As I'm writing this, Autoblog won't get its first drive of the all-new 2021 Mercedes GLA-Class for another 11 days. It's as new as a new car can get. And yet, I already know that my Yakima FullBack bike rack will fit on the liftgate. I even know that I'll need to use hub setting 5 and will be limited to 60 pounds of bike. There are pictures, too.
That's because Yakima's Fit Team is seriously on top of things. Although they can coordinate with manufacturers ahead of time, such as with the 2021 Ford Bronco and Bronco Sport, most of their "fits" are determined by simply getting access to the cars at dealerships and determining which of Yakima's products will fit and, if they do, identify instructions for customers of the car and product alike.
"We follow new releases," said Yakima fit technician Taylor Thompson. "We're looking at all the (sites) for news about the upcoming vehicles that are coming out. Part of our job is knowing when those vehicles are going to be hitting the lots, because we've got to get our hands on it and be able to tell people where to place (the products) on their car."
Sure enough, a new GLA recently arrived at Mercedes-Benz of Wilsonville near Yakima's headquarters in Lake Oswego, Ore. As one of the Portland-area dealers Yakima has a relationship with, the Fit Team was soon on the scene to size up the redesigned subcompact crossover.
"We could look at a car yesterday on the lot, and we'll come and get that fit entered in, and our website is populated with information the next day," Thompson said. "So you have close to real-time information. It makes us very nimble and quick to the consumer."
The site in question is fitlookup.yakima.com, and it's not just for the newest cars for sale. They have fits going back decades, with a 1976 Porsche 924 the oldest one listed on the site. More helpfully, it makes it very easy to see which of Yakima's products will fit a car you already own and then provide the appropriate product settings for your car if necessary. In many cases, there are diagrams provided (usually for roof racks and rails) or pictures of cars on dealer lots (usually bike racks like my FullBack). The latter is a terrific idea to make sure that what you accomplished by following the instructions matches what the Fit Team managed with the same car.
After all, getting the right fit is paramount.
"It needs to be right," Thompson said. "If you put a (bike rack) hub setting 2 on a BMW 3 Series when it should be a (hub setting) 1, then where the rack sits on that vehicle can actually cause damage cause it's not a structural place to put it.
"That's all stuff the fit team does to give the consumer piece of mind that when you're putting it on the car, that you're putting it in the right place and that it is able to carry that load because there are a lot of vehicles out there that if you put it too high up or at the wrong placement on the truck, then it's not supported very well there and it's not able to carry a load that well."
Yakima has proprietary methods and metrics that help determine fits, and also works directly with manufacturers, especially partners Toyota and Ford. However, the Fit Team also relies on their own expertise "in the field" when a new car shows up at a dealer.
"We go over the cars. Knowing what sheetmetal does, knowing where stronger points are from a manufacturing standpoint," Thompson said. "We (study) manufacturing techniques on how cars are put together; where stronger places of the car are going to be. We also use our thumbs, going around making sure that even before we put a rack on a vehicle that we're hitting a certain criteria of strength before even saying it's a possibility.
"Because there are vehicles that are just a no fit. There just isn't a way to get one on there that we can't confidently say 'this won't damage your vehicle.'"
According to Thompson, the Fit Team spends most of its time on "naked roof vehicles" or those that don't come with factory roof rails. They need four BaseLine "towers" that connect to crossbars. In some cases, mounting towers is as simple as screwing into mounting points included in the car (ever wonder what those little doors are on the top of many German cars?). Those are easy. For everything else, the Fit Team has to identify clips that will safely secure the towers in the door jam, and then the settings to keep crossbars perpendicular with the roof.
And like they do for liftgate-mounted bike racks, the clip, setting and fitment instructions are uploaded ASAP to the Yakima fit lookup site along with pictures. You can see examples of that below with the Honda Accord.
Thompson estimates that 80% of vehicles will be fit by 20% of Yakima's existing base clips, so it's not like there's a ton of variance.
"There's a high percentage chance that your dealer is going to already have everything you need to fit your car that we literally just fit yesterday."
Now, should a car be a bit weird and not work with Yakima's existing equipment, the Fit Team is also tasked with creating and developing new fitting applications for those oddballs. They do metal work and create new "landing pads" for where the towers meet sheet metal using plastic-injection pieces. So, even if it's not an immediate fit, Yakima will still do its best to make sure they'll offer a solution for a new make and model.
And really, as Americans are increasingly turning to road trips this summer for vacations as air travel becomes impossible or unpalatable, the need to easily add versatility and cargo capacity to their existing car has become more important. Plus, being able to easily see which of Yakima's products work with your car from the safety of your couch can't be discounted, either. And while Yakima's chief competitor Thule allows you to see which products fit on your car and provides fit settings, there are no on-sight photographs or diagrams. In other words, it's harder. Oh, and that 2021 Mercedes GLA? It's not yet on Thule's site.