Yakima Exo Review | Hitch-based cargo system is a game changer

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Loading stuff on the roof of a car is not easy. An SUV makes it even harder and if you’re on the short end of the human spectrum, good luck, buddy. Using a roof rack is still the easiest way to increase the load capacity of your car, which I did in May when I tested the Yakima Grand Tour 18 on my BMW X5. It did the job well, but the inherent problems with roof-mounted carriers, boxes and racks were apparent.

Enter the Yakima Exo System, the Oregon-based company’s new customizable cargo solution that plugs into a standard 2-inch trailer hitch. It all starts with the Exo SwingBase. It’s similar to the crossbars of a roof rack in that you need it to make everything else work. It connects to the trailer hitch and performs three important tasks. First, the two swing-out arms allow you to mount any of the various Exo racks and boxes on it. Second, you can mount the Exo TopShelf on it, which allows for the innovative two-tier setup of the system. And third, you can swing anything mounted out of the way, so you still have access to your vehicle’s boot. And if the racks or carriers are removed, it stays completely out of the way – there’s little reason to remove it other than aesthetics or squeaky parking sensors.

This concept has several advantages. First, things that are attached to a trailer hitch are indeed much easier to access than those on a roof. Second, a trailer hitch-based system can carry more weight, at 300 pounds, than a roof-mounted rack, and can be swapped between vehicles more easily. If it has a 2 inch hitch, it will work. Third and fourth, there is the issue of aerodynamics and wind noise, as moving luggage racks and racks from the roof to the rear of the car benefits both.

Yakima Exo Swing base openYakima Exo Swingbase only on BMW X5

I had the chance to test the Exo, repurchasing my X5 as Autoblog’s official outdoor adventure guinea pig. While I had a chance to install all of the Exo accessories available as I passed Yakima’s headquarters (more on that later), the custom combination I’d live with for two months would be the 10-cubic-foot GearLocker box that’s on the Swingbase was mounted and the DoubleUp luggage carrier for two bicycles mounted on the also selected TopShelf.

Installing them requires more muscle strength than roof racks. This is hefty metal equipment so some caution is advised (just ask my shin and the small dent in the X5’s tailgate), but once you know what you’re doing it’s a much quicker installation than roof racks. There’s no need to make sure everything is symmetrical and spaced correctly, and there’s only one thing to tighten enough (with a big old wrench) instead of the four rack towers with two screws each. Plus, it’s easier a sole proprietorship – good luck installing a roof rack yourself.

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Once the Swingbase is powered up, the Exo couldn’t be easier to use. Simply press the pins to swing out each arm, which automatically snaps into place. Then slide the GearLocker onto the arms, turn the knobs to hold it in place, then lock them with the included key suitable for all Exo pieces. This is the same process for putting all the attachments on the Exo arms, including when I put the DoubleUp bike rack on the TopShelf.

Yakima Exo Gearlocker when unloading the dolly

The other advantage of this system is that you can load the GearLocker in the garage and place it on the Swingbase when it is full. That does not happen with a roof box. When unloading, I simply pulled the box out of my garage on a dolly (pictured top left) and wheeled the thing into the driveway to unpack it later.

It’s also worth noting that the GearWarrior open box mount can be fitted with four WarriorWheels, reducing the need for the separate dolly (pictured above right). Yakima recommends removing them once on the Exo, but mounting the box makes that process easy enough because the wheels float freely.

As for capacity, below is what I was able to fit into the 10 cubic meter GearLocker. Two duffel bags, a Guava portable crib and a whole bunch of shoes, games, toys and other loose items. It wasn’t possible with the GearLocker to transverse my usual allotment of luggage test cases, unlike the wider Yakima CBX and Grand Tour cargo boxes I’ve tested before. Some of those bags could have still fit in there, and the actual capacity isn’t all that different, in fact, despite the 16- or 18-cubic-foot buckets—a box is a more efficient space than an aerodynamic window pane.

Besides making it physically easier to get up and down, there was another, more important reason why I chose the lightest bags and various loose items to put in them. Although the Exo weighs 300 pounds, I’ve kept the heaviest items in the boot and thus above the X5’s axle. Basically, it’s a matter of physics: The less weight you dangle from the back of your car, the better. My decision was confirmed during the Hyundai Santa Cruz launch when Chahe Apelian, vehicle development engineer, warned upon seeing the photos above: “That thing is going to change the car’s behavior.” It’s basically for the same reason that rear-engined cars, with their heavy engines hanging behind the rear axle, can be a handful of tail-happy to drive.

