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Tips for choosing the right bike rack for your car

We sort through the dizzying selection of options

Last updated: June 2014

The objective is simple. You want to carry your bicycle on your vehicle. But there's a seemingly dizzying selection of bike-rack styles and a wide range of prices from which to choose. In general, this is an advantage, but to get the right bike rack for your needs, you should do some research and compare the different makes and models. The right rack should fit the vehicle properly, securely transport the bikes, and fall within your budget. The wrong rack could be a safety hazard, scratch your vehicle, and possibly lead to a lost, stolen, or damaged bicycle.

And keep in mind that a bike rack, even without bikes mounted, will hurt your fuel economy, as the video explains.

Consider your needs

The key to choosing the right bike rack is accurately defining your needs and assessing your current vehicles. Consider the following when choosing a bike rack:

  • How often will you use it?
  • How many bikes need to be transported?
  • Will you need to change vehicles (e.g., switch the rack between husband's and wife's vehicles)?
  • Is the vehicle leased or rented?
  • How much are you willing to spend?
  • How important is security?
  • How high can you lift a bicycle by yourself, and hold it in position with one hand?
  • Do you have a special bike such as a tandem or one with an odd-shaped frame?
  • Does your vehicle already have a tow hitch or roof-mounted utility rack? If so, what is the load capacity?
  • Does your vehicle have a rear-mounted spare tire that will interfere with certain types of mounts?
  • Do you engage in other sports or activities, which may make one rack type more useful or cost-effective than another?

Types of racks

Bike racks generally fall into three distinct categories: a strap-on trunk rack, a hitch-mount rack, and a roof rack. All types have good and bad points, but not all are available for every vehicle. The strap-on is the least expensive, but the least secure; the roof rack is the most versatile, but the most difficult to use; and the hitch-mount is the most expensive, but easy to operate. There are also specialty racks that are designed specifically for use with pickup trucks or for inside SUVs or vans. Some truck racks can be used above the bed, allowing for storage underneath. Others have specialty mounts that can be attached to rear-mounted spare tires and the rear ladders sometimes found on conversion vans.

Here's a closer look at the strengths and weaknesses of the three main types of bike rack:

Strap-on trunk-mounted carrier

Strap-on trunk mounts are the least expensive bike-carrier option. They typically cost from $40 to $140. Straps attached to the carrier's frame attach to the car's trunk, hatchback, or rear bumper. The bike's frame rests on plastic-coated support arms; better carriers have padded or indented cradles to hold the frame. You need to tightly strap the carrier to the vehicle, and properly orient the carrier frame supports and carrier arms to balance the carrier before installing bikes. You can typically carry one or two, and in some cases, three bikes on a trunk-mounted carrier. While trunk-mounted carriers are inexpensive and can fit many vehicles, they do have a greater chance of damaging the vehicle and the bikes than do other carrier designs.

Advantages

  • Good option for a leased or rented vehicle, as they are typically not vehicle-specific
  • Easier to lift and secure bikes in place
  • Rack can be easily stored--even in trunk
  • Starting well under $100, the least expensive of all types

Disadvantages

  • Typically, combined weight of bike and rack rests on the vehicle's body panels, which can cause damage to paint or sheet metal
  • Straps can come loose, wear out, or snap
  • Truck-mounted spoilers can get in the way
  • Straps can be cut easily, compromising security of rack
  • May be difficult to lock bikes to rack or car
  • Bikes may be damaged from backing into an object or being hit by another vehicle
  • Often padding needs to be added between the bikes to keep them from banging into each other and scratching
  • Trunk cannot be opened with rack installed
  • You could get a ticket if the license plate or taillights are obstructed
  • Extra attachments may be needed to support odd-framed bikes
  • Not recommended for Tandem bikes
  • May block driver's view out of rear window

