It's that time of year again: young adults are shaking off the shackles of college life, saying goodbye to textbooks and all-nighters and stepping into the real world of nine-to-five jobs and student loan repayment.

It's likely that money will be tight for the next few years, but nothing quite adds to a young adult's newfound responsible lifestyle like a "new to me" car. Besides, reliable transportation is an essential element of the job interview process. Luckily, the field of reliable and affordable used cars is bountiful.

Here's a list of the five best used cars to help the recent college grad make a smooth transition from student to breadwinner.

2009-11 Toyota Matrix S AWD - $15,000-$20,000

The Toyota Matrix was originally introduced in 2003 but was redesigned for 2009. Although the Matrix is essentially the Corolla wagon, it stands apart from the Corolla by its optional all-wheel-drive powertrain and five-door configuration.

Fitted with a 2.4-liter inline-4 engine and a four-speed automatic transmission coupled with all-wheel drive, the Matrix is rated at 24 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway, making it an excellent combination of utility and frugality.

A quick search on AutoTrader reveals many AWD Matrix offerings for sale with fewer than 20,000 miles, all under $20,000. Both hip and reliable, the Matrix is an ideal used-car candidate for any recent grad.

2010-12 Mazda2 Touring - $14,000-$17,000

Although the Mazda2 is a fairly recent addition to the North American subcompact market-having made its debut in 2010-there are still excellent, used examples to be found on AutoTrader at around the $16,000 mark.

Mazda has fitted the Mazda2 with a surprisingly peppy 1.5-liter inline-4 engine and a choice of manual or automatic transmissions. The EPA has rated the Mazda2 at 29 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway.

With Mazda's signature zoom-zoom driving dynamics and a distinctive exterior appearance, the Mazda2 is a fine candidate for city-dwelling grads. The Mazda2 is fuel efficient and easy to park but also roomy enough to haul a couple of friends around on a weekend getaway.

2009-11 Ford Ranger XLT - $15,000-$19,00

The Ford Ranger has remained virtually unchanged since 1998. This is good, because parts are cheap and as plentiful as sand on a beach. On the other side of the coin, the Ranger isn't nearly as technically advanced as its competitor the Toyota Tacoma, which means the Ranger isn't quite as livable.

Truck ownership has its upside and its downside. Aside from being a boon to any active lifestyle, trucks are good for moving. It's common for a young adult to move several times within the first few years after graduation, making the Ranger an attractive proposition. However, once word gets out that the grad owns a truck, peers will ask for help when they, too, inevitably move.

The used-Ranger selection is extensive-many with fewer than 10,000 miles. With any number of configurations in powertrain and body style, buyers are sure to find exactly what they're looking for at a price they can afford.

The Ranger we recommend is the 2+2-door version with 4.0-liter V6 and 4x4 and either the five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. In this configuration, the Ranger responds to what's on most twentysomethings' lists: it's roomy, rugged, powerful and relatively fuel efficient. The EPA has rated the 4.0-liter V6 powered Ranger at 16 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway.

Volvo C30 2008-09 - $15,000-$19,000

The C30 is a great little European car no matter how you configure it: turbocharged or non-turbo, with manual or automatic transmission. This fun little three-door has distinctive rear hatch that is nearly all glass in homage to the famous Volvo 1800ES of the early 1970s.

The C30 is ideal for any grad that doesn't need a lot of car but still wants one that is well built and stylish. Depending on engine option, the C30 can be both fuel efficient and surprisingly peppy. The C30 drives more like a tuned European sport coupe than a reliable hatchback. That's what makes the C30 such a treat to own: it's the best of both worlds.

We found great examples of used C30s on AutoTrader for around the $16,500 mark with fewer than 20,000 miles. With an EPA fuel economy rating of 19 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway, the C30 will work reasonably well with the graduate's gasoline budget.

Honda Element 4WD EX 2007-09 - $15,000-$18,000

Sadly, Honda stopped production on the Element in 2011 - but there are many great used Elements to be found on AutoTrader.

The Element was available in both front- and four-wheel-drive versions, and we loved them both. We recommend the all-wheel-drive model for young recent graduates. That way, no adventure or destination will be off the table.

We love the Element because on the outside, for a crossover SUV, it's not too big, while inside, it's simply massive. The interior can even be hosed out in case of a spill or if the floor mats get especially muddy. The rest of the interior is robust, perfect for a less-than-meticulous young buyer.

Honda fitted the 2007 and newer Element with a 2.4-liter inline-4 engine and a five-speed automatic transmission. The EPA rated the Element at 20 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.

The Element is a car that most grads would be proud to-and could afford to-own for many years to come. Not only is it versatile and rugged, it's also blessed with Honda reliability. We see no reason why an Element couldn't go for 200,000 miles with little trouble.

Whether you're the graduate who's car shopping, you're buying the grad a gift or simply helping the grad shop for his or her post-college ride, these five car ideas should help you come up with a choice that will be loved and will last for many years to come.

author photo

Nick Jaynes developed a passion for writing about cars working his way through Journalism School as a Volvo mechanic. When he's not writing, Nick can be seen hosting the popular automotive web-show DownForce Motoring. In his free-time, Nick collects vintage cars, trucks, and motorcycles.

Find Cars for sale near you:

Research by Vehicle Type

  • Convertible
  • Coupe
  • Hatchback
  • Hybrid
  • Luxury
  • Sedan
  • SUV
  • Truck
  • Van/Minivan
  • Wagon

Shopping Tools

For Sale on Autotrader.com

Loading Ajax Content Loading Ajax Content