Group of people around a red truck grilling food.

The Best Vehicles For Tailgating

David Collins6-minute read
UPDATED: December 12, 2022


Americans love a good tailgate. Whether it’s a college or NFL football game, NASCAR race, or music festival, a big part of the fun happens hours before the event even begins. Thousands of people will converge outside the venue and park their cars, trucks and everything in between to get into the proper spirit before the big show.

There is no final authority on how the act of picnicking outside of a venue before going in became known as tailgating. Since the fold-down door on the bed of a pickup truck is known as the tailgate, however, and since the pickup truck is perhaps the ideal tailgate vehicle available to most people, we can put it together.

Tailgate parties can look vastly different. It can be as simple as popping the hatch on your Ford Focus and pulling out a cooler of beers and sodas, all the way up to cocktail party for 50 with a $250,000 RV that can include barbecue, full bar, tents and a massive sound system.

Our tour of some top tailgate vehicles will include discussion of the types of vehicles commonly found at a tailgate — the display of American ingenuity and dedication to fun is really something to see here — as well as suggestions for specific makes and models that prove especially versatile.

Skip The Negotiations

Our specialists will work directly with the dealer to get you the best price.

All Kinds Of Vehicles Can Be Used For A Tailgate

One of the things that makes a massive tailgate scene so much fun is that each one is different. And while the vehicle is central to your tailgate party, so is how you set up around it — with a portable awning, grill, coolers, folding table, team flag, cornhole, sound system and more. A lot of planning, packing and thought goes into it, both for practical reasons and to impress and inspire other tailgaters.

Virtually every kind of vehicle has probably shown up a tailgate at some time, somewhere. These can include the most ordinary sedan up to large recreational vehicles to … more creative options. Spotted as a tailgate vehicle on more than a few occasions include the following:

  • Old school bus
  • Decommissioned ambulance
  • Farm tractor
  • Decommissioned fire truck
  • Cable car
  • Pedal pub
  • Trucking semi trailer hauler
  • Hearse

But by far the most common vehicles are the same cars and trucks you see on the road every day. With some forethought and planning they all work, but we’ll break down vehicles by main categories and give a suggestion or two for each.


We told you the American tailgate scene is egalitarian. Any vehicle will do. Just a plain, ordinary car – old or new, big or small. You don’t need a big truck or SUV to fit right in and have a great time at a tailgate. A car has plenty of trunk space for coolers and food and room for up to five passengers. Plus, it’s easy to get in and out of tight spaces in a makeshift parking lot. And many get good gas mileage, which helps if you have a long drive to the venue.

2011-2014 Cadillac CTS-V Sport Wagon

For just a few short years, one of the coolest American performance sedans was a (checks notes) station wagon? The “V-Wagon” has a 6.2-liter V-8 engine that delivers 556 horsepower — the same engine in the contemporary C6 Corvette ZR1. As one of the only luxury performance station wagons, it has to be a choice sedan for a tailgate. And the 10-speaker Bose sound system can blast out the fight song with gusto. Not many were made, but this car came with a manual transmission option — putting it right at the top of the most fun station wagons list.

Honda Civic Hatchback

Back and side view of a red Honda Civic Hatchback.

Source: Konstantinos Moraiti -

As one of the most popular and fuel-efficient sedans on American roads, the Civic becomes a quick and nimble tailgate vehicle in its hatchback option. In addition to the convenience of a third door in the rear, the 60/40 rear seats lay flat to open up 25.7 cubic feet of cargo space.


The “U” stands for utility, and that’s a great attribute for a tailgate vehicle. Now the most common type of vehicle on American roads, the SUV comes in dozens of models in every class — from popular compacts like the Honda CR-V to the massive nine-passenger troop-haulers like Chevy Suburban.

Kia Soul

Blue Kia Soul parked on road in the middle of a green field.

Source: tomasdevera -

This small but funky SUV has a devoted following, partly for the boxy vibe but also because it has a multi-configurable cargo area for storing snacks, beverages, sports equipment and rain gear. It also wins points for a stylish, easy-to-clean interior and a very smooth ride.

2017 Toyota 4 Runner

White Toyota 4 Runner at beach with trunk open and surfboard leaning on it.

Source: -

As one of the few remaining body-on-frame SUVs (which gives a more truck-like performance and is much better off-road than unibody construction), the 4 Runner is a great choice for a larger tailgate vehicle, especially if you plan to park on uneven terrain that may be hilly or muddy. It has an optional sliding cargo deck for better access to gear, food and coolers, and you can flip to the rear speakers to send music back to your cornhole game.

