The Best Cargo Box Review
Daunted by the search for the best rooftop cargo box? We researched the 40 most popular products of 2017 and carefully selected 6 for hands-on, side-by-side comparison. Our two months of deliberate, calculated testing allowed us to identify the ins and outs of each box, including the hidden details that set each model apart. We drove our boxes all over California, on long stretches of highway, bumpy dirt roads, and short trips around town, loading and unloading the contents. We've come up with a comprehensive review to help you determine which models are the most durable, secure, and user-friendly. Not sure where to begin? Keep reading for all the details on our favorite products and why we love them, or head on over to our How to Choose a Cargo Box, where we'll give you some tips to get started.
Read the full review below >
Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Rooftop Box
Thule Motion XT XL
The Motion XT was our obvious Editors' Choice Award winner. It received high marks across the board, including the only 8 out of 10 that we gave in any category. This box was incredibly user friendly, and we loved its large, ergonomic handle and helpful pullcord. Thule's mounting system was the easiest to understand and use, blowing away the competition in this metric. The Motion XT is sturdy and secure, and the bright red locking indicator boosted its security ratings. We really appreciated how simple it was to operate in every sense. Finally, we loved the sleek design of this box, and its two color options are sure to please any buyer. We could tell that every detail of this box was carefully designed, and its sturdy lid and hinges left us confident in its durability. While this box topped our review's price charts at $700, we think the Motion XT is a great buy for frequent users looking to invest in a quality product.
Best mounting system
Read review: Thule Motion XT
Best Bang for Your Buck
Yakima Skybox 16 Carbonite
The biggest difference between the Skybox and our Editors' Choice Award winner was the mounting system, which may or may not make a huge difference depending on how you plan to use your cargo box. One of our testers plans to install her box and leave it there for months as long-term gear storage, while another is looking for a box to use occasionally on weekends and then store away while not in use. For the former type of user, this box is a really great value, because the installation only needs to be done once in order to enjoy the many other great qualities of this box. The Skybox is complete with an awesome latching handle that is easy to pop open, which we greatly preferred to the button of the Thule Force. The handle stays tilted until latched, when it will snap back into place, making it easy to tell if the box is properly closed or not. We loved the Skybox's sleek, matte black finish, and its sturdy lid made opening and closing this box a breeze. For our other tester, who wants a box that is easy to install and remove every weekend, the value may not be worth the frustrating mounting system. At $529, though, we found this box to be a phenomenal value in terms of durability, style, and ease of opening and closing. If constant mounting isn't in your future, look no further than the SkyBox Carbonite.
Sturdy and durable
Read review: Yakima SkyBox Carbonite
Best Buy for the Budget Adventurer
SportRack Vista XL
The two "short and stumpy" styles of cargo boxes in our review were the SportRack Vista and the Thule Sidekick. At $320 and $300 respectively, we weren't sure what to expect compared to the other four boxes that range from $500-$700. Of these two boxes, though, the SportRack easily edged out the Sidekick, albeit with one small caveat. We loved the no-assembly-required set-up, especially compared to the Sidekick's hour-long fiasco. No tools are required to mount the SportRack on the car, and the U-bolt system is surprisingly straightforward with two people. While not as nice as the easy installation systems of the more expensive Thule or Yakima boxes, this is one area we'd be happy to sacrifice to save some money. Its black exterior is clean and simple, and the box is exceptionally spacious for the price. We didn't compare volume in terms of value for the four more expensive boxes in this review because they were all similarly sized, but when looking at the Sportrack next to the Sidekick, it's impossible to ignore this glaring difference in volume. And while this box did receive one of the lowest scores of our review, we think it is a great choice for shoppers on a budget. It contains almost no exceptional features, but it received average scores across the board and gave us no major headaches. This box does have one unique feature, though. It has a rear opening, which looks cool but was nearly impossible to use on our lead tester's van. We couldn't reach the inside of the box from the back or the side! The box was a great fit on our photographer's small Subaru, though, so for small-car drivers looking for a little extra storage space, the SportRack may be the perfect fit.
No assembly required
Rear opening not compatible with large cars
Read review: SportRack Vista
Analysis and Test Results
Selecting your rooftop cargo box can be an intimidating task. With so many products on the market, how can you tell the difference? In this article, we explain the four most important criteria, though this may vary slightly depending on your expected use. To help us arrive at our conclusions, we rated each product on a scale of 1-10 for the four metrics described below. Since some metrics seemed more important than others, we weighted them by significance and then used our ratings come up with a total score out of 100 for each product. For the most part, a score of 5 indicates average performance, while 4 is below average and 6 and 7 are above average, with anything above 7 indicating a stellar performance. The highest score we gave out of 10 was an 8, since we felt there was always room for improvement. Four was the lowest score we gave since we generally felt that each box did a reasonable job at performing its intended duties.
