With gas prices as volatile as a swarm of bees that just had their honey stolen, the SUV market has started to shatter. If you drive a big SUV or pickup truck, you're probably trying to think of ways to save fuel, or – gasp – getting rid of that big vehicle and driving a fuel-efficient sedan or coupe. But you probably bought that truck for a reason -- you need to carry people and or lots of stuff. Don't despair. There are options if you decide to ditch the behemoth.
If you're used to throwing everything from bicycles to sports equipment to home improvement material in the back of your SUV, abandoning it for a smaller more efficient car doesn't have to mean abandoning your active lifestyle. There are plenty of simple, creative solutions to enhance the utility of your ordinary car. Just use common sense when you load up, and you can safely transport an amazing load of equipment and people in a smaller vehicle. Here are 10 tips and products to help you out.
Tip #1: Install a trailer hitch
If you're serious about getting the most out of your car as a gear-hauler, you're going to want to install a trailer hitch. SUVs and pickup trucks usually come equipped with a receiver from the factory. Most cars today built are unibodies or monocoques (meaning that the body pieces and structural elements are all fused together into one structural element), as opposed to body-on-frame construction (where the body pieces are attached to an underlying frame). In general, body-on-frame vehicles are more robust, and have higher tow ratings, but unibodies can still be equipped with trailer hitches. U-Haul (http://www.uhaul.com/hitches/) is an excellent source for information about hitches and towing, and sells self-install tow hitches starting at around $120.
Tip #2: Know your limits
Overloading your car can be disastrous. It's not only dangerous, it's also potentially damaging to your vehicle. You can damage your suspension components, wheels and tires, ruin your transmission and over-tax your engine if you aren't careful. Check your owner's manual for payload limits and towing capacities before you start piling cargo in and on your vehicle. And don't forget to account for the weight of passengers when you calculate your payload -- a sedan full of six adults could weigh a thousand pounds or more, especially if you've got big friends.
Tip #3: Bring the bicycles
Riding a bike is fun but you've got to get your bicycle to the starting point. There are several safe, efficient ways to transport your bike outside a sedan.
Toss it on the trunk: For a temporary mount that doesn't require any permanent alteration to your car, a trunk-mounted carrier is a great choice. Tuckerman Racks (http://www.tuckermanracks.com/servlet/Detail?no=1) has models that start as low as $100.
Rack it on the roof: Take advantage of that lower profile, and mount a specialty bike rack on your car's roof. Yakima (http://yakima.com/racks/bike-racks/roof-racks.aspx) makes several models starting at around $150. Just watch out for low-hanging branches and avoid urban parking garages.
Strap it to the spare: Some small crossovers, like the Toyota RAV4, store their spare tire on the tailgate. Allen Racks (http://allenracks.com/subpages/productsNew/spare/303d.php) and other companies make bike carriers that use the spare tire mount as a support for bike racks starting around $100.
Hook it on the hitch: If you followed Tip #1, and you have a hitch receiver installed on your car already, there's a wide variety of hitch-mounted bicycle racks to choose from, including Hollywood Racks (http://www.hollywoodracks.com/hitch-racks/roadrunner-hitch-rack.htm), which has models starting at about $125.
Tip #4: Roof rack systems
Just because you're not driving a Tahoe anymore, that doesn't mean you can't get your kayak to the shore. Thule (http://www.thuleracks.com/fg_choices.asp?car_id=4808&sport=28&factory_roof_rack=&year=1997&roof_id=10703&option_number=1) makes a roof rack system (starting at around $320) that can be fitted with a multi-kayak carrier that will have you floating downstream in no time -- just don't forget your paddle.
Tip #5: Soft-sided car top carriers
What if you're going camping and you just need to get your tent to the campsite? Then a soft-sided car top carrier might be the ticket. Piggy Pack (http://www.piggypack.com/) makes a variety of weather-resistant carriers that start at just $69.
Tip #6: Streamlined car top boxes
If you're traveling a little further, or if you want a little bit of additional security for your rooftop load, a streamlined car top box, like the ones from Thule (http://www.thuleracks.com/box_comparison.asp), can do the job, starting at around $200. In addition to great protection from the weather, these lightweight fiberglass carriers are designed to reduce wind resistance and noise, so they're quieter and more efficient than soft-sided carriers.
Tip #7: Hitch-mounted cargo carriers
If you are nervous about hauling gear on top of your vehicle, and you followed Tip #1, you could take advantage of a hitch-mounted cargo carrier like the ones from B-Dawg (http://www.bdawgcarriers.com/railed.html), starting at about $125. Hitch-mounted cargo carriers have distinct advantages over roof-mounted units: They are much easier to load; once loaded, they have a much lower center of gravity and less of a negative effect on vehicle handling. Just don't forget that you've increased your vehicle's effective overall length, so parking and maneuvering in traffic will be a little trickier.
Tip #8: Utility trailers
Sometimes there's just not enough room in or around your car, and you have to think outside the box. A utility trailer, like the ones from Carry-On Trailer (http://www.carry-ontrailer.com/product/4x6WM_OT.htm), starts at about $500, and will help you carry that lawn mower, picnic bench or new grille home with ease. Many home centers rent utility trailers for short term use – if you've installed a trailer hitch, you can drag that cool sale item home.
Tip #9: Cargo trailers
If you find yourself regularly hauling sensitive large items home, like antique furniture or artwork, you might want to investigate a lightweight cargo trailer like the ones from Wells Cargo (http://www.wellscargo.com/trecker/model.html?model=33), starting at around $1,500. A closed trailer protects your cargo from prying eyes, from the weather and from the effects of wind in transit. You can also rent cargo trailers from U-Haul (http://www.uhaul.com) and other retailers, starting as low as $14.95 per day.
Tip #10: Tow dollies
Sometimes you're doing the towing, sometimes you're being towed. If you've got too much stuff to fit inside, on top of or behind your car, maybe you should consider renting a cargo van or truck and hooking your car up on a car tow dolly, like one from Tracy Performance (http://www.towdollies.com/), starting at about $1,400. Most cars can be safely towed with a dolly -- then when you arrive at your destination, you've got your stuff, and you've got your car for quick trips. In some cases, it's the best of both worlds.
And all you can do that all without a full-sized SUV or pickup truck.