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Life of the Party: Top 7 Unexpected Tailgaters

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author photo by Nick Palermo September 2011

Football season is upon us, and the banter of team rivalries has already begun. Now is the time to check out the home game schedule and start planning those tailgate parties. Who will you take? Which good-but-not-good-for-you foods will you serve? And, are you really going to show up in that tired old wreck?

You don't need a tailgate to have a tailgate party, but the right vehicle can make all the difference. It's your shuttle to and from the game, and your home away from home in the parking lot. You might not expect it, but these seven vehicles make surprisingly great tailgating companions. And all of our picks will serve you well in the off-season, too.

2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

Jeep WranglerHave you ever met a boring Jeep driver? Not likely. Jeeps have been the ride of choice for fun folks for decades. Enjoying the rugged pleasures of a Jeep used to mean sacrificing comfort and convenience. But today's Jeep Wrangler is a different animal, a sophisticated and modern vehicle, with many of the comforts you'd expect from something more mainstream.

The Wrangler Unlimited is Jeep's four-door Wrangler model, so unlike the old CJ, you can load the charcoal grill and cooler in the back and still have room for a couple of friends in the backseat. The Unlimited is also the only four-door convertible on the market. Adventurous souls will score with top-down motoring to and from the game.

Should the sun become too harsh, Jeep offers an accessory tent that attaches to the rear of the vehicle. A little nap in the tent's shade while you wait for traffic to die down could be the perfect end to game day.

2011 Honda Ridgeline

Honda RidgelineIf passenger cars were ideal pre-game party vehicles, it would probably be called "trunking." There's just something about a pickup that works so perfectly for the task of tailgating. The Honda Ridgeline is not a conventional pickup, but it may be the one best suited for all your fall festivities.

After all, the Ridgeline has both a bed and a trunk. Its big, lockable storage bin is accessible from the bed area and can secure your valuables while you're in the stadium. Its tailgate swings both down (as on a conventional pickup), and to the side (like on old station wagons), so you always have the most convenient access to your gear.

Should you head out for an away game, the Ridgeline's excellent fuel economy and Honda's legendary reliability will get you there with enough money left over for steaks instead of brats on the pre-game grill.

2011 Mini Cooper Convertible

Mini CooperIn a field of mostly heavyweight players, a smaller, lighter, faster contender sometimes surprises with outstanding performance. So does the Mini Cooper Convertible. It will not comfortably carry four oversized superfans to the game. But if an efficient, minimalist approach is your game plan, the Mini is a serious contender.

Leave the folding chairs at home. Just flip down the tailgate on the Mini and have a seat. Forgo the grill, charcoal and accessories and pack some sandwiches. Crank up the standard XM radio to get revved up and ready for game time, or tune in to one of XM's many sports channels.

Its diminutive size may in fact be the Mini's greatest tailgating strength. Squeezing through traffic and finding a parking space couldn't be easier. And getting to the right place at the right time is always key to a successful tailgate party.

2011 Dodge Caliber

Dodge CaliberTailgating is all about transforming an empty parking lot into an exciting party spot. The Dodge Caliber seems made for this task. Its unique features prove useful in everyday driving, but seem to be engineered expressly for game day celebration.

Here's a vehicle that's as cool as a drink pulled straight from the Caliber's Chill Zone storage compartment. Dodge's available Uconnect system offers phone, navigation and Sirius radio. Uconnect web will even turn the Caliber into a wi-fi hotspot so you can surf the web while you grill your dogs.

But perhaps the Caliber's coolest party trick comes from the available MusicGate Power system with subwoofer. The 458-watt Boston Acoustics audio option features speakers that flip down from the Caliber's open hatchback, turning an ordinary parking lot into a party in seconds. To boot, the Dodge Caliber is affordable and efficient, so it's a rational choice in the off-season, too.

2011 Chrysler Town & Country

Chrysler Town & CountryIf game day is a family affair, the MVP is Chrysler's Town & Country. It's the latest iteration of a model descended from the Caravan, which launched the minivan segment almost three decades ago. But unlike an aging athlete, the Chrysler Town & Country has only gotten stronger over the years. It's bigger, more powerful, more agile and better looking than ever.

This Chrysler will get your squad, up to seven passengers, to the pre-game party in comfort. Bring all of your gear, too. In addition to ample passenger space, the Town & Country can carry all of the cargo necessary for a successful tailgate party. So pack the grill, cooler and that bulky cornhole set.

Entertain passengers on the ride to the game with the available dual DVD entertainment system. Once in place to party, flip the third row seat around to provide an innovative rear-facing bench. It's official: this Chrysler offers the space, comfort and practicality you need for your tailgating excursion.

2011 Ford Flex

Ford FlexAnother contender in the people-mover game is the Ford Flex. This funky Ford crossover provides the functionality of a minivan packaged in a fun and unique body style.

Not only does the Flex offer the interior volume to carry everyone and everything you need for the tailgate party, it offers the comfort you'd expect from a luxury vehicle, with loads of neat available equipment. Watch the Goodyear Blimp circle overhead through the optional multi-panel Vista Roof. Leave the cooler at home, and instead pull cold beverages from the refrigerated second-row console.

Ford's SYNC infotainment system gets you to the game with directions and traffic information, and then keeps you updated with sports scores while you tailgate. SYNC will also allow you to entertain fans with tunes from your Bluetooth-enabled or USB device. The Ford Flex is the stylish way to get people to the tailgating scene.

2011 Hyundai Equus

Reveling in a tailgate party may seem a pedestrian affair for those who are chauffeur-driven in a Maybach or a Rolls Royce. But to the newly affluent, a football game may yet be more comfortable and familiar than a stuffy polo match. For the privileged tailgater, the Hyundai Equus can help bridge the social gap.

Choose Hyundai's Ultimate option package on the Equus to quietly tailgate in opulence. Whether self- or chauffeur-driven, you'll settle in the rear seat for luxurious pre-game celebration. Deploy the power side and rear sunshades to keep cool, then recline and rest your legs in the first-class accommodations. Enjoy entertainment through the 608-watt, 17-speaker Lexicon audio system. Massage? Perhaps a cold beverage from the refrigerated console? It's all right there.

While the Equus is every bit a luxury automobile, Hyundai is not a snooty marque, so passengers will still be welcomed by the masses. If you're looking for a luxury experience minus the pesky requests for Grey Poupon, choose the Equus.

While there's no single formula for a winning tailgate party vehicle, there are many attributes that contribute to making an excellent choice for your fall festivities -without sacrificing year-around performance and practicality. As the season draws near, consider retiring your aging champ for one of these promising new recruits.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Life of the Party: Top 7 Unexpected Tailgaters - Autotrader