An available trailer hitch and two minutes of installation time is all you need to set up a bomber behind-the-car bike-toting system with the Kuat Alpha or the Thule 971xt rack. These similarly-designed systems affix to either the common 2- or 1.25-inch trailer-hitch receivers and prop up three bikes on stable arms that fold down when not in use.
I tested both the Kuat and Thule racks this summer mounted in the slipstream behind our bulky Volkswagen Eurovan. Overall, the racks were near-flawless performers. They are easy to set up and take off, and bikes are steady and stable at high speeds on the road.
On each rack, a pair of outrigger arms are endowed with rubber cradles to hold up to three bike frames in place. The bikes are then secured with rubber straps, which loop tightly around the bikes' top tubes and hook unto tiny nubs.
When not in use, the arms fold down. On the Thule rack, a lever unlatches the arm, letting it fold close in to the vertical rack pillar. Kuat's setup is similar, though instead of a lever to lock and release the arm the Alpha rack uses a pin that you slip in and out of a hole.
Thule (www.thule.com) and Kuat (www.kuatinnovations.com) each include integrated cable locks hidden inside the rack body. Pull the cable out of the rack, lock it up, and your bikes are secured on the arms with a key. Further, both racks lock to your trailer hitch so a thief cannot remove the whole shebang.
Our Eurovan has a wide-opening trunk door. Thule and Kuat both include a locking pivot that lets you fold back the rack and get it out of the way when you need to access gear in the trunk.
Overall, neither rack stood out as substantially better than the other. That is to say they are both fine products. They are of a similar design and with similar features. Thule's levers are more convenient than Kuat's pin-and-hole system. But then the Kuat rack is quite a bit lighter weight -- 13 pounds total as compared to 21 pounds for the Thule.
Price is nearly identical. At $349, the Kuat Alpha is just $20 more than the Thule 971xt, which retails for $329.
Final consideration: The horizontal bar that comes straight out from the hitch is a couple inches longer on the Kuat rack. This means that the Thule will have slightly better clearance if you're driving off-road, where ruts, bumps and steep inclines can cause a hitch rack to make contact with the ground.
--Stephen Regenold is founder and editor of www.gearjunkie.com.