We’re not ready to declare summer dead and buried, but football season is nevertheless upon us. This weekend, the NCAA will kick off the Division I College Football season, and with that, we’re bringing back one of our all-time favorite topics: Tailgating. In the past, we’ve shown you plenty of capacious trucks, vans, and body-on-frame SUVs, but this year we thought we’d try something a little different. Sure, a brand new F-150, 4Runner, or Odyssey will offer tons of space for your friends, beer, and grillables, but they also include a major drawback—they’re incredibly expensive.
With that in mind, we’ve taken a look at some more budget-minded, creative options (without traveling too far in the Wayback Machine). All these cars seat at least 5, have a convenient hatchback or liftgate, and can carry all the bratwurst and burgers you could possibly want.
10. If what you want is to show up at the big game and make a really big impression in the parking lot, try pulling up in a GMC Yukon Denali. The Denali lineup, introduced by GMC in 1999, represents GMC’s top-of-the-line truck models. The Yukon Denali typically accounts for 40% of all Yukon sales, but comes with a 30% price increase. Though a new Denali can be rather pricey, older models have depreciated to the realm of affordability (and even a new one represents a cheaper alternative to the Cadillac Escalade). Needless to say, the Yukon Denali is well worth the price of admission; with seating for 8 and plenty of cargo room, you and your crew will be all set for an afternoon’s worth of tailgating shenanigans.
9. Many tailgaters wouldn’t ever choose to wear running shoes, even on a day they didn’t plan to spend stuffing themselves with cold beer and hot meat. But some tailgaters hike, bike, kayak, paddleboard, and do other things that require a vehicle that can do without the coddling of smooth pavement. Those folks might find the Subaru Outback to be a perfect tailgater. Rugged enough to head off-road with ease and roomy enough to carry plenty of people and gear, the Outback also offers the kind of ground clearance and interior comfort that make getting home from a tailgate or a trailhead safe and trouble-free.
8. The Jeep Grand Cherokee is perhaps the most well-equipped Jeep for a parking-lot party. Though it may not have the same cult following the Jeep Wrangler has earned, the Grand Cherokee wraps everything you could ask for in a tailgater (seating, comfort, a good sound system, and a nice hatch to hang out of) in a stylish, spacious box. And now with the upcoming Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk Hellcat (oh yes, FCA will put a Hellcat engine in a Grand Cherokee!), you’ll have a tailgating vehicle more powerful than you ever thought possible.
7. Carmakers worry that millennials don’t enjoy driving and won’t spend as much on cars as their parents. That’s partly because millennials demonstrate more concern about the environment and belief in climate change than their parents. A Fall Friday at any Division 1 school’s football field will demonstrate something else about millennials, however: They still love tailgating. Happily, Toyota’s Prius v combines the lowered environmental impact of a hybrid with the cargo capacity of a station wagon. And although its efficiency-driven Hybrid System Indicator won’t show big-screen closeups, it could give driver and passengers reason to cheer while traveling to and from the game.
6. The Mitsubishi Outlander may be the ugly duckling of the crossover segment, but it’s a surprisingly great choice for a tailgate. It comes with seating for up to 7 passengers, has typically good cargo space (a whopping 36.2 cubic feet if you opt for the 5-seater), and—most importantly—it packs a great sound system. The current Outlander is garnering most of its press from Mitsubishi’s decision to sunset the Lancer Evo in favor of the more profitable crossover market, but the stereo is the real reason to get excited about this CUV. The 710-watt, 9-speaker Rockford Fosgate system includes a 10-inch subwoofer and will be perfect for this season’s tailgates.
5. The Honda Ridgeline has one particular feature that lands it smack in the middle of this list. Its chassis was designed with extra space under the bed, and this extra space incorporates a storage compartment you can access from the bottom of the bed itself. The compartment offers 8.5 cubic feet of storage and even has a drain should you decide to use it as a cooler—which seems like the most obvious tailgating-related way to use it to us. The Ridgeline also has a dual-action liftgate that both swings out laterally and folds down, making it easier to load or unload certain awkward items, and, yes, access that underbed storage compartment. Honda plans an eventual return for the Ridgeline, but for now keep in mind that the model was last updated for the 2009 model year before being discontinued in 2014.
4. There are many people out there who might be hard to convince that a wagon is the perfect vehicle for tailgating. But wagons offer seating and the potential cargo space that makes them the most practical vehicles to haul to the stadium. And there is nothing embarrassing about rolling up to the big game in a Mercedes E-Class Wagon. This is not the Griswold’s Wagon Queen Family Truckster. The E-Class Wagon offers the style and cachet you expect from an E-Class, but seats up to 7. You’d be sure to have one of the best looking tailgaters at the game (though the 1995 E320 Wagon might be more our style).
3. Being a hatchback, the Honda Fit is clearly a bit smaller than some of the other vehicles on this list. But you’ve got to give it credit for its storage space. The front passenger seatback folds down to accommodate objects up to 8 feet long. The rear seats fold up into a “tall mode” that effectively removes the seat bottoms and allows you to store taller (and often unwieldy) items—Honda calls this the “Magic Seat” feature. We call it the “let’s take that annoying stand-up Weber grill that’s impossible to dismantle” feature. The Fit is a great tailgating choice for someone who doesn’t want to drive a larger vehicle but also doesn’t want to leave anything behind, because, come on, do you want to do that?
2. Any list of the world’s ugliest athletes includes a football player, and most lists of the world’s ugliest cars include the Pontiac Aztek. Given that and the more-than-passing resemblance between a football helmet’s facemask and the Aztek’s front fascia, we think Walter White’s favorite ride offers a perfect platform for folks who want to chow down and drink up while watching huge guys beat the living daylights out of each other. You’ll appreciate the removable cooler and storage compartments in the floor, and that camping package might come in handy if traffic gets really bad on the trip home.
1. Oh, the Chevrolet El Camino, why did it have to disappear? When you think about it, it was basically a station wagon, but rather than putting a rear seat and a few measly feet of cargo room all under one roof, Chevy decided to chop the top and give us what every tailgater really wants: a cool car with a truck bed. After all, you don’t need a family-friendly wagon; you just want some SuperSport badges and a nice place to set up your lawn chairs and grill. Although the most desirable and cleanest examples can cost a pretty penny, you and your friends are only looking for a beast to park outside Bryant-Denny Stadium, so there are still plenty of “rough-around-the-edges” options that’ll fit your budget.
What’s your go-to vehicle for tailgating?
–Chase Hammond, John Harrington, Matt Smith, and Steve Halloran
Shopping for a car to bring to the big game this weekend?
Bring along CarGurus’ mobile app to help check prices, find good deals, and research cars on your smartphone.