Universal roof racks are a handy accessory if you want versatility when carrying luggage or sporting equipment on the roof of your vehicle.
No matter the vehicle you drive, having more luggage space is always a bonus. Investing in a good-quality universal roof rack will enable you to fit a variety of things like luggage and cargo boxes, tools and equipment, sporting gear, and even bikes, on top of your vehicle with little to no effort.
Alternatively, if you’re more interested in specific recreational roof racks, consider looking into roof racks for bikes, kayak roof racks, or ski racks.
What Is a Universal Roof Rack?
Additional storage capacity is one of the most notable benefits of using a roof rack on your vehicle. Larger or bulkier objects will be no problem to transport using a universal roof rack due to their generic and unspecialized design, making them, in fact, universal. Their ability to carry a variety of different items, tools, and outdoor gear makes them extremely appealing when you’re looking for versatility.
Universal roof rack bars are great all-rounder transportation accessories to have for your vehicle, especially if you are a regular long-distance traveler or avid outdoorsman.
The Difference Between Crossbars, Roof Rails, and Roof Racks
The primary difference between roof racks, crossbars, and roof rails is how they are positioned on your vehicle. Roof rails are usually pre-installed and fitted vertically, along the length of your vehicle. Crossbars are fitted horizontally across the roof and are attached to roof rails.
Roof rails are designed in a variety of styles since they are existing features of a vehicle’s overall design. Some roof rails are slightly raised, leaving a gap between the vehicle’s roof and the rail itself, while other designs are fully connected to the vehicle’s roof. Roof rails are used as a point of connection for roof racks and crossbars to be mounted on. The roof rails themselves are not suitable to be used as cargo carriers.
Two Types of Roof Rails – Elevated and Flush
As mentioned above, there are two main types of roof rails namely elevated roof rails and flush roof rails.
1. Elevated Roof Rails
Elevated roof rails provide a small, 2-inch gap between the vehicle’s roof and the rail. They are a perfect mounting point for crossbars, also providing a tie-down point for tethering rope when securing rooftop cargo. However, their design makes them less aerodynamic than their flush rail counterparts. Luckily there are a few things you can do to improve your roof rack’s aerodynamics.
2. Flush Rails
These rails are fully connected to the vehicle’s roof and do not leave any gaps or openings. Aesthetically they are far more pleasing and have a sleek appearance with the benefit of fantastic aerodynamic qualities. These rails are not compatible with full roof rack systems and will need to be removed before the installation of a roof rack. They also do not offer any tie-down point to tether ropes to.
Roof Racks and Crossbars
Roof racks and crossbars are designed to carry and transport cargo and are mounted to existing roof rails on vehicles. A pair of bars serve as a base on which luggage, outdoor equipment, or other cargo can be mounted and attached. Most often modular rack systems or other transportation platforms such as cargo boxes, bike racks, or kayak racks are mounted to these roof racks or crossbars.
Regarding the roof racks and crossbars, the main difference is in their functionality. Where crossbars consist of two bars running horizontally across the vehicle’s roof, roof racks have multiple crossbars and have a much more fixed design with multiple crossbars.
Advantages of Roof Racks and Crossbars
- Best for transporting large recreational gear and equipment
- Provides access to the trunk
- Theft-prevention locks
- Transportation versatility as cargo boxes can be added
- Outdoor gear transportation across four seasons
The Cargoloc Crossbar Set Is the Best Overall Universal Roof Rack
The best overall universal roof rack would have to be the sleek Cargoloc 2-piece crossbar set. Made from durable, lightweight aluminum its design cuts down on weight without minimizing strength and durability.
Featuring a built-in locking system that will secure your cargo without the threat of theft or purchasing additional locks. Heavy-duty clamping mechanisms ensure that the crossbars remain fastened to the existing side rails. even if you don’t lock the roof rack onto your vehicle, the clamps are robust. This will make it difficult for someone else to remove and help to ensure your load doesn’t move when in transit. If you are constantly taking the racks on and off, locking it can be a bit of a pain, but then you can just leave it unlocked or remove the locking cylinder.
The Cargoloc 2-piece crossbar system is capable of supporting cargo of up to 150 pounds. This may be less than the average capacity for universal roof racks, but given its other features, it’s a small compromise.
This universal roof rack fits side rails that span 46-inches across, providing ample cargo storage room. Installation is easy enough. Both bars can be installed in less than 15 minutes. The installation process only requires a quick release of the clamps and a tightening of the side rails with a hex wrench. Then simply lock the end clamps and you’re done.
