Best Cargo Box of 2020
Best Overall Rooftop Box
Thule Motion XT XL
Earning one of the highest scores overall, the Motion XT XL was the Editors' favorite and claimed 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 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 award for outstanding value. 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 some money left over to buy gear to fill it. The lid isn't 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 hides 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 review: Yakima SkyBox Carbonite
Best on a Tight Budget
SportRack Horizon Alpine
Products in the gear category are expensive. If the price tag of the Yakima SkyBox is still outside your budget, then the SportRack Horizon Alpine is the cargo carrier for you. The Horizon Alpine is a bare-bones product that can't compare to the top-tier products in terms of convenience features but retails at a fraction of the cost of the top models. This budget box looks alright and feels very sturdy and durable. It isn't too much of a hassle to take on and off a car once you get the hang of it, and it can hold skis/snowboards up to 210 cm in length — a rarity for budget cargo carriers.
While the Horizon Alpine will get your stuff from Point A to Point B, there are plenty of concessions to keep the price down. The lid only opens on one side — with no way to reconfigure it — and it lacks any integrated straps for securing your gear inside or a built-in light. The lid is also a little on the floppy side, and the Alpine is bordering boring when it comes to visual appeal. It's a great option if you don't want to spend a ton of cash on a cargo solution for your car, but the Horizon Alpine is far from flawless. However, though it lacks the bells and whistles of the premium contenders, it's more than adequate to haul your gear around.
Read review: SportRack Horizon Alpine
Why You Should Trust Us?
We've been testing and reviewing cargo boxes for over three years and constantly seek new and notable models to add to our review. To ensure objectivity, we purchase all of the products that we test and never accept any free products or incentives from manufacturers. Our cargo box testing team is comprised of Lauren DeLaunay, David Wise, and Steven Tata. Lauren, our head tester, has lived out of her van for several years and taken these boxes all over the country, filling them with gear for many types of trips. David lives in Tahoe and spends a significant amount of time transporting skis, snowboards, and camping equipment throughout the year. Steven spends much time traveling with gear for skiing and climbing and is consistently impressed with how much more stylish his Honda Element looks with a cargo box on top of it. In addition to performing comprehensive real-world testing, David and Steven both contribute their backgrounds in mechanical engineering when ranking and scoring each model's aerodynamics and structural design.
We began testing by unpacking and assembling each model while paying close attention to how easy each one is to install and load with gear. Each box was left on for several weeks and driven for hundreds and hundreds of miles. We evaluated how user-friendly each one is on a day-to-day basis and noted any significant changes in vehicle handling and fuel economy. The boxes were loaded with a wide variety of equipment, from sleeping bags to climbing ropes to skis. Throughout testing, we kept track of any visible wear and tried to find flaws in durability.
Related: How We Tested Cargo Boxes
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 the best products currently on the market, then picking out the most promising cargo carriers 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 its finish hides scrapes and scratches. 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.
Related: Buying Advice for Cargo Boxes
For those on a budget, the Yakima SkyBox and SportRack Horizon XL are our favorite inexpensive cargo boxes. The SkyBox offers great performance without a shocking price tag. It can fit multiple pairs of skis, is easy to install, and is durably built. The Horizon Alpine is a bit more bare-bones than the SkyBox but costs significantly less and is our top recommendation for anyone looking to spend the bare minimum. The Alpine also can carry skis, unlike many other low-cost cargo carriers. At the top of the line, the Thule Motion XT is a luxury model that is impressively easy to use and quite stylish. It is one of the most expensive models that 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 was our absolute favorites when it comes to being convenient and easy to use. This model came essentially assembled and ready to go right out of the box — only requiring you to thread the interior tie-down straps through its brackets.
The AcuTight or PowerClick mounting systems make installation a breeze and usually accomplished in under five minutes.
Following this top performer, the Yakima SkyBox and Thule Force XT XL are next regarding ease of use. Both also have dual-side openings, but the handles are less user-friendly. The Force features the same PowerClick mounting system as the more expensive Thule models but lacks the more convenient locking systems featured on those models. The SkyBox has a slightly more prominent handle than the Force but is not as easy to switch between vehicles. Both have their advantages over each other but feel fairly comparable in terms of overall ease of use.
The Yakima ShowCase 15, SportRack Horizon Alpine, and SportRack Vista XL are fairly uninspiring when it comes to convenience and ease of use, earning them a mediocre score in this metric. 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 Vista XL is fine, but the rear opening makes it much harder to get to your stuff — rendering it almost impossible if the box is on a larger car. We found that this was our least favorite opening direction, as it is so much harder to get your stuff than the side-opening carriers.
