Looking for a new bike rack? If you ask your riding buddies, before you know it, you’ll be inundated with claims that this brand or that brand absolutely has the best one. Fortunately, a lot of that stems from most modern bike racks being quite good. But some are still better than others.
Ever since Kuat unveiled its new Piston Pro X bike rack, it’s gotten a lot of attention. I mean, why wouldn’t it? No other rack on the market can offer the combination of genuine Kashima Coat and integrated LED lights. But is the elevated design worth the elevated price tag? After three seasons with the Piston Pro X, I think I have the answer.
How Does the Piston Pro X Compare to the 1UP Racks?
Let’s just get this out of the way right now – yes, brands like Kuat are creating their own racks no doubt inspired by the original 1UP racks. I dare say that 1UP had the biggest influence in creating what’s come to be known as the tray-style hitch rack category. If you want the easiest tray-style rack to use though, the Kuat Piston Pro X wins, no question.
The 1UP Equip-D model still has the edge on specs like compatible wheelbase (56″ vs. 53″), total weight (48.5lb vs. 63lb, though not a fair comparison because the 1UP lacks lights and locks), the availability of a single bike version, and the 1UP has an edge on price. Apples to apples, if you spec the 1UP Equip-D 2-bike with lights and a cable lock, the total comes to $1,072. Compare that to the Piston Pro X 2-bike at $1,389.
Why is the Piston Pro X Better?
So the Pro X is heavier, more expensive, and won’t fit the longest-wheelbase mountain bikes. Would I buy it? The answer is an emphatic yes, for a number of reasons.
In my opinion, a great bike rack should make getting your bike to your destination and back as easy as possible. That’s what the Piston Pro X delivers.
Right out of the box, the Piston Pro X takes the lead with incredibly easy assembly. Essentially just two bolts with lettered tabs and corresponding slots, most users should have no trouble putting their rack together.
Of all the tray-style racks I’ve used (including 1UP), the Pro X is the easiest to use. That includes loading and unloading your bikes, raising or lowering the rack, locking up bikes, etc. Almost everything can be done with one hand (or foot) while balancing your bike (or kid) with your other.
Much of that is due to the hydro-pneumatic Onetap levers with that iconic Kashima Coat. At first, I thought these levers may be overkill at best or a gimmick at worst, but they’re true game-changers. When you’re ready to load a bike, simply squeeze the lever, and the piston pops the upright into position. They move fairly quickly, with one extending fully by the time you reach over to the other side to pop up the second upright.
From there, loading your bike is as simple as placing your bike between the two uprights, and pushing the uprights in, squeezing the front and back tire. Like all of these tray-style racks, it helps to start at one end, then move the other, and check each side again that the tires are centered and everything is tight. Compared to other racks, the ratchet mechanism has smaller ratchet teeth meaning you get better control of how tight the upright is on the tire.
When you’re ready to remove the bike from the rack, once again you simply squeeze the One-Tap lever and the uprights will fully open, one at a time. On my mountain bikes, I’ve found that they open just enough to let the bike free, but not so far that the bike will fall out of the rack – that’s a nice touch, especially if you have to park on a slope to keep the bike from taking out your back window.
On bikes with skinnier tires or shorter wheelbases, it helps to keep one hand on the bike as you pop open the last upright, but that’s where the benefit of it being a one-handed operation comes into play. It all works out to be the fastest and easiest bike installation/removal of any rack that I’ve used.
Is it Durable?
But what about those hydro-pneumatic OneTap levers? Are they going to be durable in the long run? After more than half a year, and a lot of use (including being covered in car-eating road salt), I have no reason to suspect that they won’t be durable – they still feel like they’re breaking in.
However, I did confirm that Kuat’s lifetime warranty will cover the OneTap levers should you ever have an issue. In our experience (including friends that don’t work in the bike industry), Kuat has some of the best customer service in the industry, and they already have an entire parts catalog of replacements for the Piston Pro X should you have an issue that’s not covered under warranty (like backing your rack into a tree).
The Best Wheel Size Adjustments
Kuat could have stopped there with the OneTap levers and had a great rack. But it’s the rest of the details that make it the best tray-style hitch rack.
One of the challenges to the tray-style rack design is accommodating different wheel sizes in the uprights. If you’re only carrying one bike, and you never change tire sizes, this isn’t a big deal. But if you’re constantly shuttling the family around, or friends, or just like to ride more than just one genre, it becomes quite annoying to have to bust out the tools to move the upright tire support on some racks.
