It just seemed imprudent.

Nonetheless, he says, there’s no doubt many owners have successfully towed loads with EVs with no ‘official’ tow rating. Many share their experiences on a private Facebook group with 1200 members, NZ EV Owners Towbar Adventures.

New Zealand has a lot of regulations and guidelines about towing, found on the NZTA website, and it’s complex reading.

But is there a specific law against fitting a car without a tow rating with a tow bar? It seems not. More often than not, it all comes down to whether or not the kit can be successfully mounted.

Foster’s experience is that, when they do encounter a vehicle without a manufacturer tow rating, installers tend to rate these at around 500–600 kg (unbraked).

But, as he points out: “The issue is a structural one. While the instant torque of an EV means it can tow well, has the car been designed with an appropriate structural mounting point for a tow bar? This is a grey area, and the EV owner should beware.”

Towing and the taboo of using an EV electric car (4)

Brands that do cite tow ratings tend to also be able to supply factory kits, but another to undertake a local resolution is Tesla.

The American maker has a factory towbar, but it’s hard to get. Many buyers of the Model 3 – by far the most popular Tesla sold here, with competition coming from the Model Y SUV – often instead chose apparatus from Stealth Solutions, based in Sydney, Australia.

Stealth Solutions’ principal Michael Hua recently told Australia’s ABC news outlet he saw a gap in the market for installing Australian standard aftermarket towing kits on electric vehicles that are certified by the manufacturer to do so.

He said it was a tricky process; Australia has stringent regulations.

"All of our US-made tow bars are internationally certified up to the towing capacity of the vehicle, but in Australia, you have to go through another layer – you actually have to test the towbar one-and-a-half times the quoted capacity," he said.

Whether an EV is rated to tow or otherwise, there’s another factor to consider: Impact on range.

The extra effort of towing a trailer will invariably reduce the maximum distance claimed for a vehicle, sometimes significantly.

Meantime, Willmot says BYD Auto NZ is planning to introduce more models from the Chinese brand which are factory-engineered to tow.

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