On the hunt for the perfect rooftop cargo box for the family road trip or your #vanlife setup? We looked at dozens and dozens of cargo boxes currently available, then picked the 7 most promising products to purchase and test head-to-head to see which cargo box is indeed the best. We drove these boxes thousands and thousands of miles, over desolate stretches of highway, rough-and-tumble dirt roads, and all around town. Along the way, we installed these boxes on all sorts of different cars and in various configurations, loading and unloading them with every piece of gear that we could think of. Check out our comprehensive review to see which box is the most durable and easy to use, which looks the best, and which one is the best bet when shopping on a tight budget.
The Best Cargo Box Review
After spending all summer staring at the latest and greatest cargo boxes, we decided it was time for an update and added the Thule Hyper XL. This top-of-the-line model scored exceptionally well in our testing process and has the looks to match, but it is hard to get past the somewhat exorbitant cost of this cargo box. If you absolutely need the sleekest and most stylish box around and can afford the Hyper XL, by all means, go for it — it's a great product that won't disappoint. Otherwise, you might want to consider the other boxes that perform the same and cost hundreds of dollars less.
Best Overall Rooftop Box
Thule Motion XT XL
Earning one of the highest scores overall, the Motion XT XL claimed the Editors' Choice Award and the title of Best Overall Cargo Box. This box is incredibly convenient and easy to use with one of the best, most intuitive mounting systems that we have seen to date, usually allowing you to install it in about five minutes. This box is durable and secure, with a locking mechanism that prevents you from accidentally leaving the box unlocked. It has a decently sleek, aesthetically appealing design and is available in two colors — black and off-white — to better match a wider variety of cars.
Unfortunately, this cargo box can take a hefty chunk out of your budget and is one of the most expensive cargo boxes we have reviewed. However, this can be totally worth it if you plan on taking your cargo box on and off your car frequently. If the price isn't right for you, consider saving some money and getting a less-expensive product that is a bit more difficult to install but leaves more room in your budget for what goes inside the box. Excluding price, though, this is the best box in the bunch.Read review: Thule Motion XT
Best Bang for Your Buck
Yakima Skybox 16 Carbonite
Searching for a great rooftop box that won't blow your entire gear budget? The Skybox Carbonite by Yakima is a fantastic value, earning it our Best Buy Award. This rock-solid box is another one of our absolute favorites, and we would highly recommend it. The SkyBox Carbonite does a great job of keeping our gear safe, secure, and easily accessible, all at a price that leaves you some money left over to buy gear to fill it. The lid isn't really floppy at all, and the latching system indicated when the SkyBox is unlocked, making it much harder to drive away with an unlocked box accidentally. On top of that, the matte black finish hid scuffs and scrapes much better than the glossy sheen of some of the more sleek and stylish models we have tested.However, the initial installation is quite a pain. It is still totally doable but if you are planning on leaving the box off of your car most of the time, then throwing it on for a weekend getaway, you will probably be better served by a product that is a bit easier and more convenient when it comes to installation. If you plan on leaving the cargo box installed on a semi-permanent to permanent basis, the more laborious installation procedure shouldn't be a deterrent at all, and you should stick with the SkyBox and spend a little less.
Read full review: Yakima SkyBox Carbonite
Best on a Tight Budget
SportRack Vista XL
While the majority of the boxes we tested were of a longer and thinner aspect ratio, two of the boxes are of the "short and stumpy" variety. Of these two, one, in particular, stood out, with the SportRack Vista earning a Best Buy Award for being the best cargo box you can get when shopping on a tight budget. Usually retailing around $330, this box costs significantly less than most of the other models we tested and holds its own against them. While it did receive one of the lower scores overall, it is a solid, all-around box with a surprisingly spacious interior and a simple, clean design that complements most cars. It doesn't have many of the additional features that the top boxes do, but you can't go wrong with the SportRack if you are looking to save some cash and save some room in your budget.
The SportRack does have a few significant drawbacks. While the somewhat unique rear opening may look cool, it makes it almost impossible to load or unload the box if it is installed on a higher profile car — a large SUV or cargo van. It wasn't problematic on smaller cars, like a Subaru, but it still isn't as easy to access your gear as the side loading models. It's something worth considering if you are thinking about purchasing the SportRack.Read review: SportRack Vista
Top Pick for Style
Thule Hyper XL
Cargo boxes aren't the best-looking addition to a vehicle; we get it. And while none look great atop a Porsche, our testers, friends, and family agree that the Thule Hyper XL is the slickest of the bunch. Its low profile goes a long way to keep this model stylish, yet it still manages to fit a ton of gear. Like our Editors' Choice Award winner, the Hyper XL is easy to install and remove from vehicles, and several features and details make regular use a comfortable, happy affair. Built with quality at the forefront of the design, we expect this model to last many years of use.
The drawback on this model is clear — the price. Costing $1000, it's not the model we would recommend to everyone. Regarding utility, you can save hundreds of dollars by selecting another model. However, your vehicle won't look as good. So, there you have it. If you place a high value on style, the Hyper XL won't let you down in the looks or performance departments.
