You know those car commercials during the holidays with big-buck luxury vehicles wrapped in bows? For most college-age kids heading back to school, that’s not gonna happen. In fact, college is so expensive these days many students will be lucky to have cars at all.
But does that mean that college kids on a budget have to live with second-rate rides? Not remotely. On the contrary, there are a bunch of new and used options that hit all the right notes and won’t break the bank. Here’s a list of our staff favorites, just in time for the back-to-school rush.
New Pick: Ford Focus
Ford Dealers Nationwide: More than 3,000
Priced around $17,000 to start, the Euro-flavored Focus proves you can have it all–style, technology and sophisticated driving dynamics–in an affordable package. The available MyFord Touch infotainment system, with its improved interface, really catapults the Focus into the digital age. We’re highlighting the slightly cheaper sedan here, but the hatchback is also a winner. With fuel economy of up to 40 miles per gallon on the highway, the Focus is great on gas too.
Used Alternative: Toyota Corolla
The Corolla has fallen behind its newer rivals in some respects, but it’s a strong pre-owned option. Toyota’s iconic compact has used the same basic drivetrain since 2003, so if you find a nice used Corolla, it’ll give you like-new performance and fuel economy for a fraction of the price. Condition matters more than mileage with these cars. They last forever if properly maintained.
New Pick: Kia Optima
Kia Dealers Nationwide: More than 750
Kia’s debonair Optima delivers a rare one-two punch of cool styling and industry-leading warranty coverage. Penned by a former Audi designer, this crisp, angular Kia is a breed apart from generic family haulers, but it also comes with a 10-year/100,000-mile power train warranty, as does the high powered turbo version. Although college campuses are generally small-car friendly, the Optima’s extra safety and passenger space might be worth the stretch. But is there a Kia dealership near you? That’s the question.
Used Alternative: Honda Accord
The Accord has been so good for so long that it’s almost better to save some money and buy one used. We’d go as far back as the 1998-2002 model, which already featured plenty of interior room, stellar reliability (aside from the sometimes finicky automatic transmission), confident handling and a nice mix of frugality and fun from the 2.3-liter VTEC inline-4. More recent models add size, features and safety, as well as weight, complexity and cost.
New Pick: Chevrolet Sonic
Chevrolet Dealers Nationwide: More than 5,000
After decades of small-car mediocrity, Chevy has suddenly gotten its act together with the perky new Sonic hatchback. A sedan is also available, but in terms of both styling and practicality, we think the hatch wins hands down. The Sonic’s poise is exemplary on highways and backroads alike, while the motorcycle-inspired gauges create a youthful, modern vibe inside. We prefer the turbocharged engine, but non-turbo models are value-packed at around $15,000 and up.
Used Alternative: Mazda3
We’re not talking about the current Mazda3, though that’s a fine car in its own right. No, we’re referring to the original Mazda3, which was available in hatchback from 2004 to 2008. To our eye, Mazda got the styling right the first time around, and the feature content was high for the era, including side airbags on some models toward the end. What’s more, the original 3 remains one of the most responsive and fun-to-drive compact cars ever built. It’s a real used-car bargain.
New Pick: Hyundai Tucson
Hyundai Dealers Nationwide: More than 800
We’ve heard it said that Hyundai is the new Honda, and the appealing Tucson compact crossover seems to bear this out. From its agile handling to its efficiently designed interior, the Tucson takes page after page out of Honda’s book, and it stomps on Honda’s lackluster warranty with 10-year/100,000-mile power train coverage. For peace of mind and a little flair, the Tucson just might be the most sensible choice in this segment. As with Kia, though, Hyundai dealerships aren’t always next door.
Used Alternative: Honda CR-V
Although the CR-V doesn’t excel in any particular area, it’s been a well-rounded compact crossover since its debut over a decade ago. Earlier models were even available with manual transmissions for drivers so inclined, and few vehicles of any stripe have proven to be as dependable as a well-maintained CR-V. If four season, set-it-and-forget-it motoring is what you’re after, it’s hard to go wrong with this Honda.
New Pick: Subaru BRZ
Subaru Dealers Nationwide: More than 600
Insurance premiums will likely be painful here, but for the accomplished college student who deserves (and can afford) a special reward, we can’t think of a more exciting choice for the money than the all-new Subaru BRZ and its Scion FR-S twin. Our nod goes to the Subaru for its slightly more predictable handling, but either car is bound to please a budding driving enthusiast. The 2.0-liter boxer engine has enough power to be engaging, yet not enough to be dangerous. Once the initial hubbub dies down, expect starting prices to stabilize in the mid-$20,000s. If Subaru dealers are scarce in your region, check with Scion, which should have greater reach thanks to its Toyota ties.
Used Alternative: Mazda MX-5 Miata
Let’s get the Miata’s shortcomings out of the way up front: It’s not the safest car on the road, and it doesn’t have much room for people or stuff. But the reliability is legendary, the fun factor is sky-high and solid used examples can be had for well under $10,000. Especially on rural campuses surrounded by country two-lanes, the Miata could be a fantastic set of collegiate wheels.