2019 Mitsubishi Outlander

White Mitsubishi car parked on the side of an overgrown dirt road.

Source: art_zzz -

As one of the most affordable seven-seat SUVs, the Outlander is not the most luxurious midsize SUV, but do you really need luxury in your tailgate vehicle? This vehicle has plenty of room for a small grill and fold-up portable awning, and if it’s your dedicated tailgate hauler, you won’t mind the inevitable mess quite as much as you would if this were a well-appointed Lexus in the same class.


Sure, a pickup or customized off-road vehicle may suit the party vibe of a tailgate scene better than the stodgy old minivan, but the functionality and access to seating and cargo areas in these vehicles is second-to-none. Also, let’s face it, in most families the minivan has already taken a lot of abuse. You won’t mind the inevitable mess your vehicle will see at a tailgate when it’s likely seen much worse from its regular toddler passengers during the week.

2017+ Chrysler Pacifica

White Chrysler Pacifica parked on gravel mound outside a building.

Source: jetcityimage -

All joking aside, modern minivans can match most cars and SUVs for comfortable interiors as well as tech and safety features. The beauty of the Pacifica as a tailgating vehicle is that its second- and third-row seats can fold right into the floor, creating a large space that almost looks like a cargo van. And the sliding floor-to-ceiling side doors create excellent access from three sides.

Pickup Truck

There are few things Americans love more than football, NASCAR and pickup trucks. So naturally, the #1 class of vehicles you’ll see at a tailgate is likely the pickup. First off, every pickup actually has a tailgate. This seems important. It’s a great gear hauler, especially for bulky items like pop-up tents, folding tables, grills and cornhole games. You don’t mind if it gets wet or dirty because when it’s all over you can just hose it off.

What makes a pickup even better for tailgating is a retractable tonneau cover or bed cap. Any of your possessions that you don’t want laying around while you’re inside the stadium can be secured in the bed until you get back to your truck. And if your truck has an extended or super cab, there is still two rows of comfortable, enclosed seating for passengers and things that have to be kept dry.

2019+ GMC Sierra

Blue GMC Sierra truck parked outside a building on pavement.

Source: jetcityimage -

What better truck to bring to a tailgate than the one that gave the world the most versatile and revolutionary tailgate yet? The 2019 GMC Sierra introduced the MultiPro tailgate in a move that must have had Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram engineers exclaiming, “Why didn’t we think of that!?” The MultiPro has six configurations, but perhaps the most useful for tailgating is the fold-down step that supports 375 pounds and makes accessing the bed a lot easier for the many people who have trouble getting up there otherwise. The tailgate even features a 120-volt light socket, so you can set up a flat screen television and keep track of all the other games going on across the country.

2018 Honda Ridgeline

Some people really enjoy the versatility of a full-size pickup, but are not as comfortable with the ride of traditional body-on-frame pickups. Honda introduced the Ridgeline pickup truck as a unibody design that rides more gently than, say, a Toyota Tundra, and more like an SUV. The V-6 engine gets pretty respectable fuel efficiency, too, albeit while sacrificing some power and towing capacity to the standard pickup.

Toyota Tacoma

Dark gray-blue Toyota Tacoma truck parked on shore of beach.

Source: Mike Mareen -

If you’re looking for a smaller, more affordable truck that still has ample bed space and all of the other tailgate-friendly characteristics as its full-size counterparts, the Toyota Tacoma is the dominant vehicle in the midsize pickup market, having been the top seller for 15 years. While it does nothing spectacular, it does everything well, including routinely hitting 200,000 miles on the odometer when its properly maintained.

The Bottom Line: Any Vehicle Can Be Your Best Vehicle For Tailgating

A good tailgate scene is like a beautiful, temporary, egalitarian society. Everyone, rich and poor, young and old, are all there for a common purpose. Someone in a 12-year-old Toyota Camry pulls right up next to big party set up around a $90,000 Lincoln Navigator — and all become immediate friends. While the vehicle is important because it gets you there, the fun is all up to you.

Skip The Negotiations

Our specialists will work directly with the dealer to get you the best price.

David Collins

David Collins is a staff writer for Rocket Auto, Rocket Solar, and Rocket Homes. He has experience in communications for the automotive industry, reference publishing, and food and wine. He has a degree in English from the University of Michigan.