Brands like Saris have at least removed the need for a tool on racks like the MHS, but it’s still time-consuming and annoying to unthread the rod, move the bracket, try to realign the holes, and then thread it all back together again – only to find you should have used the next set of holes.
The Kuat FastFit Wheel Chock System, on the other hand, is simply brilliant. With a quick one-handed squeeze of the two tabs, you can quickly change the position of the wheel chock, and just as quickly lock it back in place.
There’s also a red warning indicator that lets you know you haven’t actually locked the FastFit into place. If you see red, just push the chock up or down until it latches and disappears.
I have to give credit to Kuat for the shaping of the wheel chocks as well. Rather than a simple tapered metal bar, or plastic piece, Kuat uses a sculpted metal structure with inner supports that really grab onto the tread of your tires. Even without the uprights super tight, these wheel chocks seem to hold better than other tray-style racks, whether transporting road bikes, MTB, fat bikes, or an e-commuter.
The uprights have six pre-set positions to fit wheel sizes from 18-29″ and tires up to 5″ wide, with the holes labeled on the outside rack position. better still, that lower position is actually designed to be used with bikes running full-coverage fenders as well!
Compatible with Many Full Coverage Fenders
On the front upright, you don’t have to worry about it since most front fenders stop well short of the wheel chock. But on the back of the bike, full coverage fenders often make transporting bikes on tray-style racks difficult, or sometimes impossible without damage.
The Kuat Piston Pro X system relies on a lower hole that places the wheel chock around the 3 o’clock position on the rear wheel which is below the end of many full-coverage fenders. If you have fender extensions or longer fenders you will have issues, but I was able to use it with full coverage SKS fenders on my e-commuter without clearance issues.
Technically, Kuat requires the use of their fender kit for use of this feature. That fender kit is sold separately and consists of two velcro straps for $20. Those straps are meant to provide additional stability to the bike while on the rack.
Honestly, I haven’t used the official fender kit – I simply found some other straps that I had lying around to strap down the wheel at the bottom. If I were traveling longer distances, I would have added a strap at the wheel chock too.
eBike Compatible Too
I should also mention that if you’re using this rack for ebikes, you might be interested in the ebike ramp accessory as well. A bit of a pricy upgrade at $98, the ramp allows you to wheel your bike up to the tray for easy loading. To use the ebike ramp, you can open the uprights to their open position, then continue to open them further. Eventually, the piston ratchet will start working in reverse, holding the upright in a low position so you can attach the ramp.
The Original PedalPivot is Still One of the Best
If you’re familiar with Kuat racks, then you’re probably familiar with their excellent PedalPivot. It’s already a great design, so there wasn’t a need to change it here. The PedalPivot allows you to use your hand or your foot to operate, which is extremely handy when your hands are full with a bike, gear, or otherwise. It’s easily accessible from the top or bottom of the rack, offers smooth operation, and is tucked away to keep it from getting damaged or filled with mud.
Tiered Bike Positions
Like the best tray-style racks out there, the Piston Pro X offers tiered trays making it easy to carry multiple bikes without interference. You can still adjust the lateral positioning of the bikes based on how you put them in the tray as well, making it very easy to carry any combination of bikes without hassle.
Fans of all metal construction will also be happy with the build of the Piston Pro X. All of the major components are made from metal with stainless hardware, and finished with a powdercoat that they claim won’t fade over time.
Piston Pro X Bike Capacity
For the two-bike version, the Piston Pro X has a weight capacity of 67lbs per tray for the 2″ rack, or 60lbs per tray for the 1.125″ version. That drops to 42lbs per tray if you use a chassis mount RV hitch, but the rack is RV compatible. Those per-tray weight capacities also drop to 50lbs per tray for a three-bike, or 40lbs per tray for the four-bike rack. All trays have a 53″ maximum wheelbase and will fit up to 5″ wide tires.
Integrated Locking & Security
The rack is secured to the vehicle using their FlatLock Hitch Cam which prevents the rack from wobbling. The FlatLock Hitch Cam uses a security bolt, with the compatible security tool stashed in a lockable holder at the end of the rack. One of the only bits of criticism I’ve heard about this rack is that the security tool can rattle around inside the locked housing. With everything rolling around inside my Element, I’ve not noticed any noises related to it, but at least one of our readers mentioned that they added some rubber to the lock housing to prevent the tool from rattling.
