The Best Cargo Box Review
What is the best roof box on the market? Do differences matter, or are they all the same? We tested five top competitors to find out. We heaved these boxes on the roofs of our cars and compared them on their construction quality, appearance, ease of use, aerodynamics, and security. Our testers drove with these boxes at high speeds on the highway, on bumpy dirt roads, and drove from California to Canada and back. We loaded them to their maximum capacity and mounted them on different vehicles to see what they could do. Read on to see what we thought about each model and how they faired in each category. Also, check out our How to Choose a Cargo Box for Your Vehicle article to learn more about what to look for when buying a roof box.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Update Note: April 2015
We have contacted all of the companies and confirmed any changes, as noted in the reviews. A complete review was performed in November 2013.
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Analysis and Test Results
As adventurers with tons of gear, sometimes we need extra space for big road trips or moving around from season to season. We want a cargo box that fits the type of gear we're using and is easy to use. We've discovered that there are tons of little things that make a big difference in choosing the right roof box, from being able to load and close it easily to how loud you need to turn up the stereo in your car to ignore the road noise. Some models are incredibly easy to mount and some require more assembly. There were a few boxes we don't even notice when we drive around and some that make it feel like we have a sail on top of our car. Check out our How We Test article for more details on where we took our rigs and what we put in them.
Criteria for Evaluation
All of the boxes we tested are made from high quality materials, but some stand up to regular use better than others. We prefer versions with a stiffer lid construction because it makes them easier to open and close. The Yakima Skybox Pro 16 and the Thule Sonic both have strong, stiff lids. Some of the boxes feel lower quality because their lids are floppier and harder to close and lock, like the Rhino Rack Master Fit. We have been on the lookout for defects such as broken parts or locks that didn't close properly, and we discovered that the Yakima Rocketbox Pro's arm detached from the lid when we stuffed it full of tents and gear. This did not give us much confidence in this model's construction quality.
We want the car we drive to look good, so why would we want to put an ugly roof box on our snazzy looking vehicle? We evaluated the different finishes on the boxes, as well as shapes and sizes, and came up with some opinions on which ones look stylish on our cars. We really like the shape, size, and titanium finish of the Yakima Skybox Pro 16. We also gravitate towards the sleek black finish of the Thule Sonic. The low profile shape of the Inno Racks Shadow 16 is attractive, and it looks good on tall SUV's. Although we like the color of the Rhino Rack Master Fit 550, we think it looks too large and bulky on our lead tester's little Toyota Matrix, but would sit well on larger vehicles.
Ease of Use
Ease of use is one of the most important factors for evaluating a roof box, because no one wants to have to wrestle with getting their cargo stowed securely before a big trip any more than they have to. We looked at how easy these models were to install, open and close, load and lock.
All of the boxes were relatively easy to install, although we always required two people to lift them on the roof. We like the clamp style attachments that the Thule Sonic, Rhino Racks Master Fit and the Yakima Rocketbox Pro 14 use the best. We find these very easy and quick to use. The Yakima Skybox's hook system is also relatively easy to use, but takes a bit longer to figure out. Our least favorite attachment system is Inno Racks Shadow's metal hooks. This system required a lot more instruction reading time and fiddling. The good thing about attaching your box to your roof is that you only have to do it once (until you want to take it off again).
For those of us that are shorter than 6'5 or so, opening, closing and loading your roof box is going to be slightly awkward. Some models try to make these functions as easy as possible. All of the versions we tested opened from both sides, a feature that is pretty darn convenient. We discovered that the stiffness of the lid is key to making the box easier or harder to open and close. The Yakima Skybox is the overall easiest to open because it has a stiff lid that opens in one push, and we can do it with one hand. The floppiest lid was Rhino Racks Master Fit, we have to use two hands to push it up. The boxes that have a string attached to the lid, like the Thule Sonic, were easier to close because we could pull the lid down without climbing up on our car. Our favorite feature of all the boxes is the Yakima Skybox's handle lever that clicks into place when the box is closed, so we know it is closed, and it makes it easy to pop it open when unlocked.
All of the boxes have the security feature that does not allow you to remove the key from the lock until the it is completely shut, latched, and locked. We like this feature, but some of the boxes are easier to close and latch than others. As mentioned above, the Skybox's handle system was the easiest. The Master Fit 550 was the most difficult because of the floppiness of the lid, which sometimes did not allow the locks to match up properly, or we had to slam our fists down on the lid to make them latch.
We spoke with the product design teams at Yakima and Thule about what they do to test for aerodynamics and their design process. Both teams said that they are concerned with creating their boxes with sleek, aerodynamic shapes and try their best to reduce road noise, but sometimes the most aerodynamic shape is not the most functional – so they have to find a good balance. Both Yakima and Thule agree that the biggest factor to determine how aerodynamic your roof box will be is "the large hunk of metal you mount it on" – your vehicle. The gas mileage and aerodynamics depend on the vehicle and the user – how the box interacts with the vehicle, including the shape of the vehicle in relation to the box, where the box is positioned on the vehicle, and how and where the person is driving. Yakima and Thule both have engineers who test for aerodynamics using a wind tunnel and nerdy computer programs where they are primarily looking for air/road noise and particularly turbulent areas that could create extra drag. Check out this wind tunnel video by Thule.
Having said all of this, and realizing that the boxes perform differently on each of our testers' vehicles, we tried to be cognizant of how our test models performed in an aerodynamic sense. We monitored our gas mileage, listened for road noise, and paid attention to how our vehicles handled while driving with the different boxes. We have come to realize that testing for aerodynamics and gas mileage is a pretty scientific process, and we do not posses the technology to accurately asses these things – but we're happy to share our observations and opinions on the subject.