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Now the effects will certainly differ based on the vehicle in question. The 2013 BMW X5 is so heavy and so resolutely planted (I barely noticed the Grand Tour when it was on the roof), that it’s less likely to run. However, on a twisty highway, I could still subtly notice a difference in the car’s balance, and something lighter, say a compact SUV, would require even more care on such a road. That goes double when you are faced with rainy or icy conditions.

Other than that and the whistling of my oversized Raleigh bike mounted on the DoubleUp, the Exo was basically undetectable from the inside. You don’t get the thumping wind noise from a roof rack, nor are you as sensitive to accentuating crosswinds. You are also bound to have a much better fuel economy as it is mounted behind the car rather than on top of it.

We took the Exo-equipped X5 on a long weekend road trip from Portland, Oregon to Bend, and once there I unloaded the TopShelf and GearLocker, leaving the Swingbase in place. This took a matter of minutes with the proprietary tool provided, and it couldn’t have been easier. I would later drop the DoubleUp on the Swingbase for a morning ride near the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. This setup is shown below. Again, this was much quicker to mount than other bike-carrying solutions like roof-mounted racks, hitch-mounted racks that don’t swing away, and the hatch-mounted Yakima FullBack I own and would never use again if I bought an Exo .

Yakima Exo DoubleUp on SwingbaseYakima Exo Snowbank and GearLocker detail

Now, as for the other custom combinations…

In addition to the GearLocker and DoubleUp, one of the most likely attachments is the Snowbank mounts that can hold five sets of skis or four snowboards (pictured top left). Of course, you can mount a second Snowbank pair on the TopShelf and double your ski/snowboard count — something Yakima mounting technician Taylor Thompson says has been welcomed by several ski companies using vans instead of loading skis/snowboards onto a roof. .

He also notes that the most popular combination for skiers and snowboarders is the reverse of my bike-mounted setup: they put the Snowbank at the bottom and then the GearLocker on top. This is because you cannot open the bottom mounted GearLocker when the TopShelf is in place. My combination, the only possible (duh) with a whole bike mounted on the thing, first requires swinging out the Swingbase and turning the TopShelf bracket 180 degrees after a pin is loosened and a knob is removed. You should also do this if you are mounting two GearLockers on the Exo.

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Other options include the GearWarrior open box (pictured top right), which obviously wouldn’t be as prone to the above opening issue as the GearLocker.

Yakima Exo BackDeckYakima Exo BackDeck just in case

There’s also the BackDeck, a bamboo table that snaps onto the TopShelf, creating a workstation, camping kitchen, etc. The 180 degree rotatable TopShelf is the key to this. It comes with a storage pouch to prevent scratches and it does fit in the GearLocker.

I also got a sneak peek at two future pieces coming to the Exo line in the future: mounts for Yakima’s existing RoadShower 4 or 7 gallon mobile water tanks, and a mobile camp kitchen that looks like a giant cooler when closed. That’s a little further from completion, but the ability for Yakima to place the Exo cleats on new and different items shows that there are even more possibilities for this innovative system.

Cost wise, Exo is indeed more expensive than various rack and carrier combos. The Swingbase costs $499 and the TopShelf adds $379. The GearLocker costs $399, which is a lot less than a roof rack – you could even buy two for the price of Yakima’s CBX. The DoubleUp bike rack costs $479, which is more expensive than other hitch-mounted racks. The Snowbanks are only $30 more than the nearly identical units that mount on the roof. Another possible addition is the LitKit, which adds additional lighting and license plate holder for $149.

Add it all up and my specific combo was $1,756. By contrast, adding Yakima’s Timberline Towers and JetStream crossmembers ($464 total), the Grand Tour 18 roof rack ($749) I used in May, and a hatchback-mounted FullBack two-bike bike rack ($259) $1,472 cost. Opting for a smaller or cheaper roof rack can reduce that cost, as can factory-equipped crossbars. In contrast, a trailer hitch-based bike carrier can be twice as much as a hatch-mounted one.

In other words, the price may not be that different and the benefits are well worth the premium. Of course you have to have a 2 inch hitch for it to work. If you do, it’s definitely the way to go.