What’s the Best First Car for a High School Student? [UPDATED]

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The Quest For The Best High School Car

High school shouldn’t be about labels. Unfortunately, when you’re 16 and going to class with the same people every day, labels are what high school is all about. Don’t worry: They all disintegrate when you get your diploma, anyway.

For now, though, you’re trapped in this prison for four years. Know what would spice up your life and give you street cred in the halls? Your first high school car. You’ve begged your parents enough and raised a little bit of cash. You’ve earned this, right?

Well… let’s be honest for a second. You don’t need a car like a Porche in high school. Or a new car in general. Here’s a few reasons why:

  • You want your first high school car to be cheap because… you’re still learning how to drive. I know, you think you know it all when you’re in high school. Trust me, I did too. However, now that I look back I realize that all of my speeding tickets were from when I was under 20, and the only times I ever ran into other vehicles where when I was high school aged as well. Like anything, you get better as you go. You don’t want a super expensive car when you’re just learning how to drive. That’s just asking for trouble.
  • You want your first high school car to be old because… your friends WILL ruin it. Even if you think you’re going to take good care of your car, you have very little control over your friends, who will not care one bit about your car. I distinctly remember an instance in high school where I looked back and my “friend” was stabbing holes in the back seat of my van with a screwdriver. He seemed surprised when I was upset by this.  And if you think “well they wouldn’t have done that to a nicer car” then think again. One day after drumline, some friends and I were throwing water balloons at each other, and one of them purposefully chucked one through the open window of my friend’s Pontiac Firebird. Ouch.
  • You want your first high school car to be reliable because… you’ll be driving it everywhere. You want something where you can pour the miles on without worrying about it losing value. You’ll be taking it on road trips, taco runs, trips to concerts 2 states away, and more. It will haul people, instruments, sports equipment, your girlfriend, and more. Pick a car that is durable and won’t mind hitting a few potholes or driving through a field.

Here’s a few cars for high schoolers that are super cheep but not total junk either:

Honda Civic

1996 Honda Civic for High School

This is pretty much the quintessential high school student car, and there are many good reasons why it holds that title. It’s inexpensive, reliable and efficient. Any model from 1996-2002 will be easy on your wallet. These usually cost between $2000-$4000, and the extra money you spend will be worth every penny at the pump. Plus, you can find these anywhere and everywhere. You won’t turn any heads, but you’ll save a ton of money in the long run. 

Toyota Camry

Perfect car for high school: 1992-1994_Toyota_Camry

Much like the Civic, Camrys can mold to anyone’s personality. Are you a straight A student, a bit of a troublemaker or somewhere in between? The Camry might not look too exciting, but it’ll stick with you for all four years.

Since Camrys are incredibly substantial, people usually rack up a lot of miles on them. Don’t be discouraged if the model you find has high mileage. The best model year for value, however, is the fourth generation built between 1996 and 2001. You’ll get bang for your buck and a ride that will take on any personality.

Ford Mustang

 Mustang for high schoolers

Are you the tough guy on campus? You don’t have to be, but Mustangs definitely make you look cool. In fact, Mustangs are great cars for the tech-savvy — those who like modifying cars themselves. You can go to class and spend your afternoons tinkering away under the hood.

All that cool can be yours for a reasonable price, too. Try to find one in the 1994-2002 model year. Depreciation is your friend on this one, because those models usually cost only around $2000.

Subaru Outback

Great high school car - Subaru_Outback_Wagon

Your high school years aren’t just about going to class. They’re about finding people to hang with and making trips that you’ll remember for a lifetime. The Subaru Outback is a perfect car for the job, and it can even follow you to college for more memories.

It has AWD and a whole lot of space, so you can tackle the winter with no problems. The 1998-2004 models with a 2.5 liter four-cylinder are your best bet. Those emotional commercials don’t joke around, either — a bond with a Subaru is a bond for life.

Ford Focus

2004_Ford_Focus_(LR_MY2003)_CL_sedan_(2012-09-01)

Why buy any of these cookie cutters when you can drive something fun? The Ford Focus has always been a leading competitor in the sedan game. It can be found in just about any configuration you like: a two- or four-door hatchback, a sedan or a station wagon.

The 1998-2005 model year is a good window to look into. These are cheap cars, however, and at around $1500, you get what you pay for. But if you’re looking for a cheap high school car, here’s your ride.

Volkswagen Jetta

Best high school car -93-95_Volkswagen_Jetta -

It’s sporty and it can hold a decent amount of cargo, too. The Jetta sweet spot is the 1994-1999 VR6 model year. These cars put out a generous 172 hp, thanks to the unique engine configuration. The cylinders have a staggered configuration to make use of a single head. The Jetta’s handling, acceleration and engine are legendary, and you can have one for around a $1500 base.

Acura RDX

Acura_RDX best high school car

Although the RDX is technically a luxury model, the 2007 version can be had for less than $14,000. It’s on the more high-end in terms of cars for high schoolers, though benefits like traction and stability control, front-side and side-curtain air bags and all-wheel drive make it a safe option. It could also serve as a great car for college, with ample space for packing.

Any student seeking both space and safety should consider the Acura RDX, which has cargo versatility in addition to all-wheel drive capability.