The fact that it comes with a built-in lock makes it a sure winner, and its durable design and limited lifetime warranty mean that this is a great purchase if you’re looking for functionality, security, and durability. Plus, given its very reasonable price tag of $40.69, it’s overall a pretty good deal.
For the Best Value for Money, Get the Amazon Basics Universal Roof Rack
The Amazon basics universal rail roof rack heavy-duty aluminum crossbars carry 165-pounds of cargo and is strong, lightweight, and resistant to corrosion. It’s simple and straightforward and does what is needed to get the job done. Coming in at a cost of $47 it gets our vote for the best value for money universal roof rack.
Made from hard-wearing plastic known as high-density polyethylene, the Amazon Basics universal roof rack’s molecular composition makes it moisture resistant as well as UV-resistant. However, it does seem prone to crack under too much stress and pressure, so best not to overload the roof rack with cargo above its maximum weight.
This universal cross rail roof rack is 52-inches long and fits most passenger cars and SUVs. Although this is a universal roof rack, I would still suggest that you get the measurements of your vehicle’s roof before purchasing this rack, just to make sure that it is fully compatible with your car’s design. The gap between the rack’s rails and the car roof should be about ½ an inch, while the distance between them should be bigger than 38.6-inches, but smaller than 46-inches, with the diameter falling between 1.4 and 2.1-inches.
Rubber-coated steel clamps provide a fantastic grip and will not damage your vehicle’s roof. A welcome security feature is that this universal roof rack has a built-in locking system to prevent it from being stolen, so you don’t need to remove it from your car when it’s not in use.
When it comes to assembly, you’ll have to put in the effort and do it from scratch. Amazon’s basic universal roof rack requires you to assemble everything, but that’s part of keeping the cost down. You’ll make some compromises in ease of assembly, installation, and removal, but you can’t go wrong if you need roof rack crossbars for occasional use.
Seah Hardware Universal Roof Rack Is the Best Tie-Down Option
If you own a sedan or vehicle without a roof rail system, the Seah Hardware universal roof rack might be your best solution if you need a universal roof rack. It features straps that will go right through the door frames and help secure the rack against the vehicle’s roof. Its 1800-pound waterproof ratchet tie-downs ensure the bars remain firmly on the car’s roof regardless of the conditions of the roads. This ensures that your cargo will be secure, so it gets our vote as the best tie-down vote.
The Seah Hardware universal roof rack is made from heavy-duty alloy steel, providing a strong and safe cargo transportation solution. It fits almost all four-door cars without side rails. Four-door cars with side rails should have a height of less than 2.5-inches from the roof. Unfortunately, it cannot be installed on a two-door car because the space between the bars will then be too small.
Again, as is generally the case with these roof racks, installation is quick and easy. It takes about 5 minutes to mount and around 3 minutes to take down. The crossbars span 48-inches but are adjustable, so you can create the necessary space to secure any load. Al necessary tools are provided to mount and secure this rack to your vehicle’s roof.
This roof rack creates surprisingly very little road noise, both on short and long-distance trips. If you’re looking for a tie-down roof rack that has a heavy-duty design, easy installation, and an affordable price tag of $76.99, then I’d recommend Seah Hardware’s universal roof rack. Especially if you want a roof rack that is quick and easy to mount and remove, which is why a tie-down is a great option.
Handirack Has the Best Inflatable Universal Roof Rack
The Handirack universal inflatable roof rack is a safe option for carrying kayaks, canoes, surfboards, and stand-up paddleboards. Its inflatable design ensures it makes it a smart alternative to foam blocks or metal roof rack crossbars and won’t scratch or damage your cargo or your roof. It carries an impressive 175-pounds with the help of a secure five metal integrated D-ring instead of fabric loops, which makes it the best inflatable universal roof rack.
Known for its ease of use, durability, and stability, the air technology provides greater stability for the rack on the vehicle’s roof while the cushioning air pockets help distribute the cargo’s weight evenly. The Handirack inflatable roof rack is easy to pack away when not in use, by folding it and storing it in its included nylon travel bag. The Handirack universal inflatable roof rack is compatible with all vehicles except soft-top convertibles or cars with side curtain airbags.
This universal roof rack is made from strong but lightweight nylon that is known for its fantastic elasticity and abrasion resistance. Since the nylon material is waterproof it is very easy to clean and maintain, while it remains completely resistant to shrinkage. However, when you are mounting a wet board or kayak it does have the tendency to be a bit slippery, so it’s best to have someone to help with loading and unloading during wet conditions.
