Automakers Target Tailgating Connoisseurs, But Some Prefer Old School

Tailgating is a great American football tradition, and one that has now spread to other sports and around the globe. But for serious connoisseurs of the art, it takes more than just a ticket for the game and a parking pass. It also takes the right car.

While a tailgate isn’t actually required, it does help, says Steve Janisse, a former auto executive who now works as a consultant in the entertainment industry in California and flies to East Lansing, Michigan, whenever he can to join friends and family before Michigan State Spartan games.

“The tailgating is almost as much fun as the game itself,” says Janisse, whose love of the pre-game party dates back to his days as an MSU student. “But you want something like an SUV or a pickup that you can open up in back.”

Steve Janisse and his friends make tailgates at Michigan State University a multi-generational affair: From front left to right rear: Rowan Johnson, Anika Janisse, Sydney Pangborn, Avery Janisse, Veronica Azar, Kevlar Azar, Callum Johnson and Marin Johnson. Courtesy of Steve Janisse

While anything with an open back will suffice, automakers are offering lots of features on today’s SUVs, CUVs and pickups that make mobile cooking, eating and drinking easier -- and more enjoyable.

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 from the tailgate. It gives you a convenient place to sit and get at least partially out of the elements on a 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 may find useful.

San Francisco 49ers fan Erma Garcia sits in the trunk of her car while tailgating at Levi's Stadium before an NFL preseason football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the San Diego Chargers in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Tony Avelar / AP file

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 Wi-Fi 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.

Storage space is always a plus 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 feed the entire team.

Photo: 82-quart cooler for the Honda Pilot.
An 82-quart cooler fits neatly in the back of a Honda Pilot. Honda

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.

Video: Must-Have Tailgating Gifts, From Gear to Apps

You can always get something custom-made if you’re a true tailgate fanatic. At the annual SEMA convention in Las Vegas in 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” on a drone.

With so many vehicular choices, what’s a dedicated tailgater to do?

For University of Southern California alum Bob Perlberg, tried and true has long been best. But the new automotive entrants are finally forcing him to rethink his approach.

Perlberg hosts as many as 11 tailgate parties a year, and wants to do even more after selling his ad agency and retiring earlier this year. He packs his old Dodge Dakota so full of gear that he takes photos while loading it up so he knows how to pack it back up after the party.

Image: Tailgater Bob Perlberg packs a flat-screen TV, food, a generator, barbecue, three tables and 13 chairs in back of his Dodge Dakota.
Tailgater Bob Perlberg packs a flat-screen TV, food, a generator, barbecue, three tables and 13 chairs in back of his Dodge Dakota. Bob Perlberg

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.”

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