On the subject of locks, the Piston Pro X includes both a stainless steel hitch lock and a flexible 12mm cable that is long enough to easily lock up two bikes including the wheels. The lock cable then locks into the body of the rack, with the same key used for the hitch lock and security tool. The design means that you have to store the lock cable in your car when you’re not using it, but it also means you get a properly-long cable instead of some integrated system that isn’t really long enough and is a hassle to use. Granted, it’s likely not as secure as the chain lock offered on the RockyMounts, but it should be adequate for quick pit stops or in safer environments.
There are Lights, Too!
After all of this, I haven’t even mentioned one of the other signature features – the integrated lighting. Now, you may be thinking, “I don’t really need my bike rack to have lights.” That’s what I kind of thought until I started paying attention. So many bike racks block the lights of the vehicle, especially when carrying bulky mountain bikes.
If you care about your precious cargo not being smashed by drivers who “couldn’t see your brake lights,” adding additional lighting to the rack makes a lot of sense. Particularly, if you leave your rack on the vehicle year-round as I do, which means folding it up, which really blocks the tail lights. Since I mounted up the Pro X, I’ve noticed other drivers giving me additional room at the back of my car – which I can only attribute to the lights helping the drivers better see the end of the rack.
Kuat isn’t the first brand to include light options on their rack, but the LED lights on the Piston Pro X are seamlessly integrated – no ugly add-on kits or having to route additional wires through your rack. Thanks to a magnetic plug and magnetic wire clips, the rack is easy to power up, even if you’re using the Piston Pivot v2. Also, the QuickConnect Add-Ons are pre-wired meaning you can simply add on the 3rd or 4th bike tray, and they’ll connect and sync automatically (the 3 and 4 bike versions have the same four lights for added visibility).
Thanks to their positioning and shape, the LED lights can be seen when the rack is up or down, and function as tail lights, brake lights, and turn signals. The only thing that seems to be missing is a set of mounting holes for an additional license plate. I haven’t been hassled for my plate being obscured by the rack, but it seems like if police wanted to, they’d have a reason to stop you.
How to Add Trailer Lighting to Your Car
The Piston Pro X requires a standard 4-pin trailer wiring plug, but what if your car isn’t wired for trailer lighting? It depends on the vehicle, but on my Honda Element, adding a trailer lighting kit was pretty easy. With some Googling, I found out that my Honda Element SC was partially pre-wired, with a port in the back in the spare compartment. I had to buy a Curt 56029 Custom Wiring Kit ($34.05, Amazon), connect one plug to the rear, and connect the controller under the dash.
It took less than an hour, and the hardest part for me was deciding how to route the rear wire outside the vehicle to the rack since I am using the Kuat Pivot v2. In order to allow the rack to swing outwards to the left, the wiring had to accommodate that. Kuat sells a wiring extension for $30, but I didn’t want a bunch of extra wiring to deal with, so I figured out a way to route it down through the tailgate, under the vehicle, through a hole in the frame, and out from the left bottom of the rear bumper. With the magnetic clips provided by Kuat, the wiring works perfectly, allowing full use of the Pivot without having to touch it every time I use the rack (and without a wire continually dragging across the paint on the bumper).
Pivot v2 Compatible
I confirmed with Kuat that the Piston Pro X is compatible with Pivot v2, with up to 250lb of weight. That’s not always the case with swing-away adapters, so it’s great to see that Kuat’s racks are compatible with their own adapter, which only enhances the experience. With the Pivot v2 mounted, I don’t even have to flip the rack down to access the tailgate on my element, and if I want more room out back, a quick flip of a latch and release allows the whole thing to swing to the side. Much like the rack itself, the Pivot v2 is the easiest to use of any swing-away adapter I’ve tried.
So What’s the Catch? The Price…
Now for the elephant in the room, the price. There’s no escaping it. The Piston Pro X is expensive. Really expensive, particularly if you want to carry three or four bikes. Pricing starts at $1,349 for a two-bike version (add $749 for the 1-bike add-on, or $1,289 for the 2-bike add-on). That’s $2,638 for a four-bike rack. Yes, that includes the locks and lights which other brands sell separately, but it’s still one of (if not the) most expensive hitch racks out there.
But there’s a reason for that. Kuat wanted to build the ultimate tray-style hitch rack, and it seems like they’ve succeeded. The Piston Pro X is stellar in almost every regard and is a stand-out for its ease of use, integrated features, and style – which is exactly why it landed an Editor’s Choice Award. At this point, I expect most bike racks that I’ve used to have at least one major flaw or annoyance, but the Piston Pro X is just about perfect. As long as you can afford it.