Installing Handirack’s inflatable roof racks are extremely easy. Along with the two inflatable racks, you will also receive their Handipump, two 10ft tie-down straps, two 11ft bow, and stern lines, with a drawstring storage bag and a helpful user manual. The manual provides step-by-step instructions on the quick and easy installation process.
Handirack’s inflatable roof rack is certified for use at high speeds, and its aerodynamic design reduces vibration and wind noise with low drag on your vehicle. If it’s functionality and stability you’re looking for, without having to install a permanent roof rack to your vehicle, then the Handirack universal inflatable roof rack is the way to go.
7blacksmiths for the Best Heavy-Duty Universal Roof Rack
While the 7blackSmiths roof rack cargo basket shares similarities with the ARKSEN universal roof rack basket holder, this cargo basket trumps weight capacity, making it the best in the heavy-duty category. It can carry a super impressive 250-pounds of cargo, gear, and equipment, and its adjustable fit makes for easy assembly.
This universal roof rack cargo basket from 7BlackSmiths mounts to most round, square, aero, and factory crossbars up to 3.25-inches by 1.37-inches, or round bars up to 1.37-inches in diameter on various cars, trucks, SUVs, vans, and other large vehicles. It uses four universal U-bolts for secure fitting, and it also includes a wind fairing for reduced wind resistance and noise.
Made from steel and coated with black powder this cargo basket is strong, durable, and corrosion-resistant. Unfortunately, the basket’s joints and the welds are not, so I would suggest that you consider applying a silicone sealant on these parts during the assembly process in order to avoid possible rusting from exposure to the rain.
It is a little on the pricier side, at $143.90. Given its heavy-duty capabilities, it can go a long way and therefore makes for a good long-term investment. If you’re looking for a universal roof rack with heavy loading capacity and durable design, 7BlackSmiths is a great consideration.
For the Best Aerodynamics, Get the Yakima Aerodynamic Crossbars
Yakima’s new aerodynamic crossbars for roof racks have an exceptionally aerodynamic JetStream and JetFlow design which was wind-tunnel tested and awarded the best in the aerodynamic category. The crossbars are robust, lightweight, and very quiet while in transit, thanks to its JetFlow teardrop design, which minimizes drag for maximum efficiency. The JetTruss internal support engineering for the Yakima Aerodynamics crossbars increases strength while keeping weight minimal.
Compatible with Yakima StreamLine Towers, T-Slot attachments, and Yakima gear mounts, this universal roof rack is available in 50-inches, 60-inches, and 70-inches. Its T-slot rubber infill makes it easy to mount and ensures efficient airflow, while the four high-gloss polymer end caps add to its already sleek aesthetic. Installation is an easy process, with the crossbars sitting extremely sturdy on the vehicle’s roof. Wind noise is quite minimal, even at 80mph while being installed directly over a sunroof.
The Yakima JetStream aerodynamic crossbars are made from lightweight aluminum, which provides strength and versatility and a maximum weight load of up to 165-pounds across the two bars. The lightweight nature of aluminum is its most significant benefit, but it makes it a bit more expensive, costing you $245. However, Yakima offers their famous lifetime guarantee on this aerodynamic universal roof rack, so it’s worth it.
ARKSEN Offers the Best Universal Cargo Basket Roof Rack
The ARKSEN universal basket roof rack is a pretty solid choice and gets our vote for the best cargo basket universal roof rack. This cargo basket offers extra security for your luggage with side rails that keep your items firmly in place, which can additionally be used as mounting points. It features a steel wind fairing to protect cargo from wind damage and reduce wind resistance and drag, while also reducing the whistling noise that some other baskets often make. The ARKSEN’s heavy-duty steel construction is coated with black powder that provides resistance to damage from weather and corrosion, making it durable and long-wearing.
It fits SUVs, trucks, and standard vehicles and holds a weight capacity of 150-pounds. It’s suitable for carrying anything from camping supplies and luggage to hunting and fishing gear or furniture. U-bolts are included to make mounting secure and easily fit your roof’s crossbars, adding to its simple installation. The adjustable U-bolt spacing lets you mount this basket to any crossbar setup.
While steel roof racks aren’t as light as aluminum, it is just as strong, but much more affordable. In addition to that, steel is also remarkably resistant to the elements, which is important for its longevity and reliability, mainly where rust and galvanic corrosion are concerned.