Roof-mounted carrier

Roof-mounted carriers attach either to a vehicle's already existing roof rack and crossbars--found on many SUVs, minivans, and station wagons, or with mounting feet and clips that attach to a vehicle's upper door frame or rain gutters. The total cost is reduced if your vehicle is already equipped with a roof rack or crossbars that will support the bike mount. Basic carriers start for less than $50 per bike, but the more popular bike carriers start around $100. If you need to buy the basic roof rack and crossbars, add about $125 to $200 to the total cost. If you select a roof rack, you have to decide on the method of mounting the bikes. Some racks use a fork-mount carrier that clamps onto the bike's front-wheel fork. The downside is that the front wheel must be removed and stored elsewhere, but the upsides are that the bike is easier to manage up on the roof and unique frame shapes can be accommodated. Upright mounts hold the bike by the frame or pedal crank. You don't need to remove the front wheel, but you need to reach up higher to put the bike on, and some unusual frame shapes won't fit.

Advantages

  • Modular setup allows additional cargo storage with an additional storage case
  • The rack can be used for different activities, such as skiing and canoeing if you buy different accessories or carriers, or for transporting other objects like building materials
  • Racks can be adapted to existing factory hardware or mounted with the rack manufacturer's nonpermanent footing
  • Lockable mounting available
  • A sedan may hold four bikes, a large van as many as seven
  • Can support tandem and odd-framed bikes, depending on the carrier "tray" design used

Disadvantages

  • Can be somewhat complicated to install
  • Vehicle can't go into parking garages or under any overhead structure with low clearance, including drive-through fast food restaurants.
  • Increases wind resistance reducing gas mileage more than other types; also produces more apparent wind noise
  • It can be hard to lift a bike onto a tall vehicle, which could cause scratches to the car's roof or sides.
  • May not fit properly on curved-roof vehicles or convertibles--check manufacturer's fit guides for your vehicle.
  • Touches the vehicle's body; if installed when vehicle is dirty, may scratch paint
  • Must take care not to exceed the vehicle or rack manufacturer's rooftop weight allowance.
  • Consumer Reports does not recommend carrying heavy rooftop loads on an SUV, as the higher center of gravity can compromise emergency handling, leading to a rollover accident.

Hitch-mounted carrier

Hitch-mount racks come in different sizes to match the class of hitch on the vehicle. Class I hitches with 1.25-inch openings are designed for most cars and small car-based SUVs. Class III hitches with 2-inch openings are usually found on pickups and truck-based SUVs. Your choice will depend on the number of bikes to be transported (racks for Class I hitches rarely carry more than three bikes) and your vehicle (Class III hitches cannot be adapted to most cars). Generic brand, single-bike hitch mounts can be found for under $100, but popular brands start for $125 and swing-away models can go for as much as $400. Some hitch-mount racks secure the bikes in mounting "trays," much like the ones used with roof-mounted models. Others require you to strap the bikes securely to the carrier; you need to take care to keep the bikes from scratching each other.


Advantages

  • Easy to install--just slide it into the hitch
  • Typically, no need to remove front wheels to mount bikes
  • Easier to lift and secure bikes in place
  • Much less chance of scratching vehicle's paint when mounting bikes

Disadvantages

  • Added expense of trailer hitch, if the vehicle doesn't have one
  • Some hitches may require drilling holes in vehicle's chassis or cutting rear fascia
  • Some small cars are not rated for towing, and mounting a tow hitch can affect the warranty or cause problems when the vehicle is being serviced
  • Some models don't allow access to vehicle's rear liftgate. Swing-away models that do are more expensive
  • Often padding needs to be added between the bikes to keep them from banging into each other and scratching
  • Bikes may be damaged either from backing into something or getting hit from behind
  • If license plate or taillights are obstructed, you could get a ticket
  • May need extra attachments to support odd-framed bikes
  • Not recommended for tandem bikes
  • May block driver's view out of rear window
  • May be difficult to lock bikes to rack

Talking to experts and experienced bikers will help you narrow your choices. Also, check Internet chat rooms for personal opinions. Research and careful shopping will help you arrive at the best rack for your needs, budget, and lifestyle. Among the best review Web sites are:

www.mtbreview.com
www.carreview.com
epinions.com
www.mountainbikingonline.com

A wide range of products and information is also available at the following retail sites:

www.rei.com
www.rackwarehouse.com
www.sportsrack.com
www.rackattack.com
www.therackshop.com

   

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