We noticed that all of the roof boxes have some road noise at speeds above 70 MPH, and they all were buffeted around on the highway during high winds, making handling more difficult. Some were quieter than others. We think the Inno Racks Shadow 16 is slightly quieter than the rest, with its slim, sleek design. The Yakima Rocketbox 14 is the loudest at high speeds. We can also hear the Rocketbox's lid rattle when driving on bumpy dirt roads. The Rhino Rack Master Fit 550 feels very large on our tester's Toyota Matrix, and the car's handling was noticeably affected by this box.
Weight is also a factor that affects your gas mileage. The heaviest box in the review is the Yakima Skybox Pro 14, which is our Editor's choice weighing in at 47 pounds. This is the one drawback we could find with the Skybox, as a heavier box will no doubt negatively affect your gas mileage. The next heaviest model was the 45 pound Rhino Rack Master Fit 550, and the lightest in this review is the Rocketbox Pro 14 at 38 pounds. These boxes also have different carrying capacity, which affects their weight, 16, 19.4 and 14 cubic feet respectively.
We think these boxes potentially keep your stuff more secure over all. You can't see into them like into the back of a hatch-back or SUV that doesn't have a trunk, so keeping your belongings in your roof box instead of the back of your car could avoid "smash and grab" thefts. All of the test models have three latching points, and all of the latches need to be locked before you are able to remove the key from the lock, which helps you know that the box is really closed before you drive away.
We think that the boxes with less stiffness could be a little less secure because it may be easier to break into a flimsier box. The floppier lids like the Rhino Rack Master Fit 550 are also more difficult to close and sometimes the latches don't match up.
Skiers, cyclists, and white water rafters travel miles, sometimes hundreds of miles, by car, to get to their destination for enjoying the simple pleasure of recreation. For decades, gear would be shoved into the tight interior of a station wagon or tossed into the back of a truck or strapped to the roof of a car. To this day, this may be the preferred method for some outdoor enthusiasts. But once the car begins to smell or the roof has scratches and dings or, even worse, your gear becomes damaged, a rooftop cargo box will become appealing. A brief insight into how the evolution of carrying our gear to the mountains and the rivers and the ocean highlights the benefits of these innovative storage options.
Attaching a box to the top of a car requires some engineering. Roof racks preceded the advent of cargo box storage. First, there were luggage racks; these were the first type of storage option for the roof of cars. Luggage was tied down to the top of the car in whatever manner was secure and surrounded within galvanized steel baskets. This method offered travelers and adventurers more interior car space and the ability to travel with a wider range of vehicles; a bigger car was not necessary to accommodate gear storage on long trips. The method of strapping luggage and gear to the top of a car was not aerodynamic nor did it look good.
An increase in outdoor recreation in the 1960s lent to heightened development in many aspects of outdoor gear and storage. Huge evolutions in gear material, manufacturing, and convenience occurred between the 1960s and 1990s.
In 1962, two decades after Thule was established, the first vehicle rooftop ski carrier was created. Up until the 60s, Thule developed and sold belt buckles, headlamp grilles for car lights, and traps for fisherman. Now, skiers could put their skis on the roof of their car and transport them to the mountain. This was a defining moment in European skiing- you could take a wider range of cars, including fancy sports cars, to the mountain without worry of damaging the interior or without being limited by space. Another decade passed before the roof top ski carrier became lockable.
Yakima Industries began as an American company. Otto Lagervall and Jeanne Lagervall of Yakima, Washington started their company with the invention of foot braces for kayaks and canoes. They expanded to create roof racks, although the first racks were intended for hauling construction and landscape equipment. All of this occurred in 1973, which would be reflected upon as a highlight year for roof racks. The Gold Rush Bar was the first nationally available product from Yakima. In 1979, Yakima was sold to a group of white water rafters and the company relocated to Arcata in Northern California. Until 1990, Yakima would focus on reinventing tower rack systems, ski racks, paddle gear racks, and mounts that accommodated different vehicle styles.
In 1977, Thule developed the TB-11- the first roof box. Thule's products were now focused on car related systems. In 1980, Thule began retailing their carracks and cargo boxes in the United States. In 1984, the second roof box was released- the Combibox 250 was the first box made of blow-molded plastic. The method of blow-molding expands plastic into a hollow piece, or box, from the inside out; think of blowing up a balloon. The process took place within a mold so that once the plastic reached its desired form, it would harden into the proper shape. The Combibox was a durable design intended to safely and securely transport skis and other gear; the Combibox can still be seen on the road today as its strong design has endured the years. Thule now had an international presence. In 1991, they acquired Jetbag, a German roof box company and over the next decade would grow to be the world's largest manufacturer of vehicle rooftop cargo boxes.
Yakima presented their first roof top cargo box in 1990- the RocketBox. The original RocketBox, like the Combibox, was a long rectangular plastic box with squared off corners and straight lines. For the following decade, advancements in gear transportation systems focused on racks for skis, bicycles, and mounting systems for a widening range of vehicles. Up until the early 2000s, cargo box storage for outdoor gear remained boxy and rigid.
Other companies, such as Inno, Packasport, and Barrecrafters have gained recognition for unique designs, although Yakima and Thule have been and currently remain at the forefront of ingenuity and reputation for durable, easy to use cargo solutions.
Around 2005-2006, aerodynamics began to influence the shape and lightweight material of the boxes. The rounded edges, scoops and dips on the top, and sleek shape of boxes appealed to the outdoor recreationist who wanted gas efficiency, increased security, and style. In 2006, Yakima introduced the Skybox series offering more space and aerodynamic design.
For installation, most cars now have gutters or factory installed racks for easy attachment of cargo boxes. The multi-component attachment systems and rigid designs have evolved into simple, lightweight, spacious solutions for transporting gear with shapes that are both stylish and environmentally minded.
— Jessica Haist
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