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Best roof bike racks for cars 2022 - Comparing the best of the integrated bike rack choice

Best roof bike rack - Yakima Highspeed with Orbea Orca Aero
(Image credit: Josh Ross)

The best roof bike racks are one of the three options in the wider spectrum of mounting your bike on the outside of your car, alongside trunk-mounted and hitch-mounted racks. 

Here at Cyclingnews, we already have an overarching list covering the best bike racks for cars but we also wanted to dive a little deeper into the specific sub-types. We've previously covered the best trunk bike racks, and now it's the turn of rooftop bike racks. As cars have grown in size, the popularity of rooftop bike racks has dropped a bit but they continue to be a quality option for some. With that in mind, we've taken the time to understand which systems work best in which situations. 

In our opinion, rooftop bike racks for cars have some specific advantages over their counterparts. One of those is just how integrated they feel. Some cars have front-to-back luggage rails and require only cross bars, some have channels that work in the same way, some have a slick roof, and some come with everything you need to add a rack. In all those situations, once you have everything installed, it will never be in your way. The bars and racks sit out of your line of sight and don’t interfere with opening the hatch or trunk. If you want to remove the rooftop bike rack, they are light and easy to store. 

There are a few downsides to rooftop bike racks too though. The first is that they are comparatively more difficult to mount your bike onto, especially if it's heavy, as you'll need to lift it above your head. The second is the risk of entering multistorey car parks - we've all heard of someone getting that wrong and totalling their pride and joy. Another downside is that there are some initial setup hurdles to get the parts you need on top of your car. Don’t despair though, Thule and Yakima make it an easy affair and you don’t need to have anything installed from the factory. It does add to the initial expense but both brands have expansive options and they make it easy to get started. Adding the base bars will also add value to your car and it also opens up the whole system to whatever brand of rack, or other accessories, you decide you want in the years to follow. 

So if you are looking for the best roof bike rack then keep reading to see our suggestions, or head to the bottom for a quick guide on how to choose the right one for you. 

Best roof bike racks for cars available today

Kuat Piston SR

The best roof bike rack for most people, but it comes at a cost

Specifications

Rack weight: 12.2 kg / 26.8lbs
Max tyre size: 5in
Max wheelbase: 1346mm / 53in
Integrated lock: Yes
Bike mount style: Wheel on

Reasons to buy

+
Fender mount accessory kit available
+
OneTap hydro-pneumatic tyre arms
+
Gorgeous looking rack

Reasons to avoid

-
Expensive

Does it make sense to describe a rooftop bike rack as beautiful? If so, then it's certainly going to come from Kuat. They are a brand with a reputation for making high-end racks and the Piston SR is yet another one. 

To secure the bike to the rack, a pair of arms comes from either side and squeezes against the tyres. Kuat didn't invent this style but when it brought it to market with its Piston Pro X hitch-mounted rack, it brought its own spin on it. Instead of manual operation, there's an integrated Kashima coated Piston that operates with a OneTap system, in which unloading your bike is as easy as hitting the button and giving the arms time to open before removing your fully assembled bike. 

This Piston SR rack takes the same function and moves it from the hitch to the roof. If you have fenders, you can still make use of the Piston SR with the purchase of the Fender Kit accessory. The downside to the whole system is that it's expensive, so expect to pay about double the price of other options for the ease of use. You might also want to choose something else if your plan is to add and remove the rack regularly, as it's heavier too.  

Yakima HighSpeed

The best rooftop bike rack for bikes with fenders

Specifications

Rack weight: 4.4 kg / 9.6lbs
Max tyre size: 5in
Max wheelbase: 1219mm / 48in
Integrated lock: Needs an extra purchase of lock cores
Bike mount style: Wheel off quick release (9mm) and thru axle (12mm, 15mm, 20mm)

Reasons to buy

+
TorqueRight knob ensures proper tightening
+
Compatible with fenders
+
Easy mounting and lightweight makes adding/removing the rack no big deal

Reasons to avoid

-
Rear strap lacks much in the way of padding
-
Front thru-axle needs to be a consistent size and stay with the frame

Yakima is one of two options for adding crossbars to your car's roof. The brand will walk you through getting what you need for your car and make it ready to accept a rack. From there it has a wide range of products and multiple options that could just as easily be on this list of the best rooftop bike racks. 

