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Honda’s Ridgeline is the quarterback of the tailgate team — and it doubles as a cooler on wheels.
Honda’s Ridgeline is the quarterback of the tailgate team — and it doubles as a cooler on wheels. (Cars.Com Photo)

An all-star lineup of rides for the tailgating season

There's nothing like a pre game outdoor bash -- otherwise known as a tailgate party -- to rekindle your football spirit. Cars.com's Fantasy Tailgating Team '06 offers our pick of the best vehicles to get you, your gear, and your buddies to the game. From a list of more than 75 contenders, car experts Joe Wiesenfelder, Mike Hanley, and David Thomas picked winners in eight categories.

Of course, as the beer brewers say, live responsibly. Now, get out there and tailgate.

Quarterback

The QB decides the fate of the team. If he's not well-rounded in every category, there's little chance the franchise will make the playoffs. Likewise, our top tailgater must have talent across the board: Smart features, plenty of cargo room, a decent stereo, comfortable seats, towing capacity, and a mess-friendly cabin are musts.

Editors' pick: 2006 Honda Ridgeline: Not as big as domestic full-size pickups -- but no small fry, either -- Honda's refined Ridgeline crew cab pickup is the perfect place to orchestrate your tailgate party. Nothing else on the road features a watertight, drainable, in-bed trunk that's this large. It effectively doubles as a cooler; add that to the composite cargo box with an optional locking cover, and there's sure to be plenty of room for all the essentials: chairs, food, giant foam fingers . . .

Offensive line

These guys play in the trenches, taking abuse on every play. Our picks have waist-high cargo beds that endure rain, hail, and unsecured Weber grills, and they are always ready for next weekend.

Joe's pick: 2006 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid: "It doesn't make much of a hybrid, but this truck makes a heck of a generator. Don't let the proliferation of household electric outlets in cars fool you; they're for electronics. If you want to power a real, high-draw appliance, like an electric grill, this is your sole choice. Unfortunately, the engine has to be running."

Mike and David's pick: 2007 Chevrolet Avalanche: Mike says: "Want to intimidate an enemy tailgater before the first snap? Pulling into the parking lot in Chevrolet's menacingly styled Avalanche does the job. The Avalanche also has tons of functionality -- like an extendable cargo bed and self-draining storage boxes -- and it can seat up to six." David says: "First off, I can't resist: If you have an electric grill for tailgating, you have issues. I picked the Avalanche because no matter what kind of grill or how many folding chairs, tables, and coolers you decide to bring for the pre game festivities, they can all be locked securely under the Avalanche's nifty covered bed."

Running backs

For most running backs, agility is the name of the game. Our picks have zippy handling and small dimensions to help you secure that prime parking spot, and their high gas mileage leaves you more cash for food and drinks. Massive cargo dimensions and earth-shaking sound systems aren't as important as innovative storage solutions and a cool stereo.

Joe's pick: 2007 Dodge Caliber: "This is a good new hatchback with a stain-resistant cargo area and a liftgate that can shield you from rain and sun. But the real tricks for tailgating include an optional stereo speaker module that swings down from the liftgate to aim backward, and a 'Chill Zone' glove compartment that cools up to four cans or bottles."

Mike's pick: 2007 Honda Fit: "Despite its small footprint, the fuel-thrifty Fit can accept some very big cargo thanks to its flexible interior. If you need to take a break from the party, fully recline the front seatbacks and kick back from the back seat, or hook up your iPod to the Fit's sound system with an available adapter."

David's pick: 2006 Mazda3: "The Mazda3 is quick enough to snag that elusive parking spot -- and probably fit in it, too. The added utility of the hatchback matches that of the other two mentioned here, and in my eyes it's the best-looking and most fun to drive away from the stadium."

Wide receivers

Wide receivers catch the ball, complete the plays, and make the crowd go wild. Such is the case with our choices: They catch cargo, people, and more cargo -- and they come through with plenty of seating, storage, and entertainment features sure to delight revelers. Party favors, if you will.

Joe's pick: 2006 Dodge Grand Caravan: "The third-row seat flips backward for comfortable bumper seating. When your pals are sitting on coolers, this is one bench you won't mind warming. The Grand Caravan isn't the only model with this feature, but it's the largest and best overall."

