Colin Smith knows exactly what he'll need when he drives from Norfolk, Va., to watch the Denver Broncos take on the Washington Redskins on Nov. 15: A U-Haul, some dry ice and a BBQ barrel.
The 23-year-old bartender usually takes in a couple of NFL games per season; his dream vehicle for tailgating is simple but functional and large scale — you can't get much more cargo space than a moving van. Of course, Smith doesn't expect to actually have that U-Haul full of barbecue, but it sure would be nice.
"I'm going with a buddy of mine; we're going to get there a few hours early and then set up outside the stadium," Smith says. "He's got an SUV, so we should be OK for tailgating. It'll be awesome."
Foregoing the U-Haul option, the best vehicles for tailgating this season tend toward the tall, spacious, stain-proof set: the $20,275 Honda Element, $41,175 Ford F-150 King Ranch SuperCrew and $28,495 Ford Flex, to name a few.
They promise more than 75 cubic feet of cargo space, extra power outlets, cupholders galore and a towing capacity that will please any cook planning to bring a grill to the game.
Big cars with purpose
To compile our list of the best vehicles for tailgating, we used quality, dependability and design studies from J.D. Power and Associates to narrow down the field — each car on our list is a segment winner for its quality, dependability and/or design. We combed over each candidate for what it could offer over its competitors in cargo space, passenger capacity, sound systems and extras like fold-flat seats, remote start, multiple cupholders and hidden storage bins. And we consulted several hardcore fans, like Smith, who know the difference between a tailgate-friendly vehicle and one that's just big.
Joe Cahn, the author of tailgating.com, has traveled 500,000 miles since 1996, having visited all 31 NFL stadiums, 123 college stadiums and nine NASCAR tracks. According to his survey of 5,000 tailgaters nationwide, 46 percent attend roughly 10 games per season, and 42 percent spend more than $500 a season on food and supplies. Most set up three or four hours before the game starts. To that end, we looked for extra measures of durability, as anything that spends more than a few hours in a crowded parking lot several weekends in a row is likely to get scuffed by fender-benders and ebullient fans.
There are some surprising things to watch for when evaluating a vehicle for its tailgate worthiness, says Jay DiEugenio, a Seattle Seahawks fan who has tailgated at every NFL stadium. (He recently converted a 36-foot-long school bus as his game-day mobile.) For instance, extra storage bins are nice, he says, but sometimes they become too much of a good thing.
"Just get something you can put stuff into, drive to the game and use as your service point rather than something where everyone has to go move stuff out of the way," he says.
And keep an eye on that sound system — some music is good, but overly loud music is a nuisance: "Sound systems are important to have out there, but when you're too loud it becomes obnoxious."
DiEugenio likes the Honda Element for its cargo space and the fact that you can wash out the back easily — although the vehicle isn't quite as big as he'd like. He recommends trucks and large wagons as the top choices for tailgates for one reason: unlimited space.
"It's usually a group of 10, 12, 20, 40 people," he says. "You've got grills, coolers, generators, tables and chairs out there, plus everybody else's stuff. The more equipment you can haul, the easier your life becomes out in the parking lot — and the more enjoyable as well."
But the best cars for eating and drinking before the big game are not just beefed-up trucks and SUVs. The $76,405 Lexus LX570 and $38,530 Toyota Sequoia are SUVs with a finer edge. They come with barbecue-and-beer-necessary amenities like power outlets, up to 18 cupholders in the Sequoia and hidden storage bins — but they also have a plush side, with rear-seat DVD entertainment systems, Bluetooth audio, leather trimmings and a remote-start function for quick getaways on cold days after the game.
Ford's Flex offers a happy medium between subtlety and brawn. Its refrigerated center console will hold seven cans of beer or soda, its panoramic roof and ambient lighting make for a wide-angle view of any stadium scoreboard, and the active park assist will come in handy for some creative parking, should the need arise.
As expected for autos situated on a truck chassis, the vehicles on our tailgating list don't get the best gas mileage on the road — the Cadillac Escalade gets only 12 miles to the gallon in city driving; the GMC Yukon, 14 miles — but that's not a concern for most tailgaters, even in the down economy.
On Sundays, it's all about the party.
© 2012 Forbes.com