If you are purchasing Yakima base bar pieces then the HighRoad is a great wheel-on option and if you plan to unmount your rack regularly, Yakima is by far the easiest. There is one specific challenge that racks of all kinds experience though, and that is fenders/mudguards. If you ride in rainy climates then you know that fenders are a necessity, but it can be hard to find a rack solution. Kuat has an accessory to make the Piston SR work but it feels a little bit like a band-aid. If you transport a bike with fenders often, then something different might be the best choice. Like myself, Yakima calls the Pacific Northwest home, and much like our British friends across the pond, anyone from around here knows what it means to ride in the rain. When Yakima's employees need a solution for transporting a bike with fenders, they turn to the HighSpeed. 

The Yakima HighSpeed is a fork-mounted rooftop bike rack. That means you'll need to remove the front wheel. With the wheel removed, there is a clamp that grabs the front axle and tightens down until it clicks. It works with thru-axles and there's an adapter for quick-release bikes that essentially turns the quick release into a thru-axle. One detail about that is you will need a thru-axle with a consistent width from side to side that easily stays with the frame. Some systems, such as those from Mavic might have you buying an extra thru-axle. With that sorted, the rear wheel stays on and there's a strap that holds it tight to the rack. That strap could use a bit of extra padding for fancy carbon wheels but it keeps things secure and while removing the front wheel is extra work, it keeps the bike lower when installed and means fenders aren't an issue. 

Thule Upride

The best rooftop bike rack for those worried about scratching a rear wheel

Specifications

Rack weight: 7.7 kg / 17lbs
Max tyre size: 3in
Max wheelbase: 1300mm / 51in
Integrated lock: Needs an extra purchase of lock cores
Bike mount style: Wheel on

Reasons to buy

+
Extra padding on the rear wheel strap
+
Back of front wheel attachment doesn’t get in your way when loading
+
Ratchet tightening system doesn’t require strength

Reasons to avoid

-
Doesn’t lock in the open position without a bike

Thule is the other brand that makes all the base pieces you need to transform your car from the factory state to being ready to accept a rack. Just like Yakima, Thule has a ton of choices for what the horizontal bars look like and how they mount to the car. Whatever you need, they probably have a solution and once installed, you are free to mount the rack of your choice. 

In terms of the racks themselves, the wheel-on rooftop racks from Thule and Yakima are incredibly close. So close that one of the biggest challenges is deciding between the HighRoad from Yakima and the UpRide from Thule. Having spent time with both, there are two small details that I like about the Thule that gets them the nod. 

The main feature we called out above is extra protection for the rear wheel. It's such a small detail that it might not matter to a lot of people but Thule includes a rubber cover for the rear wheel strap. Although it is unlikely to be an issue, I have some concerns that the movement of a plastic strap against a nice pair of carbon wheels could cause damage given enough time. Adding some rubber means you can tighten that strap down and never worry about picking up a scratch because of it. 

Another small detail is the extra ease of putting the bike on the rack. Yakima uses solid hoops for the front wheel and the rear hoop needs the bike rolled back slightly to raise it up. The system that Thule uses means the rear hoop can change size as it gets tighter or looser. There's no need to roll the bike back for it to clear. Our only request would be that the hoops also had a lock to keep them in place without a bike for ease of moving the rack. 

Rockymounts Tomahawk

The best rooftop bike rack if you don’t want to worry about compatibility

Specifications

Rack weight: 7.3 kg / 16lbs
Max tyre size: 5in
Max wheelbase: 1219mm / 48in
Integrated lock: Needs an extra purchase of lock cores
Bike mount style: Wheel on

Reasons to buy

+
Accommodates tyres as wide as five inches 
+
Front wheel retention doesn’t use a rear hoop
+
No need to adjust anything when switching between wheel sizes

Reasons to avoid

-
Front hoop touches the fork

What's great about the Rockymounts TomaHawk is that it's simple. Instead of a system with two hoops for the front wheel, the TomaHawk uses a single hoop and metal wheel stop. The retention system sits against the front fork and pushes down against the tyre wedging it against the stop. It's uncomplicated with nothing to learn and it doesn't care if you are mounting a kids bike with a 20" front wheel or an adult bike with 650b or 700c wheels. The Thule needs an adjustment for the wheel size but the Rockymounts only asks you to push it down farther for a smaller wheel. The system also handles wider tyres with room for a fatbike. You will need to add wheel strap extensions for the biggest sizes but they come in the box. 

