It probably won’t be too surprising news that more people are using their cars to go on vacation rather than risking several hours to breathe on airplanes and airports. Longer journeys take more baggage, and when kids are in the equation, chances are the SUV you bought for its space and versatility suddenly isn’t as spacious and versatile as you thought. Enter the roof rack. When mounted on a factory or aftermarket roof rack, a rack basically adds the volume equivalent of the trunk of a mid-sized sedan to the roof of your car or SUV.
Roof racks are clearly not new, but long before COVID, the outdoor adventure trend became so popular that brands began diversifying their offerings with “premium” choices. In addition to having more advanced features and more expensive materials, their slimmer appearance suited the Volvos, Audis and other luxury models that owners increasingly fitted (especially skiers).
The latest such “premium” roof rack is the Yakima CBX, but it does it a bit differently. From an aesthetic standpoint, it differs from the gloss black finish found on Yakima’s existing premium choice, the Grand Tour, as well as on Thule’s popular Motion XT.
Instead, it has a sort of “microwave ball” surface that creates a more matte finish and potentially improves fuel economy (as “Mythbusters” proved when it covered an entire car with golf ball dimples). This surface, in addition to the more angular design, makes it a better aesthetic match for more robust vehicles such as a Toyota 4Runner, Land Rover Defender or the Subaru Outback and Crosstrek on which I have tested the CBX.
Some features have been carried over from the Grand Tour, notably Yakima’s unique system for attaching the carrier grab hooks to the roof rack. Rather than having knobs or mechanisms on all four mounting points (like the Yakima SkyBox and all Thule boxes), the CBX has one large button that you move between each mounting point. It can be connected to either side of the carrier when not in use. This makes for a flatter loading floor and a larger knob that is easier to turn (once you’ve tightened it three clicks, you know it’s safe).
The CBX is available in two sizes: 16 and 18 cubic feet. Both are common sizes for the industry, but as I’ve discovered in countless car luggage tests, the number of load volumes doesn’t always match perfectly with how much stuff you can fit in. It’s the individual dimensions that can make the difference, and in the case of the CBX 16 I tested, those dimensions differ significantly from others in the industry, including Yakima’s.
It is 83 inches long, 38 inches wide, and 14 inches long. That’s longer and wider than the Yakima Grand Tour 16 and Thule Motion XT L. It’s a few inches shorter in maximum height, hence the usual cubic foot size, but it’s more of a uniform height than the others’ ramp-like shape. . In this way, it looks more like Thule’s high-end Vector M-series, but the Thule’s narrower width results in just 3 cubic feet of space. Being narrower could make it easier to mount something else on a full-width rack (like the Yakima Timberline used on the Crosstrek), which applies to all of the above compared to the CBX.
While I haven’t tested any of those other carriers for comparison, at least I can show you how much fits in the CBX and how much space it frees up in a variety of test cars.
I started with the same standard set of bags used in testing the cargo volumes of cars: two medium sized trolleys to be checked in at the airport, two entry-level trunks that barely fit over their heads, a smaller on-board trolleys that fit easily, and the blue one my wife’s overnight bag. To this I added our Thule Spring foldable stroller and a Graco Pack ‘N Play to better approach a family trip.
The CBX was able to fit the two largest bags in the center section. They were too long for the tapered ends of the carrier, but one of the larger carry-ons and the smaller carry-ons fit on either side of it. There was still some space in the nose. I can’t be sure, but I doubt the same four bags will fit together in some of the other pointed-nosed, shorter-length carriers. The stroller also fit the width and could have replaced one of those larger bags.
To illustrate how much space the CBX is clearing by swallowing those four bags, I’ve placed the same “leftover” items in different cars. In one case, my own 2013 Audi Allroad, the CBX allowed me to just carry the standard set of bags without removing the luggage cover, let alone the bonus stroller and box.
As for installation, the hardest part is physically lifting a 57-pound, 7-foot plastic crate on the roof of a car. I once collected it myself, but it was not ornate. Thank goodness for my neighbor Grant, but even then it was still a pain for a pair of 6-plus-footers. I should also note that due to a quirk in test car scheduling, we only mounted the CBX on a Crosstrek, Outback and my Allroad – all low-roof wagons. The new Nissan Rogue was a no-go, but a similarly tall crossover would have been more difficult, and a legitimately large SUV like a Ford Expedition would have required a step stool, ladder, or Jusuf Nurkic.
Then there is the most important bugaboo about roof racks: wind noise and fuel savings. For noise, I found that it depends on the car. If you have a panoramic sunroof, like in my Allroad, be prepared for your car to get a lot louder – highway rides constantly sound like it’s a stormy day. The Outback and Crosstrek, on the other hand, had traditional sunroofs with solid umbrellas – while wind noise increased with the CBX on it, it was much less noticeable (just 2 decibels in the Outback).
When empty, a roof rack also tends to flutter and bend to the point that you can hear it, even in the Outback. Keeping some of those empty suitcases up there prevented this, but it’s just one more reason to take the roof rack off when you’re not using it.
Fuel economy would be the other. While I didn’t take a scientific carrier-on, carrier-off fuel economy test to generate numbers, I would feel comfortable reporting, the MPG gauges in the car definitely went down. Consumer Reports found a 13% decrease in an actual scientific test.
Much of the above is of course true to some extent for any roof rack. What is not the case is the availability of the CBX Solar, a variant of the CBX 16 that adds solar panels to the case that feed a few USB ports inside. It’s good for an output of 5 volts. I managed to charge an iPhone6 at 42% in one hour and 42 minutes while simultaneously charging a portable 74 Wh battery. That would take many more hours to fully charge, but that’s what the CBX Solar is for. Yakima envisions owners locking up batteries, cameras, phones or other devices for daytime recharge while walking, cycling, etc. away from the car and campsite. This is in contrast to leaving the car running at night or leaving a solar charging unit and your devices to be stolen.
How attractive is that concept? My various hiking, biking, and camping friends weren’t exactly impressed with the idea, but sometimes innovations have to be experienced to be appreciated. The real problem is price: the CBX Solar costs $ 1,299, while the otherwise identical CBX 16 costs $ 849. In comparison, a BioLite SolarPanel 5+ with an output of 5 watts costs $ 89.95 at REI and includes its own battery pack. Again, that does not provide any certainty, like other accessory solar chargers.
So the value of the CBX Solar is questionable, but even Yakima admits it is a first step towards future solar offerings with more potential. It’s a test balloon. However, the base CBX 16 is undoubtedly functional in terms of capacity and ease of use, while looking like no other roof rack out there.