The SportRack Vista XL's U-Bolt mounting system makes it much slower to install than any of the more expensive models, but this isn't much of a problem if you plan to leave it on your car for a while. If you plan to move it on and off your car every weekend, then it might be worth checking out the Yakima SkyBox.
The Horizon Alpine also lacks an ergonomic handle but has an easier to use mounting system than the Vista XL. The Alpine relies on a hybrid system between the unibody clamps of the SkyBox and the U-bolts of the Vista XL. It captures a bolt between two mounting plates, so you can attach the majority of the hardware on the ground and only have to install four bolts and nuts once you lift it onto your racks.
This can be a bit of a pain to do solo if you have shorter arms or racks that aren't particularly high from the roof of the car, but we usually could get it on or off most vehicles in 15 minutes or so once we got the hang of it. However, the Horizon Alpine can only open towards the passenger side and doesn't have a light or strap system inside.
Finishing out the back of the pack, the Sidekick by Thule is our least favorite when it comes to ease of use. It took us over an hour to assemble this model, and we found it to be tedious to install. Additionally, it also relies on a U-bolt mounting system — similar to the Vista XL — that is equally hard to use. To top it off, the box only opens on one side, making it one of the least convenient boxes that we've ever tested.
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, so 25% percent of the overall score of each product was allotted to durability.
Our primary test for the 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 and Thule Force XT XL stood up tall and proud with very little flop. The Yakima SkyBox and the Horizon Alpine are both quite sturdy, with solid hinges and only minimal amounts of lid flop. However, we did notice that the giant rear-opening hatch of the Vista XL had much more play than other products and is significantly more floppy.
In general, we found the vast majority of these products offer adequate protection for your gear. Our belongings were usually dry even after driving through heavy rainstorms — or getting sprayed with a garden hose on full strength for 20 minutes when the weather wasn't behaving for testing purposes.
We are a bit more concerned about water-resistance when it comes to the SportRack Vista XL, the SportRack Horizon Alpine, and the Thule Sidekick. All three of these cargo carriers mount to roof racks with a set of U-bolts and come with a series of pre-drilled holes to accommodate different crossbar spacing. This means that there are multiple holes on the bottom of these boxes, consequently leaving multiple points for water to get in. To remedy this, these products include some vinyl stickers to cover the unused holes. These stickers performed fine in our test but we could see their effectiveness at keeping water out degrading over time.
None of these boxes showed any significant 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.
Responsible for one-fifth of the total score for each product, the security of each cargo box is our next concern. Everyone wants to be confident that their roof box will keep their gear as safe as possible — although a determined thief could probably get into any of these products with enough motivation and the right tools. We awarded the most points to carriers that have a simple and easy to operate security systems that seemed durable enough to resist break-ins and solid enough that we would entrust it with our beloved gear, depending on where we park.
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.
Perhaps 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.
The remainder of the boxes are all average in terms of security. They had factory installed locks but lacked any extra indicators or ergonomic handles. They are all easy to latch and unlatch and won't permit the key to be removed while the box is unlocked, preventing you from forgetting to latch it or locking your keys in the box.
Although we tend to prioritize function over form for most categories, we do recognize that cargo boxes can be an eyesore and are something that you'll have to see every day while on your vehicle. To account for this in our review, 15% of each product's final score is based on appearance. Testing was fairly subjective and based upon a group consensus.
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.
We loved the matte black finish of the Thule Force XT XL, the Horizon Alpine, and Yakima Skybox Carbonite. We thought the matte finish was unique and tasteful, blending the lines between sophisticated and subtle.
It also hides dead bugs well — a problem we hadn't initially thought of. Scratches and scuffs are more subtle on the matte finishes, a problem that glossy models struggled with after many miles.
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.
Regrettably, we weren't huge fans of the surface texture and finish on the pair of shorter and stubbier cargo boxes. We felt the textured finish on the Thule Sidekick and the SportRack Vista seemed a little cheap to us — to the point where we felt it might detract from the appearance of nicer cars. Regardless, they could be a good option if you don't care much about the appearance of your cargo box or if you like how the textured surface matches your vehicle and are trying to save some money.
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.
We sincerely hope that this review and expert recommendations have helped you find the perfect rooftop cargo carrier for all of your gear transport needs, regardless of the type of gear you need to move or your budget. Admittedly, all of these products will get your stuff from Point A to Point B and might seem very similar. However, our comprehensive research is here to help you identify the minute differences between these products so you can find the perfect product.
— Lauren DeLaunay, David Wise, and Steven Tata