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Heavy-duty hauling holiday

Published September 5, 2009


SPRINGBROOK, P.E.I.–Normally, when you push down on a vehicle's accelerator, the speedometer doesn't start rolling backward.

But there we were, towing a travel trailer up the steep inclines of the St. John River Valley in New Brunswick, watching our speed fall faster than the gas gauge.

Welcome to the world of RVing. Welcome to the slow lane.

You may be the type of person who would ask why anyone would buy a gas-guzzling, politically incorrect, full-size SUV. Sometimes, though, a less capable vehicle just won't do.

Take for example our family's summer road trip to Springbrook, on the north shore of P.E.I., just west of Anne of Green Gables World (a.k.a. Cavendish).

This year, our family of five decided to try camping during the five-day 2,600 km round-trip. Or more accurately, to "RV it," with a 6.4-metre-long Mallard travel trailer, on loan from Go RVing Canada (a coalition of recreational vehicle manufacturers, dealers and campground operators).

For our journey down and back, the "Disco Duck" (as the Mallard was quickly tagged) – with air conditioning, heat, stove, fridge, toilet, bathtub with shower, and room to sleep six – would replace the motel rooms we would usually book on our biennial roadie to the Maritimes.

Obviously, our regular ride, a compact sedan, wouldn't be able to pull the trailer out of our laneway without requesting a new gearbox or rear springs, let alone haul the passengers and more than two weeks' supply of holiday stuff.

So we snagged one of those aforementioned archaic SUVs. Specifically, a 2010 Toyota Sequoia SR5.

Toyota is well aware of the bad rap large SUVs get these days, but the company still wants to sell you one.

So this year, the base $48,320 Sequoia SR5 gets a new smaller-yet-more-powerful (310 versus 276 hp, and 327 versus 313 lb.-ft. of torque) and fuel efficient (combined 13.8 L/100 km or 20.5 m.p.g. versus 14.4 L or 19.6 m.p.g.) 4.6-litre V8 to replace last year's base 4.7 L eight.

(The 381 hp 5.7-litre V8 engine carries on as the only engine choice on in the more upscale $57,235 Limited and $65,475 Platinum Sequoias.)

The compromise – as there always seems to be – is in the 4.6 L's towing capacity.

On paper, the Sequoia SR5's 3,175 kg tow rating has the trailer's 2,529 kg gross vehicle weight rating well covered – the maximum allowable total weight of the trailer when loaded with beach balls and whatnot. But that's below the 4,082 kg limit that the Sequoia 5.7 L can pull, let alone what the SR5's respective rivals – $51,635 Chevrolet Tahoe and $55,398 Nissan Armada – can haul.

But would the smaller-engine Sequoia SR5 manage as our holiday beast of burden?

Taking the most expedient route from eastern Ontario to P.E.I., we drove south of the St. Lawrence River via Autoroute 20 in Quebec. We hung a right, and headed south through the St. John River valley in New Brunswick via Hwy. 2 then crossed over the Northumberland Strait on the 13-km-long Confederation Bridge to P.E.I.

We more than likely would have appreciated the larger 5.7 L eight's additional 74 lb.-ft. of torque when taking off. Despite the 4.6 L's economy leanings, though, the Sequoia SR5's recessionary engine had little problem ensuring our 5,200-plus kg holiday juggernaut stayed with holiday traffic once up to speed. But some tricks are required.

First, make sure the Sequoia's "Tow/Haul" button is engaged. It modifies shift points of the six-speed automatic for optimal performance. Then, slide the gearbox from D to S. This will call up snappier downshifts as well.

Using this method, our Sequoia/Duck truck-and-trailer combo could easily keep up with the 100 to 110 km/h holiday traffic.

Just don't expect to get anywhere near the advertised non-towing fuel consumption numbers.

Along the flat farmlands of Quebec, the Sequoia's trip computer read about 22 L/100 km (12.8 m.p.g.) average, or double the SR5's 11.1 L/100 km (25.5 m.p.g) rating. But once we started making the long climbs on Hwy. 2 between Edmundston and Fredericton, N.B., we were averaging closer to 35 L/100 km (8 m.p.g.).

Ouch. We were swilling dollar-a-litre gas like an orbit-bound Saturn V rocket, which meant having to refuel every 21/2 hours. If you're in a hurry, the too-frequent fill-ups – along with the need to plan every stop like D-Day to make sure you have an exit strategy for your huge rig – really adds to your travel day.

As a means to a destination, it's hard to recommend our RV experience.

Including the daily trailer rental, RV park fees and gas, it cost us nearly $1,800 for five days of travelling to P.E.I. and back

By renting two hotel rooms (one with a kitchenette) and driving the same Sequoia, our costs would have been nearer to $900.

As one of the roomiest eight-passenger SUVs on the market, the four-wheel-drive Sequoia SR5 made for a comfortable family room on wheels. Class-leading shoulder room meant no complaints from the two Princesses and Grandma perched back in the middle row for the duration.

We only used the third row for seating a couple of times while on the Island. But the Sequoia beats the Tahoe and Armada for cargo room, seats up or down.

After setting up the Duck as overflow accommodations for visiting family and friends, the unladened SUV felt like a Supra Turbo. From the driver's seat, the best part of trailering can be shedding the trailer.

The added weight to take into consideration when accelerating or braking, and the pendulum effect the trailer causes in crosswinds, meant a lot more concentration behind the wheel than when we were trailer-free.

Then there are the gains in fuel economy. During our two weeks in P.E.I. trailer-free, the Sequoia SR5 averaged a more realistic13.3 L/100 km (21 m.p.g.).

Okay. The Sequoia doesn't really drive like a sports car. But relative to its two main rivals, it feels the least cumbersome and is much more refined behind the wheel as we criss-crossed the Island from Summerside to Brackley Beach.

Its independent rear-suspension, unique for this class, absorbs bumps extremely well and kept the big SUV's body-motion control in check better than a Toyota Highlander crossover I drove last year.

And unlike the ladder-frame Tundra pickup it's based upon, Toyota's full-size SUV gets a fully boxed frame. That meant nary a rattle or moan from the Sequoia's cabin or chassis during our tenure.

Beefs? Two: finger light steering, and the six-speed autobox's indecisiveness sometimes.

Dollar-per litre gas and the emerging frugality-is-chic zeitgeist mean fewer people are considering full-size SUVs as daily transportation. As we discovered, though, sometimes you really need the room and generous towing capacity only a full-size SUV can deliver.

Less expensive to get into, roomier and more refined to drive than its two main rivals – and now with the more powerful yet economical 4.6 eight – it wouldn't be hard to choose the new 2010 Sequoia SR5 in those circumstances. Even when it's not towing a 2,529 kg Duck.

Freelance writer John LeBlanc can be reached at