Vehicle rack systems have always amazed me. For how much it costs to outfit a car with racks, I expect the components to be beautifully crafted and engineered to work flawlessly for years—and for the system to weigh less than the vehicle it’s going on. Instead, I’m usually left with buyer’s remorse. If I wanted to spend all day putting ill-fitting parts made from plastic and stamped steel together, I could just go to Ikea and save a fortune. I don’t know about you, but if I spend several hundred bucks—or much more—on a single rack or a system, I want it to look and act the part. Unfortunately though, most racks are wobblier than Gary Busey on a bender and have so much plastic, they scream Fisher Price “My First Bike Rack”. The disappointment is compounded when the colors fade faster than Ken Bone (Red Sweater Guy) from the October 2016 pop news cycle. On top of it all, most racks I’ve had seem like they’re a nudge away from unloading precious cargo onto the highway—I’ve never had it happen to me, but I know people who once found side winds strong enough in the Columbia River Gorge to yard sale the contents of their rocket box and roof racks all over I-84.
Back there when I said “most racks,” that included some Yakima products. It did not, however, include the Yakima Dr. Tray, which is no doubt the most badass rack the company has ever made. By the way, if you’re still using roof racks, do yourself a favor and get a hitch rack—they’re better in numerous ways. I’ve been on the hitch rack program for around a decade, including on small cars, and I’ll never go back. The Dr. Tray is one of the best I’ve tried, and that’s before the several improvements it has recently undergone.
Here are the things I love about the Dr. Tray, in no particular order:
One, the name. I mean, come on! Pair it with Yakima’s Slim Shady roof-mounted vestibule, and you’ve got an unbeatable rap duo.
Two, it’s light. The entire chassis, including the square hitch insert on the 2-inch receiver version, is aluminum, and so are the bike trays, wheel hooks, and front wheel hoops. The 2-inch receiver version weighs a mere 35.5-pounds, so it won’t weigh your suspension down or break your back when you want to take it off. The hitch insert portion of the 1 1/4-inch version that the rest of the chassis connects to is made with steel because 1.25-inch square aluminum stock simply isn’t robust enough. This makes the smaller hitch version of the Dr. Tray 6 pounds heavier, coming in at 41.5 pounds.
Three, it’s wobble-free and can be installed or removed super fast, without tools. Remember quill stems? That’s how the Dr. Tray works. Turning the red knob (that after a year, still hasn’t turned pink, by the way) expands the quill wedge and takes up all the slack in the interface. Most hitch racks slide into the receiver and have a threaded pin that goes through a hole, leaving the rack free to wobble back and forth and up and down in the receiver. There’s still a pin for the Dr. Tray, to prevent the rack from sliding off the receiver in the event that the wedge somehow comes loose, but it’s a tool-less ball lock style deal. Because it’s so quick, doesn’t require tools and is so lightweight, it actually encourages me to take it off the car when it isn’t being used. Installing or removing it takes less than a minute. A lock engages and disengages the red knob that works the quill, and ensures thieves won’t walk off with your rack quite as quickly.
Four, the trays are maneuverable. Each tray has tons of room to slide side-to-side, as well as fore and aft on the chassis, ensuring plenty of separation between bikes. This can all be done without tools. The Dr. Tray also accepts a third, easily added or removed tray, called the EZ+1 for an extra $240.
Then there are the wheel hooks, which are totally not crappy. They pivot smoothly without creaking or wobbling, and the throw between ratchet engagement points is shorter than it is on other racks I’ve tested. Other racks sometimes require you to push super hard against the tire to get the hook to engage the next ratchet, but with the Dr. Tray there’s always a click close by. There is also a big-‘ol grey trigger handle at the very end of the rack to engage its tilt function, so you don’t have to reach way over to a pin or lever at the pivot point. The rack tilts up into stow mode, down into carrying mode, or down once again for trunk access. Depending on the height of your vehicle, the trunk access mode might actually have the end of the rack resting on the ground. The 2-inch version did on my girlfriend’s road-trip loaded 2011 Subaru Outback before she upgraded to firmer springs, and so did the 1 1/4-inch one on my Audi A4 wagon. But it really doesn’t matter, because it tilted enough to gain trunk access. I guess it could get you in trouble if you accidentally drove off without putting the rack up again, but I’m guessing you’d figure that out pretty quick. Finally, I dig the glossy painted finish, which is still the same color, even after hundreds of days in the blazing desert sun.
