For many freshly released high school grads, the long summer days before college are filled with low-pressure summer jobs and some of the most memorable moments of their lives. For those who have made an extra effort to save a bit of cash-or who have parents that can and will foot the bill-those days are also filled with breaking in a new ride in preparation for being the "cool kid with a car" in college.

High school graduation is right around the corner, and if you're lucky enough to be in the new-car boat, here are some rides that are cool enough to take to college, efficient enough not to break the bank, safe enough to please the parents and affordable enough to be a first new-car purchase.

Chevrolet Sonic

Inside and out, the Chevrolet Sonic is stylish and functional, especially in hatchback form. Featuring a motorcycle-inspired instrument cluster, standard alloy wheels and several nice nooks and crannies for stowage of today's high-tech odds and ends, the Sonic gets it right in terms of what younger buyers want and need.

Opt for the 1.4-liter Turbo, and not only will the fun quotient go through the roof, but fuel efficiency comes in at a very respectable 29 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. The Sonic also has a good complement of standard safety features, including a class-leading 10 airbags, electronic stability control and crash-collapsible pedals to protect the driver's feet and legs.

Although it starts under $15,000, after adding the 1.4-liter turbocharged engine in hatchback configuration, expect a final price around $17,000 to $18,000. With room for five tolerant college students on their way to a show and decent cargo capacity, the Chevy Sonic hits the right buttons.

Hyundai Veloster

In many ways, the Veloster breaks the rules, defying what standard market research says people want in a car. It's a four-seat coupe with three doors and a hatch in which the driver's side only has one door but the passenger side has two (each of which can be opened independently for easy rear-seat access). It has a modern and unique style that immediately sets it and its owner apart as being a bit different. Even so, it's this strangeness that makes it more functional than any other coupe out there.

The Veloster's base 1.6-liter engine delivers decent performance but nothing earth-shattering. Considering it attains 29 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway, the Veloster can be forgiven if the sporty looks of the car write a check that the engine can't cash.

Although it starts at $18,000, expect the Veloster to have a final price around $21,000 after being optioned out with the things a smartphone-addicted high schooler needs.

Ford Focus

The Ford Focus has been a perennial high school graduate favorite for many years, and with its recent classy styling update it is one of the best-looking small cars out there. Offered in both sedan and hatchback format, the Focus can be configured in many different ways, from cheap and cheerful to tech-loaded and pricey; although the base sedan starts around $17,000, a fully loaded version tops out at about $26,000.

Reflecting the revival of the hatch in the U.S., the Focus hatch is especially functional and stylish, featuring a ton of flexible cargo capacity in a relatively small footprint. The Focus is also loaded with safety features, including standard torque vectoring and curve control, which together ensure that your car behaves as if a pro racer is driving it through every corner, no matter how hard you hit it. And, scoring 28 mpg city/38 mpg highway with the automatic transmission, the 2012 Focus is no slouch when it comes to fuel economy. 

Mazda CX-5

The newest entrant on the small-crossover scene is also perhaps its biggest rising star. Starting at about $21,000 for a front-wheel drive model with manual transmission, the CX-5 offers incredible fuel economy. AutoTrader's own results with the FWD manual indicate an average above 31 mpg in the city and about 38 mpg on the highway. That efficiency is coupled with tons of crossover functionality in an affordable package. Topping out at about $30,000, the CX-5 can get a bit pricey when fully loaded with touchscreen, navigation and all-wheel drive, but it still remains one of the most attainable small crossovers out there.

It looks good, handles like a Mazda (meaning it's a driver's car) and has decent build quality. Minor gripes include slightly uncomfortable seats-but what college student cares about that?-and an interior that is a bit short on modernity. Aside from those two things, there's almost nothing to dislike about the 2013 CX-5.

Dodge Dart

Dodge's first real compact car in ages is also one of the best compact cars on the market. Essentially what the Neon would have become if Dodge hadn't discontinued it in the mid-2000s, the Dart has a hip masculine style and tons of features. With three available transmissions, two engines, lots of color options and an assortment of packages, the Dart harks back to the days when the name of the game was consumer choice.

Although it technically has the exterior dimensions of a compact car, its interior dimensions classify it as a mid-size, meaning it feels like a much larger car on the inside. Rear legroom and cargo capacity are more than ample and lend themselves to longer road trips. Speaking of long road trips, the Dart is also a bit of a fuel sipper with the manual transmission 1.4-liter turbocharged engine returning 27 mpg city /39 mpg highway. The Dart starts under $16,000, but once you add things like air conditioning and the more efficient (and fun) 1.4-liter turbocharged engine, expect the final price to be around $20,000.

Scion iQ

As Toyota/Scion's first entrant into the minicar segment, the iQ packs a relatively huge amount of functionality into a vehicle that could easily fit into the bed of a Toyota Tundra (we know, we've measured it). If your destination after high school includes city living, the iQ will make parking and city maneuvering a breeze. In handling and features, the iQ beats the pants off its only real competitor, the Smart Fortwo. Even so, its incredibly short wheelbase makes for some jerky steering at highway speeds. Expect to be able to fit three adults and perhaps a dog, or four adults if they don't mind being really close and cramped.

With a starting price of about $16,000 and fully topping out at just under $19,000, the iQ should fit most new-car budgets, especially when its 36 city/37 highway mpg are factored in. Yes, the car certainly is tiny, but Toyota has gone out of its way to ensure the safety of the iQ's occupants. With standard stability and traction control, brake force distribution and brake assist and a complement of 11 airbags including a rear window airbag curtain, the iQ manages to squeak out a four-star crash rating in spite of its diminutive size.

Toyota Prius C

It's the smallest hybrid available in the U.S., and it's selling like hotcakes - which is no surprise considering it returns 53 mpg city and 46 mpg highway in a package starting under $19,000 and topping out at a reasonable $25,000. Arguably the best-looking of all the Priuses, the Prius C seems to do more with less. It has more than enough storage for a typical high school grad, and the optional Entune system seamlessly merges with a smartphone to provide Internet search and radio services such as Pandora, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable.com and the like.

In the fuel economy versus purchase price equation, the Prius C has one of the best economic arguments out there, and with its hatchback functionality it is sure to be one of the most popular first cars on the market.

FIAT 500

One of the most fun cars you can buy in any category, the 500 is sure to put a smile on many a high school graduate's face this year. Sometimes referred to as the Mini with a feminine touch, the 500 is likely to appeal more to women than men. It's a tiny vehicle, but the front seats never feel cramped - although the rear seats don't have enough legroom for anyone but children or small adults.

The manual transmission version is rated at a very good 30 mpg city/38 mpg highway, but our own tests returned mid to high 30s in the city, indicating that it has more fuel economy potential than it lists on paper. The 500 starts at around $16,000, but opt for the upgraded audio and the way-more-fun convertible top, and you're looking at about $21,000.

author photo

Nick Chambers is a "next generation" car enthusiast, recognized for his green automotive coverage in Gas 2.0, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, HybridCars.com and PluginCars.com. In addition, he's been syndicated in Matter Network, AP and Reuters.

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