Read review: Thule Hyper XL
Analysis and Test Results
To rank and score these products and see which cargo carrying box is truly worthy of being crowned king, we began by doing extensive research, looking at over 50 different products, then selected the seven most promising candidates to purchase and test head-to-head. We developed a comprehensive testing plan, evaluating and judging the performance of each product on everything from its ease of installation to how well it hid scratches and scuffs. We divided our testing process into four weighted rating metrics — Ease of Use, Durability, Security, and Appearance, with each box earning a final score ranging from 0-100. Below, we dive into each metric, describing why they are important and which models stood out for their performance.
If you are shopping on a budget, then the Yakima SkyBox or the SportRack Vista should be your first choice. The SkyBox is quite a bit larger, easier to use, and is definitely an all-around better box than the Vista, but sells for about $530 — a little over $200 more than the Vista. The Vista is a great choice if you want a bare-bones box that can handle extra luggage items, but is much harder to use and install and can't handle longer pieces of gear, like skis or paddles. The Thule Motion XT is one of the best products you can get but comes with a hefty price tag of around $730. Matching the performance of the Motion XT, the Hyper XL is even pricier at around $1000, but looks quite a bit more sleek and stylish, making it the box for you if you place a premium on style. The chart below summarizes the combination of performance and price for each model we tested.
Ease of Use
Whether you plan to use your cargo box occasionally, or throw it on your roof and leave it there for months, there are a few ways in which some products are considerably easier to use than others. For this metric, worth 40% of the total score, we looked at the assembly process which included mounting and opening and closing the box; this helped us come up with a picture of how much or little effort was required to enjoy the benefits of each box.
Earning some of the top scores of the entire group, the Thule Motion and the Thule Hyper are our absolute favorites when it comes to being convenient and easy to use. These boxes both came essentially assembled and ready to go right out of the box — only requiring you to thread the interior tie-down straps through their brackets.
The AcuTight or PowerClick mounting systems make installation a breeze and usually accomplished in under five minutes. In fact, we spent more time trying to locate where the manufacturer had taped the key than actually mounting it the first time we went to install the Hyper XL.
Both of these lids open from either side and aren't very floppy at all. Additionally, the Hyper XL also has an integrated light for loading or unloading at night. While it isn't terribly bright, it is useful, though we would still recommend keeping a headlamp on hand if you are going to be using the box at night frequently.
Following this pair of top performers, the Yakima SkyBox is next regarding ease of use. It also has a dual-side opening, but the handle is less user-friendly, and the installation takes a little bit longer and is a little more difficult to accomplish compared to the above pair of Thule models. The SkyBox also lacks a pull cord — a must for shorter users or if the box is installed on a taller car.
The Thule Force came next, having a very similar mounting system to the Thule Motion, with the only difference being the lack of an audible click to let you know that you have tightened the clamp sufficiently.
This Force also opens on both sides, but has a much less convenient and user-friendly handle and latching system, dropping its score down from the Hyper or the Motion.
The Yakima ShowCase 15 and the SportRack Vista are relatively mediocre when it comes to being convenient and easy to use. We weren't enamored with the handle-less design on the ShowCase, but it isn't too difficult to install on a car or access your gear with its dual-opening and quick install mounts — similar to the Yakima SkyBox — but is more work than the top Thule models.
The handle design on the SportRack is fine, but its rear opening makes it much harder to get to your stuff — rendering it almost impossible if the box is on a larger car.
The U-bolt mounting system on the Vista is also a bit of a pain. It's not too bad if you don't plan on taking the box on and off your car frequently, but we would recommend a different box if you are mounting and unmounting the SportRack every weekend.
Finishing out the back of the pack, the Sidekick by Thule is our least favorite when it comes to ease of use. This product requires extensive assembly out of the box that took us over an hour to complete. Additionally, it also relies on a U-bolt mounting system — similar to the SportRack — that is equally hard to use. It also only opens on one side.
Because all of these products are made from similar materials, we looked at the details for clues about their longevity. We drove each box around for weeks without any signs of wear and tear, so this category is primarily concerned with structural integrity and weather resistance. Every box in this review passed the rain and wind tests, which were easy to account for in the Eastern Sierra in springtime, but some had more questionable design features than others. We know you want to invest in a long-lasting roof box that you can count on for countless future adventures, twenty-five percent of the overall score of each product was allotted to durability.
Our main test for durability of materials was in the highly-quantitative lid floppiness. This was a surprisingly easy category to measure since the floppiness was so apparent during regular use. The Thule Motion XT, Hyper XL, and Thule Force, all stood up tall and proud with minimal flop. The Yakima SkyBox is equally sturdy with hinges that gave us a solid impression of sturdiness and a lid with minimal flop.
