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Car hitches come in 1 1/4" hitch and 2" hitch sizes. The former is dubbed (in North America, at least) either class-1 or class-2, and the latter is dubbed class-3. Class 4, 5, and 6 also exist, but do not seem relevant for cycling.

What are the rules of thumb regarding the carrying capacity of 1 1/4" class-1 vs 2" class-3 hitches? In particular, if a car's chassis seems like it will not handle a 2" hitch (because neither the dealer nor the major independent installer offers it), does mounting a 4-bike rack—loaded with four MTBs—remain an option?

I am reading that the carrying capacity for a 1 1/4" class-1 hitch is 200 lb, which would allow for four MTBs weighing 120 lb and a 4-bike rack weighing 80 lb. Is this not recommended because it provides no margin of safety?

I am aware that the best way to carry four (and more) bicycles is to have a truck, but aside from that option, what are some of the reliable ways (no sway; stable at highway speeds) for carrying four bicycles on a hatchback? Is there, for example, an option to use a 1 1/4" hitch, but to reduce the torque on the hitch by strapping a hitch-mounted bike rack to roof rails?

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The margin of safety is already baked into all hitch class ratings. If it says you can tow a trailer of X lbs with a tongue weight of X/10, then rest assured that you can go all the way up to that limit with no worries.

Tongue weight, which is the dead weight pressing down vertically on a tow ball or receiver is always 10% of the towed trailer weight rating for hitch classes 1-4. That's an industry standard. (Class 5 allows more than 10%.)

You're only interested in tongue weight because you're carrying bikes, not towing a trailer, so I'll only talk about tongue weight now.

A Class 1, 1-1/4" receiver can carry 200 lbs.

A Class 2, 1-1/4" receiver can carry 350 lbs.

A Class 3, 2" receiver can carry 800 lbs.

(Reference)

So a Class 1 hitch will adequately and safely carry the required weight of 200 lbs now with no worries about safety margin. If you can find a Class 2 hitch that fits the car, you will have built-in additional capacity in case you get heavier bikes or a different, heavier rack in the future with a total weight up to 350 lbs.

A Class 3 hitch is total overkill, but you can do one if you wish. The only loss to you will be the extra expense and the greater weight, which will affect your fuel consumption.

What you haven't addressed, however, is the cargo capacity of the vehicle. Is the vehicle rated to carry 200 lbs plus the weight of the hitch itself as trunk cargo? Find out before you buy.

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  • Thanks for the detailed answer. The only catch now is to find a vendor who sells a 4-bike hitch rack for 1.25" hitches. The popular brand in my area (thule.com/en-ca/bike-rack/hitch-bike-racks/…) will only fit 2" hitches.
    – Sam7919
    Oct 22, 2023 at 17:10
  • @Sam7919 Hitch adapter 65023 at Harbor Freight plugs into a 1-1/4 receiver and gives you a 2" receiver. Don't forget the additional hitch pin. This will shift the bike carrier rearward a few inches. Best to leave the adapter attached to the carrier, not the car, when carrier is not in use; adapters can rust in place if left on the car for months during wet weather. If you leave the carrier on the car unattended, you may want key-locking hitch pins instead of the clevis + hairpin style that says "Steal me!"
    – MTA
    Oct 22, 2023 at 20:13
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    @Sam7919 Aside from shifting the load rearward a bit, the one disadvantage of using a receiver adapter is that it may introduce additional rattles as the adapter moves around inside the receiver when driving on a bumpy road. Receivers are sized for a loose fit for ease of separation. It's not a sign of trouble, it's just noise. If it happens and the noise bothers you, you can jam a wooden shim between the moving parts to stop the rattle.
    – MTA
    Oct 22, 2023 at 20:23
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The other answer covered the hitch/tongue weight portion thoroughly, but in response to your last paragraph about transporting four bikes safely with a hatchback, you could consider pulling a small utility trailer instead of using a rack.

This transfers the weight of the bikes onto the trailer and leaves you with only the trailer tongue weight on your hitch. They can be rented or purchased depending on how frequently you'll be using it and if you have anywhere to store it, and since the bikes are light cargo you could get a light trailer.

You'll definitely need to consult your vehicles manual and make sure you are staying within the rated towing capacity.

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