Toyota Corolla

2008_toyota_corolla good high school car

Ninth-generation Toyota Corollas were ended by the 2006-2008 models, though in terms of driving and features, they are very similar to future iterations. Impressive fuel mileage is evidenced by its 30 mpg city and 38 mpg highway, while a 1.8-liter engine provides plenty of power for the student. Students can safely consider ninth-generation Toyota Corollas as affordable vehicles that offer many of the same amenities and specs of 2010+ models.

Even if it’s not cutting-edge or defying norms, Corolla is a reliable compact sedan with good fuel economy and positive resale value.

Chevrolet Malibu

Chevrolet Malibu good car for high schooler

Safety features headline the affordable Chevrolet Malibu, which can be bought for in the $8,000s on Autotrader. The seventh-generation (2008-2012) models are especially ideal for the student, with safety features that include side and side-curtain air bags, traction control, anti-lock brakes and the OnStar system. Plus, a remote starter is a feature any student will love to have on a cold day.

The vehicle has earned accolades from the press, and was named the 2008 best redesigned vehicle by Kelley Blue Book. Hybrid Malibus are also available, which can up the capacity to 35 mpg. Front-wheel drive, six-speed automatic and considerable rear-seat legroom are other highlights.

Ford Fusion

Ford Fusion for a high school student

The 2010-2012 Ford Fusion was one of the best midsize sedan options upon its release and remains in the top echelon, especially for high school students. A powerful V6, anti-lock brakes and side-curtain air bags are a few of the vehicle’s amenities. The 2010 Fusion can be found on Autotrader for less than $12,000, making Ford’s acclaimed Fusion worthy of strong consideration.

The 2010 model was Ford’s answer to models like the Chevrolet Malibu and Toyota Camry. With excellent mileage that beats those models, it’s a great vehicle that’s green-friendly and fit for an environmentally conscious student.

Subaru Forester

1998_Subaru_Forester for high school driver

The Subaru Forester is a stylish crossover with ample cargo space — 58 cubic feet to be precise. The four-cylinder engine clocks in at 2.5 liters and 170 horsepower, which is fine for highways. Some options in this range offer better fuel mileage, as the Forester sits at 20 mpg city and 26 mpg highway, though it’s a spacious and safe vehicle that can be ideal for a student without a very lofty commute.

It’s also a fit for those with more temperamental weather climates, as it comes with standard all-wheel drive, a plus for any schools with significant snowfall.

Toyota Tacoma

2006_Toyota_Tacoma car for high schooler

Although a truck with an open cargo bed is not the most conventional choice for a student, the 2006-2007 Toyota Tacoma is an affordable and reliable option. Its four-wheel drive and ample space can be great for a student with ample luggage. The Tacoma’s fuel economy, 20 mpg city and 26 mpg highway, is not bad considering the space and features.

Hyundai Elantra

car for high schooler 2011 hyundai-elantra

The Elantra is a compact sedan from Hyundai with sleek styling and powerful equipment, like a 148-horsepower, 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine. Showing off 29 mpg city and 40 mpg highway, it’s a fuel-efficient vehicle that’s also safe. Side-curtain air bags, stability and traction control, and anti-lock brakes are all included, which is impressive for a vehicle whose 2011 model can be had for less than $12,000.

Heated rear seats and a backup camera are high-tech features that make this car look even more like a steal.

Toyota Prius

Prius for high school driver

The second-generation Toyota Prius, including 2004 to 2008 models, has a unique hatchback design and excellent fuel economy — 48 mpg in stop-and-go traffic and 45 mpg on the highway. While a hybrid car isn’t typically a fit for a student, the second-generation Prius sports a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine that combines with electric motors to output 110 horsepower.

It also sports excellent user reviews from Kelley Blue Book, with a 9.2 out of 10 score after more than 800 reviews. This is a reliable and trusted hybrid that saves ample money at the gas pump.

Kia Soul

kia soul best boxy cars

Ranking at the top of U.S. News and World Report’s list of the best compact cars, the Kia Soul is an eye-catching option that has ample cargo space, great safety features and nifty interior tech. 61.3 cubic feet of potential cargo space offers a great point of usage for high school and college students alike, making up for decent fuel economy — 24 mpg in the city, 30 mpg on the highway. The base model can be had for $16,000 new, which is a good price considering the features, notably the space, powertrain warranty, premium cabin and forward collision and lane departure warnings.

The car also uses the UVO infotainment system, which enables passengers to connect their phone via Bluetooth to the system. This allows for hands-free access in addition to a 4.3-inch touch screen. The music, with the Infinity audio system, also produces a very clean sound, with subwoofer and external amp included. For a stylish and technologically impressive car for a student, the Kia Soul fits the bill.

Toyota RAV4

2012 Toyota RAV4 high schooler

The 2006-2012 Toyota RAV4 sports a more-than-suitable four-cylinder base engine that returns nice fuel efficiency, at 22 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. The 2008 version can be found for less than $13,000 on Autotrader, a nice price for a vehicle with ample cargo room and a nice ride. This is another fine option for a high school student seeking a great first car.

So when you’re looking for that perfect high school car, grab one of these and you won’t be disappointed. Then in a few years after you’ve graduated and get a job, get a nice car that you can afford and take good care of it. Before long, you’ll be shopping for a car for your high school aged son our daughter. Then you’ll be ready to convince them that they will survive without the convertible they have their eye on,

About Scott Huntington

Scott Huntington is an Automotive YouTuber and writer who loves cars, sports, and business. Follow him on Twitter @SMHuntington or email scottmhuntington@gmail.com.

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