All of the boxes do a reasonable job of protecting your gear from the elements and kept our belongings dry, even when driving through a hefty rainstorm — or 20 minutes with a garden hose when the weather didn't cooperate. However, two of the models in our review, the SportRack Vista and Thule SideKick, gave us some cause for concern. These boxes attach to the car with U-bolts. The bolts surround the crossbars of the car and attach through a series of holes in the bottom of the box. Both boxes came with small vinyl circles to cover up the unused holes, and we were wary about their waterproofness. We never found water in the boxes during testing, but the vinyl covers seemed like a flimsy solution compared to the solid slide strips that cover any openings on the higher-end Thule or Yakima models. We suspect that these stickers may rub away over time as you load your gear in and out of the boxes, so both of these boxes received a lower score for durability than their competitors.
None of these boxes showed any signs of damage through normal wear and tear, though most showed a handful of scrapes and scuffs from repeatedly installing and uninstalling each one. One tester managed to bend two of the four mounting clips by not realizing it stuck out further than the car and backing into a cement wall. However, the clips were relatively affordable to replace, and the box itself showed no sign of damage — only a minor scuff.
It would be hard to argue that a roof box was a worthy purchase if you couldn't confidently store your belongings in it — that is their purpose, after all. There was only one box that gave us serious pause here, the Thule Sidekick. In turn, we expanded this category to not only include scores for how secure the box was, but how easy the details of the security system were to use, as well.
Because we had to install the locking mechanism ourselves on the Thule Sidekick, we often found it difficult to line up the dual locks on the flimsy lid. It is possible on this product to turn and remove the key without the latch being lined up properly, leaving you with an unintentionally unlocked box and no way to tell other than lifting the lid and testing it. The other products in our test seemed relatively equal, though, and we were never worried about security. In all these models, it is not possible to remove the key without the box being properly latched and secured, which we consider to be a crucial component.
That being said, some of the boxes we tested did have great, useful indicators to let you know if the box was latched properly or not before trying to remove the key, like the newly designed red indicator of the Thule Motion XT and the big handle of the Yakima Skybox. Both of these inspire extra confidence that your belongings are safe, so we boosted their scores in this metric accordingly.
We really appreciate straightforward, simple security systems and boxes that have additional features to aid in our confidence in the security of our beloved gear. This metric constitutes 20% of the overall score of each cargo box.
Function came first in our testing, but we here at OutdoorGearLab know that style does matter. Because this metric is undoubtedly more subjective than the other categories, this metric was given 15% toward the overall score of each product.
There were no shocking designs in this review; all the products we tested generally look like what we'd expect from cargo boxes these days. They did come in a surprising amount of finishes, though, and we had clear preferences.
The Hyper XL does stand out from the group as having the sleekest design — or at least, as sleek a design as a large cargo box can have. It has a glossy finish with a grey "X" on top to accent its appearance. While it does have some of the most panache out of any of these products, its glossy finish does show dirt and grime a bit more than some of the others, as well as any deeper scratches or scuffs.
We loved the matte black finish of the Thule Force and Yakima Skybox Carbonite. We thought the matte finish was unique and tasteful, blending the lines between sophisticated and subtle. It also seemed to hide dead bugs well — a problem we hadn't originally thought of — and hides scratches and dents a bit better than the shiny finishes of some of the boxes in our review.
Additionally, we appreciate that the Thule Motion XT and Yakima ShowCase are available in both gray and black, letting you pick the best match for your car. These are the only products in our review that come in more than one color, and their appearance scores received a boost for versatility. We liked that the gray Motion XT model blends in a little more on the tester's white van. The shiny black finish of the Yakima ShowCase is sleek, classy, and timeless, and looks exactly like what we'd expect from a high-end cargo box.
Comparatively, we thought the textured finishes of the Thule Sidekick and SportRack Vista looked cheap. If we drove fancier cars, we'd be hesitant to put either of these models on top. Either way, appearance may mean more or less to you depending on your personal preferences and could be a good category to ignore if trying to save a few bucks.
Are These Going To Kill My Gas Mileage or Ruin Handling?
You may be wondering if it is even worth getting a cargo box in the first place, due to their impact on vehicle handling and mileage. While we originally had an entire metric devoted to this, we found after testing each of these boxes that there wasn't significant impact on how a variety of different test cars handled, regardless if we were traveling on the freeway at high speeds, over windy mountain passes, or over potholes and bumps on rough roads. These are all large boxes that go on top of your car and increase the wind resistance and drag while you are driving, but they are all pretty much comparable, especially if you drive a larger SUV or truck that isn't particularly aerodynamic in the first place. Drag is hugely dependent on speed as well, so you can probably negate any loss in fuel economy by driving just a bit slower — and you don't really want to be speeding all that much anyways with a fully loaded cargo box on top of your car. Does adding a heavy box to your vehicle affect its power, handling, and fuel efficiency? Sure. Were we able to notice the difference, especially comparative differences between each box? No, not really.
While all the boxes in our review achieve the purpose of shuttling gear from one place to another, our in-depth research has allowed us to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each product to help you pick the perfect one. After weeks of getting to know each box, we're confident in our assessments of the most popular products on the market today. We evaluated durability, appearance, security, and, most importantly, user-friendliness to bring you a comprehensive buyer's guide, complete with individual articles where we get down to the nitty-gritty of each product. For more information about each product, cruise over to the individual reviews, which you'll find in the comparison table towards the top of the review.
— Lauren DeLaunay and David Wise