When you're pulling a big trailer, you need a big engine to match
Since we bought Artemis the Airstream one and half years ago, the truck we use for towing, a 2015 Chevrolet Colorado, has been mostly an afterthought, a conveyance for our rolling home. Yet we receive as many inquiries about the pickup as any other single road-life topic.
“How do you like the truck?” people invariably ask me when I’m fueling. “Can you really tow that big trailer with such a little pickup?” That last part always makes me laugh. Standing at a one-pump gas station in some forgotten, nowhere part of the West, with the trailer behind our “little” truck, the Airstream didn’t roll in on its own.
Of course, what they mean is what dozens of others have previously enquired: Is the Colorado able to pull around our home well? After 18 months and 20,000 miles of travel, the answer is, yes. Mostly.
We purchased the freshly revamped Chevy Colorado back in July 2015, partly on the promise of 27 highway miles per gallon. We went with the 6-speed automatic 3.6-liter V6 engine, the largest available at the time, chose four-wheel drive based on our backcountry needs, and opted for the crew cab and long box, big enough for us to camp in. The sticker promised 24 miles per gallon on the highway: we averaged 26 on the return to Santa Fe from Denver.
What wasn’t immediately clear about our Colorado, but what we discovered a few weeks later while picking our way along rocky two-track in the Gila National Forest for an elk hunt, is that the gas economy comes, in part, courtesy of the urban setup. The stock 255/65R17 tires were slick and skinny for asphalt performance, and combined with the front under-bumper plastic fairing, the truck had little more ground clearance than a passenger car. After gouging that fairing several times, we removed it, and the gas economy dropped. We also destroyed one of those highway tires while four-wheeling and upgraded to a set of 265/70R17 BF Goodrich KO2s, the largest that we could fit. And while the off-road handling and clearance improved dramatically, the gas mileage tumbled. Add the cargo box and a couple of bike racks (and occasionally bikes), and our highway gas mileage was down to around 18. We still loved the truck, but the lesson was clear: don’t buy an off-road pickup for fuel economy.
Fast-forward six months, when Jen persuaded me to try an Airstream. We loved it so much, we decided to get one and hit the road. The only problem: with a max towing capacity of 7,000 pounds, the Colorado limited our trailer choices. We were torn between the Airstream Flying Cloud 23FB, with a max weight of 6,000 pounds (4,806 pounds dry), and the Flying Cloud 25FB, which topped out at 7,300 pounds. We were already leaning toward the smaller model for maneuverability, but the capacity decided it.
For the most part, the truck and trailer have made a good match. Sleek, fearsome black, and a bit over the top with racks and boxes, the pickup is Apollo, the protector, to Artemis’ wilder side. We’ve put on a lot of towing miles, and 90 percent of the time the trailer is easy to manage. We drive comfortably at 60 to 65 miles per hour most of the time and average around 13 miles per gallon. That seems atrocious from the perspective of ex-Volkswagen Golf owners but reasonable considering that we’re tugging around nearly 6,000 pounds of wind-catching, gravity-resisting toys. (A friend with a 2.8-liter Duramax Turbo-Diesel Colorado says he gets up to 17 when pulling his 5,500-pound Airstream.)
Occasionally, we wish for a bit more truck. When hauling in heavy winds, we get pushed around a little. “Ten and two, ten and two,” Jen reminds me when I’m driving to keep hands on the wheel for more control. And on steep, high, long mountain passes, say Wolf Creek or Loveland in Colorado, the engine screams at 6,000 RPM and we can bog down to 45 miles per hour.
We’ve had two instances where the Chevy felt flat-out inadequate. The first time, while lumbering up a forest road outside of Salida, we lost traction and had to reverse and get some momentum to make the hill. The second time, in Durango, we stalled while pushing Artemis into a campsite guarded by a two-foot roll. On both occasions, we managed, but I wondered then whether we didn’t need a bigger truck.
“Absolutely not,” Brent Deep, Chevrolet’s vehicle performance manager for the Colorado told me. He described Chevy’s worst-case scenario testing, including a towing test in Death Valley on a 20-minute uphill grade at 300 feet below sea level at temperatures sometimes exceeding 120 degress Fahrenheit while carrying more than weight ratings. “Your truck is tested to take a whole lot more than you’re throwing at it,” he told me. He suggested that setup, including load distribution in the trailer and weight distribution on the tongue, is the likeliest culprit for performance issues. He recommended load bars (we already use them), and we’re also considering air bags for the suspension, which are an easy way to add stability. “You can find conditions and terrain that would stop any truck from pulling your trailer.”
That was perhaps his best advice. No truck is perfect. Even with a Chevy Silverado 3500 HD that has over 20,000 pounds of towing capacity, we can probably find steep and rough enough terrain that will stop Artemis. And while something like that Silverado might clear steeper, looser climbs, it would likely be less comfortable, get worse gas mileage, and be tougher to drive around town when we’re not towing. Ironically, while the Colorado is considered a mid-size truck by today’s standards, it’s larger than Silverados and Tundras from just a few years ago. Capacity wise, it’s plenty big for us.
As an experiment, I borrowed a friend’s 2008 Toyota Tundra with over 10,000 pounds towing capacity for comparison. And while it was true that we could haul Artemis quicker up hills and felt a little more stable in the wind, our gas mileage was lower (11 miles per gallon on a 250-mile roundtrip in the mountains of New Mexico), and overall the ride felt rougher and less comfortable. The biggest difference I noticed was lateral stability, which I believe came from the wider stance between the wheels. In some ways, I liked the extra power and the added confidence. But I also realized that, for safety’s sake, I probably don’t need to go faster than 65 miles per hour anyway.
If we had it to do over and we were buying a truck at the same time as the Airstream, would we get something bigger? Sometimes I say, no. Sometimes, yes. The truth is, I’ve come to like our truck. If Artemis is the elegant, shiny, backcountry hideaway that makes our vagabond life appealing, the Colorado is the unsung workhorse that enables it all. Are there compromises? Of course, but then every truck will have some sort of issue. Something beefier with a wider stance, like the Silverado 1500, is tempting, but the smaller price tag and lighter footprint of the Colorado is equally appealing.
So, for now, we’ll keep trucking through the boondocks in our good, “little” Chevy. “Run what you brung,” as they say. It tows that big trailer just fine.