Mike's pick: 2006 Ford Freestar: "Like the Grand Caravan, the Ford Freestar's third-row seat can rotate rearward for tailgate seating. There's room for seven inside, and an optional DVD entertainment system can keep the littlest of tailgaters occupied before the game."

David's pick: 2006 Mercedes-Benz R500: "Rotate, schmotate. If you want the ultimate comfort machine for a lot of people, you can't beat the R-Class. Yes, it's just a gussied up minivan -- so think of it as the Terrell Owens of its class."

Tight ends

Tight ends are a team's grunts. They need to both block on the line with the big guys and catch a pass at a moment's notice, so a balanced skill set is key. While our vehicle nominees have a good mix of cabin space and scuff-friendly surfaces, they can also be parked without knocking over the next guy's Warren Sapp shrine. On second thought . . .

Joe and Mike's pick: 2006 Honda Element: Joe says: "Don't worry about the mess; the Element's floor and seats wipe clean. The combination liftgate/tailgate provides sheltered seating, and the side door opening is nice and wide for easy loading and unloading. If your brother-in-law overdoes it, he can sleep it off on the Element's floor, which is 5 1/2 feet long when the rear seats are swung up and stowed." Mike says: "As Joe points out, the Element is built for utility. Use the tie-down anchors in the cargo area to secure your grill on the way to and from the game, or fold the front seats flat to create a double bed; hey, it's better than forking over $60 at a Motel 6 after the game. The Element also is available with all-wheel drive, which should make trips to playoff games in Green Bay a little less hair-raising."

David's pick: 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser: "The Element is nice and all, but the FJ is like a Swiss army knife: It has a great stereo, suicide doors so five people can travel to the game in relative comfort, and an easy-to-clean rear cargo area that is deceptively large. It's also a serious off-roader. Plus, if you pick one with a bright blue or yellow paint job, all your buddies will be able to find you in the crowded parking lot."

The defense

On the field, the defensive line combines sheer size with a well-timed insult or two to intimidate the opposing QB. In the parking lot, our picks have monstrous proportions to block the stadium view for the poor saps nearby. Pop the tailgate, crank the stereo, and everyone can hear "Hell's Bells."

Joe and Mike's pick: 2007 Chevrolet Suburban: Joe says: "If you want to bring nine revelers and provisions, you have to go extended. The Suburban represents decades of refinement, and it shows in this new, higher-mileage SUV. It can even run on alcohol -- just like football fans!" Mike says: "With enough room for you and a bunch of buddies, taking a Suburban to the game is one way to save on parking. It also has attractive interior styling and an optional rearview camera system, which is especially useful for backing up this behemoth in a jam-packed parking lot."

David's pick: 2007 Ford Expedition EL: "There's nothing wrong with either the Suburban or the Expedition EL; it's definitely a coin-toss for me. But you can't tailgate at a Detroit Lions game in a Chevy. They do play at Ford Field, after all."

The owner's box

Tailgate, bah! Who wants to stand in a 25-degree parking lot? Tailgating potential should exist, but the primary point of this vehicle is to coddle occupants in luxury before, during, and after the party -- just like that kingpin in the 300-level suite.

Joe and David's pick: 2006 Land Rover Range Rover: Joe says: "The Range Rover has the classiest interior of any SUV, with efficient, pollen-filtered air conditioning to isolate you from the surrounding odors. Adjustable ride height helps you look down your nose at the hoi polloi. If a blizzard hits, you'll be one of the vehicles that can escape, without exposing yourself to that messy snow." David says: "The Cadillac Escalade may have the bling factor, but nothing oozes superiority like a British SUV. It also has serious off-road cred that will come in handy not just in bad weather but also on unpaved parking lots."

Mike's pick: 2007 Cadillac Escalade: "Late in the season, when tailgating conditions can deteriorate, Cadillac's Escalade comes through with standard front and rear heated leather seats and an available heated steering wheel to keep things cozy. And with the Escalade's standout styling and available 22-inch wheels, you might even be mistaken for one of the players."

Rookie of the year

Our rookie of the year is an all-new or redesigned model that may not have all it takes to be quarterback, but thanks to some useful features wins our tailgating hearts all the same.

Editors' pick: 2007 Dodge Caliber: Sometimes a single feature drives a model into the end zone. For the 2007 Dodge Caliber, it's the optional rearward-facing stereo speakers in the liftgate. Leave it to a rookie to bring a fresh perspective.

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