While researching the top forty products on the market, we found two main shapes and design models for roof boxes. The first are what we've deemed the "short and stumpy," perfect for camping trips, golf outings, or the occasional user looking to free up space in their vehicle for more friends. These boxes are generally cheaper and smaller. In this review, we compare two products from this category, the Thule Sidekick and SportRack Vista. The more common shape and what normally comes to mind when picturing a rooftop cargo box is the "long and lean." Necessary for winter sports enthusiasts and ideal for anyone looking for serious storage space, we picked four models that fit this description. While the models that we tested fit skis in the 180-200cm range and easily held the tester's 165cm planks, users of particularly long skis may want to size up. The good news is that all four of our "long and lean" models come in bigger sizes, and all but one (the Yakima ShowCase) have smaller versions as well.
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, 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.
One model, the Thule Sidekick, required extensive assembly that took us over an hour, while the other five came ready to mount, and we docked the Sidekick's ease of use score accordingly. Before we started testing, we had no idea there would be such wild variations, but some models were much easier to open and close than others. Our favorites were the Thule Motion XT and the Yakima Skybox Carbonite which have incredibly user-friendly handles, especially when compared to the Yakima ShowCase, whose handleless design drove us crazy.
How easy it is to install the box on your roof may be of more or less importance to you depending on how often you plan to do so. We estimated that half our general audience planned to use their box as long-term storage after a one-time installation, but the other half anticipated taking the box on and off their roofs with some frequency. We greatly preferred Thule's latching system, found on both the Motion XT and Force, to Yakima's slightly confusing and difficult to remove system. However, both of those mounting systems were significantly more user-friendly than the U-bolt system found on the Thule Sidekick and SportRack Vista.
While all six rooftop boxes were a little difficult to access on top of the tester's big van, the one that stood out for awkwardness was the SportRack Vista, whose rear opening was nearly impossible to reach when mounted on anything but very small cars. Because this is a big metric, accounting for three different user-friendly qualities, ease of use accounted for a hefty 40% of the overall score for each product.
Because all of these products were made from similar materials, we looked to 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-proofness. 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.
Two of the models in our review, the SportRack Vista and Thule SideKick, 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 latching system that Yakima uses on both the Skybox Carbonite and ShowCase. 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 lower score for durability than their competitors.
Our main test for durability of materials was in the highly-quantitative lid floppiness. In all seriousness, this was a surprisingly easy category to measure, since the floppiness was so apparent during regular use. Some boxes, like the SportRack Vista, were incredibly flimsy, bouncing around in the slightest of breezes, while others, like the Thule Motion XT and Thule Force, stood up tall and proud with minimal flop. Because 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.
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 kind of 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 five products in our test seemed relatively equal, though, and we were never worried about security. In all these models, it is impossible 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 appreciated straightforward, simple security systems and appreciated boxes that had added features to aid in our confidence of our beloved gear's security. This metric accounted for 20% of the overall score of each cargo box.
Function definitely 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. 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 we bet it would hide scratches and dents more easily than the shiny finishes of some of the boxes in our review.
Additionally, we appreciated 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 were the only products in our review that are offered in more than one color, and their appearance scores were given 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.
A Note on Vehicle Handling
Before we began our hands-on testing, we did some research and found that many potential cargo box buyers were concerned about roof noise and gas mileage. We planned to test for a metric we called vehicle handling which was set to include noise, aerodynamics, and gas mileage. We drove these boxes around town, on the highway, and in the mountains. We drove over potholes, dirt roads, and up and over mountain passes up to speeds of 80 mph, and we never once heard any significant road noise or felt that our gas mileage was being affected. We took that metric out of our final scoring, then, only because every box would have received a 10/10 in this category. We know how important these concerns are to you, but we feel confident that any of these products will perform highly in this category, allowing you to focus on the small details of each product in making your decision. Adding weight to your car may decrease its power and handling, but this would be true of any box in this review.
While all the boxes in our review achieve the simple 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 in order to help you pick the perfect one. After weeks of getting to know each box, we're confident in our assessments of six 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
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for more info.
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