Hitting the road for college soon? You better not leave in mom’s minivan. No, no, no! As spacious and roomy as it may be, no one wants to see a cool college kid in a soccer mom car. The benefits of the giant back seat area don’t outweigh you automatically being the guy that has his own drunk bus. Trust me, your friends will assume that you can give them all a ride to the bar, store, club, or anywhere else just because you can fit the most people.
What makes up a great college car, then? You probably hate shelling out money for anything at this point — even groceries — but you can get a decent car without breaking the bank.
Your car shouldn’t be a gas guzzler. It should be within your budget, and it needs to be maneuverable enough to jet you around campus like a pro (no boats allowed here). Some extra interior features would be nice, too.
So how will you choose? I’ve put together a list that can help you decide. These are a little bit nicer than my list of Best Cars for High School Students, but not crazy expensive either.
Best Cars for College Students
Scion tC (2011-2014)
Hey, look — a car that’s stylish, sporty and affordable! It’s rare you get those three things in one package. Plus, it’s one of the newer models on this list, which means you won’t be driving a car that’s technologically obsolete. And since Scion is getting the axe, these might be even cheaper.
The tC is also incredibly safe — it earned a 5-star score from the NHTSA and a Top Safety Pick from the IIHS.
Also, because Scion was a marque of Toyota, the tC’s 180-horsepower 4-cylinder engine is borrowed from a Camry. That means you get the enjoyment of a coupe with the reliability and efficiency you’d expect from Toyota.
Mazda 3 (2004-2009)
Demand for this great car has not subsided in the years following its debut. In its initial years, it was the top-rated compact car, and it has proven to be a dependable hatchback with a sharp style — inside and out.
The price is great for a car that is highly desired with a good reputation, even if the estimated mpg ratings might scare you off.
Honda CR-V (2002-2006)
CR-Vs hold their value very well, especially in this generation. Even if the SUV is over ten years old, you can still score around $10,000 for one.
That probably held your attention for two seconds, though. Here’s the real deal: The storage area floor in the back can pop out and become a picnic table! Underneath that is a watertight and drainable bin. Know what that means? You’ve got yourself a cooler. With this ride, you’ll always be the life of the party. Just do so responsibly.
Added extras for this Honda include all-wheel drive and lots and lots of space!
Acura TSX (2004-2008)
Acura was on top of their game, technologically speaking, during this model year period. Most cars probably only had CD players. The TSX came with a touchscreen, heated power seats (real leather, too), a GPS, Bluetooth capability and an auxiliary jack for music. Now, if only it had that CR-V cooler… then it would have everything a college student needs in a car.
Unlike most luxury cars, however, the TSX won’t eat your wallet when it comes to gas mileage. You can likely squeeze out up to 30 mpg on the highway — assuming you don’t have a lead foot. Plus, you’re guaranteed to be safe with its top crash scores and excellent reliability.
Kia Soul (2010-2013)
If you have a detailed checklist as to what you want from a great college car, the Kia Soul is guaranteed to fill all of them. Its unique styling makes it stand out among all the other plain-Jane cars in the parking lot. The most basic Soul includes an aux jack and satellite radio.
For its size, the interior space is massive, and you still might have a bit of Kia’s powertrain warranty left when you buy it. As you know, I’m more of a Scion xB fan myself, but the Soul is the cheaper choice and a perfect car for a college student.
Honda Accord (2008-2011)
There’s a reason why you can pick out any random car on the road and it’ll likely be one of these. It received excellent ratings from the NHTSA and a 5-star safety rating. It features all the ins and outs to keep you protected: side-curtain and front-side airbags as well as anti-lock brakes.
You can also get from point A to B efficiently, with a 4-cylinder engine capable of returning 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway.
Hyundai Sonata (2011-2013)
Yeah, it’s pretty new, but that doesn’t make it any snootier than the rest of these picks. It has perfect safety ratings all around, plus traction and stability control.
It doesn’t cost much to own this car, and you can thank the Sonata’s 2.4-liter engine that will get you 24 mpg city /35 mpg highway.