The Not Sweet
Even though the Yakima Dr. Tray is damn good, no rack is perfect. Here are a few things I don’t love, in no particular order:
One, it’s not level. In the carrying mode, it leans forward slightly. It’s really not that big of a deal, but it does make it so you can’t really throw your bike on the rack and expect it to balance there. There’s a good chance it’ll fall into your vehicle if you take your hand off it before securing the wheel hook. That’s something you should be doing right away anyway, but the forward lean is noticeable. It’s better than leaning back though, which the Dr. Tray won’t do, even with a fully loaded car and rack. But, the Dr. Tray is also out of plumb when it’s in the stow mode. It leans slightly back. Again, it’s a small detail, but for $600 I want perfection. It’s totally not a deal breaker, though.
Two, it still has that ratcheting tire strap for the rear wheel. I realize I sound like a lazy asshole saying this, but the most annoying part about putting a bike on the Dr. Tray is leaning over to do that strap. And, getting it undone is a two handed affair, so you need to make sure you do things in the proper order. If you undo the wheel hook before undoing the tire strap, you have to let go of the bike, which will fall forward into your car. I’m only pointing this out because I had a Saris rack that had wheel hooks for both wheels, and the speed and not having to bend over was magnificent. I wish ratcheting wheel straps would go away altogether. Of course, I also think that bikes shouldn’t have zip ties on them, so maybe I just have an issue with plastic things that ratchet—who knows.
Three, it’s a bit bulky. Even though the Dr Tray is nice and light, it takes up more room than the Yakima Hold-Up, a far heavier, and otherwise inferior (in my opinion) hitch rack. The hoop that carries the front wheel hangs pretty far out, and is fixed. If it were hinged where it connects to the main tray, it could fold in and out of the way. But that would add complexity, and perhaps a little weight. With the rack being so large, both vertically and width-wise, it looks pretty out of place on my little Audi wagon, but because it can be installed and removed so damn quick, I just take it off when I don’t need it. Its the first hitch rack I’ve actually done that with. I mean, there’s no hitch rack in the world that actually improves the look of a vehicle, so the best thing a designer can do, in my opinion, is make it incredibly easy to take on and off. Yakima nailed that aspect of the Dr. Tray. The last time I took a hitch rack off my car was when I broke my hand and the sight of the rack was a constant reminder of the fact that I couldn’t ride.
The Newly Sweet
Remember at the beginning, when I briefly mentioned new improvements? The first version of the Dr. Tray had some flaws that have since been remedied on an updated version of the Dr. Tray, which is in production now. Here’s are those improvements, in some sort of order:
One, the wheel hook release button. It was a low-profile button that would slide down towards the ground. The problem was that it could be tough to get it to release. You’d have to press the hook down against the tire to relieve pressure, in order to get it to release. Yakima has replaced that button with a something that’s shaped more like a lever, and it’s much, much easier to release. It’s a big improvement.
Two, longer trays. The original Dr. Tray didn’t do a great job of accommodating bikes with long wheelbases, so the updated one now has ones that are about 3 inches longer. Also, the rear wheel carrier doesn’t articulate down as much, which on the original rack, would cause tugging on the front wheel. The new version is even sturdier that the original. The best way to tell them apart is by the shape of the wheel hook release button.
Three, an easier to pull tilt lever. You needed to tug on the original grey tilt lever with two hands to get it to release, but it’s been redesigned to require much less force. Now its a one handed thing.
Props to Yakima for recognizing these flaws and implementing solutions to them, for designing completely tool free assembly installation, and adjustment, and most of all, for building a rack that’s worth the high price tag.