The thing we don't love about this system is that the retention system comes into contact with the front fork. We discussed this in our MonoRail Solo review but the short of it is that there is a 3mm thick vc-91 durometer vinyl dip. Rockymounts says that in most cases it will not damage the paint on the fork but it could cause some scratching if the bike is exceptionally dirty. They also recommend against adding padding as it allows movement and instead suggest helicopter tape. That's good advice anyway but you should be aware of the issue.  

How to choose the best roof bike rack for you

What if I don’t have a factory roof rack?

We talked about this a little up above but both Thule and Yakima make excellent rooftop rack systems that will work with whatever the top of your car looks like for a wide range of models. Some cars will have rails and need horizontal bars, some will have a slick roof and need a complete system. If you are starting with nothing expect about an hour of simple instructions to get a rack installed. It will be even easier if you have some kind of factory rail system. 

Can rooftop bike carriers damage your car?

There are a couple of specifications you’ll need to pay attention to. If you are mounting a base bar system to a slick roof vehicle then the towers have a max load rating. There are also the crossbars that may have their own max weight. Then, finally, if you have base bars installed from the factory those will have a maximum weight also. Follow all the specifications and the only thing you’ll need to worry about is dropping the bike on your roof. It does happen but if it does, the worst is probably going to be some paint scratches. Generally speaking, you have to lift a bike above your head to get onto a rooftop bike rack so that is going to rule out heavy electric bikes anyway. 

Should I leave my bike rack on my car?

That’s up to you, there’s no reason you can’t but they will almost certainly increase noise and reduce your fuel economy. We spent some time testing to see if we noticed a big difference in the noise with a rack mounted and while we didn't, every situation is different. If you do plan to leave the system installed all the time, the fork mount systems tend to be a bit smaller and more aerodynamic with fewer pieces that could possibly move around while driving. On the other hand, if you plan to regularly remove your rack Yakima, has the fastest and easiest system for attaching the rack to the base bars. While there are no major reasons not to leave a rack attached to the car, you will want to think about your plan as part of the buying decision. 

Should you rely on integrated locks to keep your bike secure?

Although a properly mounted bike is unlikely to come off a bike while driving, even a locked bike isn’t safe from theft. The cable locks or fork locks that come integrated into the best roof bike racks should not be considered a deterrent if you are leaving a bike attached to the roof for more than a short duration. They are a solution to keep a bike from being taken while you get fuel or snacks on a trip, but it’s possible to cut cable locks with ease and I’ve seen racks ripped off of cars when left with a bike on them. Not only was the bike gone but there was considerable damage to the roof of the car. A better idea is to remove the bike and lock it with something from our list of the best bike locks

How do we test rooftop bike racks?

We looked high and low for options to consider for the best rooftop bike racks then we mounted them and spent time understanding how they worked. We drove with bikes mounted and tried different options from different companies. The options available for rooftop bike racks are small and shrinking fast but we found as wide a range of options as possible and feel confident in our recommendations. 

Josh hails from the Pacific Northwest of the United States but would prefer riding through the desert than the rain. He will happily talk for hours about the minutia of cycling tech but also has an understanding that most people just want things to work. He is a road cyclist at heart and doesn't care much if those roads are paved, dirt, or digital. Although he rarely races, if you ask him to ride from sunrise to sunset the answer will be yes.
Height: 5'9"
Weight: 140 lb.
Rides: Cannondale Topstone Lefty, Cannondale CAAD9, Enve Melee, Look 795 Blade RS, Priority Continuum Onyx