Best Cars for Tailgating

For Serious Tailgaters, the Car’s as Important as the Game Itself

by on Oct.23, 2015

The extended Janisse family chowing down at a Michigan State tailgate party.

He may live on the other side of the country these days, but Steve Janisse tries to get to East Lansing, Michigan as often as possible to catch the Michigan State Spartans in action.

It’s a tradition dating back to his days as an MSU student, and while it’s too long to drive in from California, he’s stayed in touch with old college friends who have made a tradition of arriving hours early to park and party. Tailgating is a pastime repeated around the country as football season gets underway, but to do it right takes more than just a ticket for the game and a parking pass. It also takes the right sort of car.

Get in the Game!

“The tailgating is almost as much fun as the game itself,” says Janisse, a one-time auto executive who now works as a consultant in the entertainment industry. “But you want something like an SUV or a pickup that you can open up in back.”

(Click Here to check out all the hot new models coming to the 2015 LA Auto Show.)

While a tailgate might be the most obvious requirement, there are lots of features available on today’s SUVs, CUVs and pickups that can make tailgating easier and a lot more fun.

The Bentley Bentayga's tailgate opens to reveal its optional "Event Seat" system.

If you’ve got the cash – about $250,000 – Bentley is offering what just might be the ultimate tailgate machine. The new Bentayga, the British maker’s first sport-utility vehicle offers an optional “Event Seat,” a slide-and-fold system that also can be ordered with a mobile catering system, complete with bins for china and silverware, as well as a compact powered food cooler.

While not quite as fancy, the Chrysler Town & Country features an optional version of its Stow ‘n Go seating system that, with a touch of the button, flips over the third-row seats so they face out the tailgate. It gives you a convenient place to sit and get at least partially out of the elements on a particularly cold or snowy day.

The back seats in the Ford Flex also can be flipped rearward and the crossover-utility vehicle adds an optional second-row refrigerator big enough to store seven 12-ounce beverage cans.

These days, tailgating can be a complex affair, and manufacturers are offering more and more high-tech features – as well as some lower-tech touches – that tailgaters will find useful.

Honda's new Pilot SUV can squeeze a freezer-size cooler in the back for a big game.

Plenty of vehicles now are equipped with 12-volt accessory outlets in their cargo beds, but some also offer 110-volt outlets. That list includes the Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV and the Ford F-150. That pickup’s outlet provides a full 400 watts – so you not only have the power to operate a large-screen TV but the room to carry it.

In-car audio has gotten so good that many vehicles now offer sound systems that match the best home audiophile technology. Meanwhile, you can expand your selection of tunes by tapping into the Internet, automakers including Audi and Fiat Chrysler offering built-in WiFi hotpots. Chevrolet is making 4G LTE technology standard on virtually all of its 2016 models.

“That’s been a big hit with tailgaters,” says Tom Wilkinson, who handles truck product public relations for Chevrolet.

You don’t always have to go high-tech. The newly redesigned Toyota Tacoma not only features a 110-volt outlet but an optional, two-tier shelf in the cargo bed tailgaters can use to store or serve from. And when it’s time to head in for the big game, there’s also an optional locking tonneau cover.

A customized Kia Sedona is the ultimate party wagon, with a build in craft beer bar.

Storage space is always a when you’re planning a party, and Honda’s new Pilot features an unusually flexible seating arrangement that maximizes cargo capacity. Even with all three rows up, the maker notes, there’s room for a huge, 82-quart cooler in back. That might be enough to the entire team.

Even if you’re not looking to trade-in on a new car, you can still make your old chariot more tailgate-friendly. There are “plenty” of options available on the automotive aftermarket, notes Chris Kersting, president and CEO of the Specialty Equipment Marketers Association, which represents thousands of auto parts and accessory vendors.

“It’s a pretty competitive category,” he explains, and a look at the offerings from SEMA members covers everything from portable refrigerators to mobile barbeques.

Nissan crafts the "Ultimate BBQ Vehicle."

You can always get something custom-made if you’re a true tailgate fanatic. At the annual SEMA convention in Las Vegas, last November, Korean carmaker Kia showed off four customized party wagons, including a version of the Soul crossover built for San Francisco’s Smitten Ice Cream company, and a Sedona minivan modified to serve as a mobile brew pub, complete with a flip-top roof and fold-down front bar.

Nissan recently developed an even more extreme concept car that it’s calling the “Ultimate Smart BBQ Vehicle.” Among other things, the small battery-electric van has a pull-out, stainless steel electric grill and a mosquito barrier system. On a hot day, it will provide a “refreshing” mist shower. And to make sure you share the fun, it evens features a “flying selfie camera.”

(Chevy confirms plans for new Camaro Convertible. Click Here for more.)

What’s a dedicated tailgater to do? USC alum Bob Perlberg hosts as many as 11 tailgate parties a year, and somehow wants to increase his activities after selling his ad agency and retiring earlier this year.

Bob Perlberg makes a science of tailgating, using every inch of his pickup's bed.

He’s been using an old Dodge Dakota that he packs so full of gear he takes photos while loading it up so he knows how to pack it back up after the party.

Like many tailgaters, the suburban Los Angelino knows you have to make compromises. The generator he lugs to games can either handle a big TV or the crock pot for his wife’s legendary pulled pork. After learning about the 110-volt outlet in the Ford F-150, he says it may be time to trade in the old truck.

“My gosh, we could have pulled pork and the big screen TV? My wife may get very excited about this.”

(Consumer Reports reveals which are the most reliable cars on the market — and which aren’t. Click Here for more.)

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