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The New Kings of Tailgating

The best tailgating vehicles offer cool, convenient touches

With football season having just kicked off, we know that you're preparing for early-morning tailgates with your best friends, favorite finger foods and plenty of hometown pride. Here, you'll find the best vehicles for setting up your pre-game station.

Quarterback: The quarterback of this Fantasy Tailgating Team is the all-around top pick, and has talent across the board: smart features, cargo room, a decent stereo, comfortable seats, towing capacity and a mess-friendly cabin. This year's winner:

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 vehicle for 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.  

Offensive Line: These picks have waist-high cargo beds that endure rain, hail and unsecured Weber grills, yet they're always ready for next weekend.

2006 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid
It doesn't make much of a hybrid, but if you want to power a high-draw appliance, like an electric grill, this is your sole choice. The Silverado has four 120-volt power outlets located under the rear seat and in the pickup bed. The only drawback is the engine has to be running.

2007 Chevrolet Avalanche
The Avalanche has tons of functionality — like an extendable cargo bed and self-draining storage boxes — and it can seat up to six.  

Running Backs: These picks have zippy handling and small dimensions to help 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.

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.

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

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 running backs.  

Wide Receivers: These vehicles can catch lots of cargo, people and more cargo — and they come through with plenty of seating, storage and entertainment features sure to delight tailgaters.

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.

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. — 2006 Mercedes-Benz R500 - 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: These vehicles have a good mix of cabin space and scuff- friendly surfaces, and, because of their size, they can also be easily parked.

2006 Honda Element
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 unloading. Its floor, which is 5.5 feet long when the rear seats are swung up and stowed, can also provide a respite for those who have tailgated too much. Plus, the Element is available with all-wheel drive, which should make trips to games in Green Bay a little less hair-raising.

2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser
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 Defensive Line: These picks have monstrous proportions that allow tailgaters to block the stadium view for the poor saps nearby.

2007 Chevrolet Suburban
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, high-mileage SUV.

2007 Ford Expedition EL
The Expedition is comparable to the Suburban in most ways and allows tailgaters to carry prodigious amounts of cargo and people. And it's got to be better than a GM car for Detroit Lions fans who tailgate at Ford Field.  

The Owner's Box: Tailgating potential exists, but the primary point of this vehicle is to coddle occupants in luxury before, during and after the party.

2006 Land Rover Range Rover
The Range Rover has the classiest interior of any SUV, with efficient, pollen-filtered air conditioning to isolate you from the surrounding odors. If a blizzard hits, you'll be one of the vehicles that can escape, without exposing yourself to that messy snow.

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: The rookie of the year is an all-new or redesigned model that may not have all it takes to be quarterback, but is still a legitimate tailgating option.

2007 Dodge Caliber
Sometimes a single feature drives a model into the end zone. For the Caliber, it's the optional rearward-facing stereo speakers in the liftgate.