To protect your cargo from rain or sliding around unless packed tightly, you can purchase additional accessories such as a waterproof cargo storage bag with an anti-slip mat and door hook straps. A bungee cargo net will keep smaller items from falling out.
Choosing a Universal Roof Rack – A Buyer’s Guide
Make sure that you measure everything that will play a part in installing your universal roof rack. Measure the length of the roof between the doors, the between the front and the back of the car, and the width of the roof. Having a roof rack that’s too big for your roof could be hazardous when getting in and out of the car. If your vehicle has zero mounting points, buying a roof rack designed for raised rails could disadvantage.
Ease of Installation
Decide if you want your universal roof rack to be a permanent fixture on your car or easily removable, as this will influence which one you buy. Permanent roof racks will require drilling into your car’s roof, which you might not be keen on, but should also be handled by a professional. Inspect your factory roof rail system. If the rail system is universal, installing the roof rack yourself shouldn’t be a problem.
Build and Durability
Wanting a universal roof rack over the long term means ensuring that the materials are durable and the design strong. Powder-coated and aluminum designs are rust-resistant, and stainless steel is hardwearing.
Any added height to your vehicle may create difficulties getting into certain spaces with a height restriction. Most roof racks will add 3 to 4-inches, and some may go as high as 12.5-inches, and that’s before considering the luggage you’ll be mounting. Checking how much space is above your car when parked in your garage at home is also good. If you are thinking of using a car top carrier or cargo box, open your trunk lid to make sure it won’t contact the box if it reaches above the height of the roof.
Anything that you put on the roof of your car will increase its weight and cause decreased performance capacity, lead to dragging, and increase fuel consumption. Given that you are already packing things on top of your car having a universal roof rack as lightweight as possible will be necessary but still able to do the job well. For example, if you are transporting canoes or kayaks, make sure your roof rack can handle the weight and that they provide enough stability. It won’t make sense to go for larger racks if the car’s weight capacity is low.
If you opt for a cargo basket, it has to be big enough to do what you want it to do. If you go with bars, then they have to be able to hold your cargo accordingly. Many people overlook transporting various items and instead look at just one thing. Can you transport a mountain bike or kayak? If you participate in different outdoor activities, it would be good to opt for a slightly broader configuration to hold more things. Keep in mind that your roof rack should only be as wide as the broadest part of your vehicle, including mirrors.
Don’t just settle for the cheapest universal roof rack even if you don’t have a lot of money to throw around. It’s important to consider form and quality. You have to make sure your roof rack can withstand harsh conditions and offer long-term function and lifespan. The cost is usually influenced by the level of functionality and the materials used. While a cheaper rack will be easier on the pocket, quality should be of more importance.
If you purchase an expensive universal roof rack or have expensive cargo, you want to eliminate the possibility of theft as much as possible. Integrated locks or adding aftermarket locks is something to consider.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do Universal Roof Racks Fit All Cars?
Roof rack manufacturers are not making one size fits all racks anymore. Most racks can accommodate most types of cars, but not always. Be sure to ask your supplier before purchasing. Different fitting kits can help you adjust your universal roof rack accordingly. Any rain gutter-mounted roof rack will undoubtedly work if your vehicle has rain gutters, but you may need to change bar width and foot height. Most modern cars do not have gutters, so most roof racks are designed for vehicles without them. Some have rails, fix-points, or take a clamp mount system.
Are All Roof Racks Compatible?
Not all roof racks are compatible with all roof rail systems, though most are compatible with most crossbars or roof rail types. Some require adapters that may have to be purchased separately. Think about what you want to do with your roof rack and if there is a specific brand for the type of gear you want to mount.
Is a Roof Rack Dangerous?
If properly fitted, your universal roof rack should pose no threat of harm. Poorly fitted or overloaded roof racks can damage your car. Roof racks are high above your head, so be careful when loading and offloading your gear. You can scratch paint, crack a window or hurt yourself. The roof rack should not jut out too much, or you could knock your head when climbing out of the vehicle.
What Tools Do I Need to Install a Roof Rack or Cross Bars?
Most roof racks don’t require special tools to fit them to your vehicle, but if tools are needed, they are usually included with the kit.
Does the Shape of the Roof Rack Influence Car Performance?
Whether the roof rack is empty or loaded, the type of roof rack you install will affect your car’s performance in terms of aerodynamics which will influence drag and fuel consumption. Some are shaped for cargo and some for transporting sporting equipment. Some roof racks are more aerodynamic than others, making them quieter at higher speeds and have less drag.