Volkswagen Beetle (1968 and up)
Price: Starts at around $3,000
There’s nothing quite like driving a piece of automotive history, and that’s exactly what you get behind the wheel of a Volkswagen Beetle. Plus, if you’ve got any mechanical skill at all, the classic Beetle is super easy to keep running, and they are so popular with classic car collectors that finding replacement parts is a cinch. For running around campus or taking road trips across the country, the VW Bug is a perfect choice.
If your college car budget is low but you want something with a little bit of character, you can’t go wrong with a Beetle. Just don’t leave it anyplace the sports teams would be tempted to roll it over!
Ford Mustang (1979-1993)
Price: $3,500 and up.
Our list of best cars for college students wouldn’t be complete without a Mustang. While it might not have the sleek lines of the newer models, the Fox Body Coupe of the ‘80s and early ‘90s can be a great way to get your Mustang fix without breaking the bank or causing your car insurance to skyrocket. You’ve got quite a few engine options, too, from the 2.3L 4-cylinder all the way up to the iconic 5.0L V8.
There’s plenty of room for your friends to pile into the back, as long as you don’t mind leaning your seat up, and it makes a great conversation piece, to boot!
Nissan Leaf (2016)
Price: $29,910, but super low monthly payments!
An electric car may seem like a bit of an expensive investment for a college student, but bear with me. The Leaf can be had for the low, low price of $200 a month with no down payment. If that doesn’t appeal to a starving college student, we don’t know what will.
Just make sure before you sign on the dotted line that your school has somewhere for you to plug in, because no one wants you running an extension cord out of your dorm window! With so many colleges trying to reduce their carbon footprint, there are a great number of campuses that actually offer free charging with a parking pass for students who are looking to invest in an electric car.
Jeep Wrangler (1997-2000)
If you live in an area that has a lot of trails or some great beaches that just cry out to be explored, there’s no better car than a Jeep Wrangler. While some of the newer models can be a bit pricy, the TJ line that was available between 1997 and 2000 is probably the least expensive on the market right now, with most going for $5,000 or less.
You’ve got two options when it comes to engines in this little gem: a straight six-cylinder or a smaller but still powerful four-cylinder model. Either way, if you’re heading out to enjoy the area around your college, this is the car for you!
Smart Car (2014-2016)
Price: Approx $10,000
While it might not be the coolest car on the list, for city driving it’s one of the most efficient. The Smart Car is designed to get you from point A to point B without all the bells and whistles. Again, just like with the Nissan Leaf, make sure you’ve got somewhere you can plug in to charge before you consider an electric car for your trip to college.
The only real complaint about the Smart Car is that it’s not the best choice if you’re planning on a road trip or want to give your friends a ride someplace. You’ve got just enough room for you and your textbooks, and that’s about it.
Geo Metro (1989-2001)
This is a bit of an oddity on this list, but don’t knock it until you get behind the wheel. The Geo Metro is unique in that it relies on a three-cylinder engine, but the odd engine enables it to get amazing gas mileage that puts it in the same vicinity as a lot of the hybrids on the road today.
The Metro is a tiny little car that gets very popular whenever gas prices start climbing, because it doesn’t cost much at all, and a thousand-dollar investment is definitely worth the fuel savings.
Ford Explorer (1996-2003)
We end our list of best cars for college students with a classic. You can’t go wrong with the Ford Explorer, especially if you have gear, friends or groceries to haul. The Explorer might not get the best gas mileage, but it makes up for it in affordability. If you take a look in any newspaper classifieds, chance are good you’ll find a Ford Explorer in your price range. They’re easy to work on and, if something breaks, the parts are simple to obtain.
If you need something that will ferry you and your friends wherever you need to go, whether that’s from one end of campus to the other or from one side of the country to the other, the Explorer should be on your list of cars to consider.
The car you take to college can be affordable and cool — it doesn’t have to be a minivan. You can cruise around campus in style with one of these options instead.