Best Cars for College Kids
We've solved the car equation for students on the go: lowest price + highest quality + most fuel-efficient + best resale value
By Jim Gorzelany
Most college kids drive their own cars these days, with many parents feeling safer sending them off to school in affordable brand-new models that promise safety, reliability and fuel economy. Even better are cars that meet those criteria and return high resale values so mom and dad can come out of the deal four years later with enough cash to put a down payment on a nice empty-nester’s convertible.
To that end we’ve compiled the following list of best cars for college kids. Each features a base manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) less than $17,000, with at least one version in the line that gets 35 or more mpg. All of them come standard with a full array of safety features and they all receive above average ratings in the latest J.D. Power & Associates Initial Quality Study. Finally, all are projected to retain 40 percent or more of their original value after four years of ownership.
• Toyota Yaris. Offered as either rounded subcompact two-door hatchback or more-sensibly styled four-door sedan and hatchback, the Yaris features a reasonably roomy interior highlighted by center-mounted dashboard gauges. A 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine generates just 106 horsepower, but is rated at 29/36 city/highway mpg. The standard five-speed manual transmission is recommended for wringing the most out of the smallish engine, though a four-speed automatic transmission is optional. MSRP: $13,155-$13,715.
• Mazda2. This stylish subcompact four-door hatchback debuted for 2011, powered by a 100-hp 1.5-liter engine that drives the front wheels via a slick-shifting five-speed manual gearbox or a mundane four-speed automatic. While no speedster, the Mazda2 pleases an enthusiastic driver with agile handling. The rear seats fold down to accommodate 27.8 cubic feet of college-bound cargo and it’s sufficiently thrifty at 29/35 mpg. MSRP: $14,180-$15,635.
Hyundai Elantra. The compact Elantra sedan was radically restyled for 2011, with an equally unique interior treatment. It packs a 148 hp 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that garners 29/40 mpg with either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. It offers features not often found in the compact segment, like a touch-screen navigation system, Bluetooth streaming audio and heated seats. MSRP: $14,945-$20,195.
Honda Fit. The subcompact four-door Fit could be the perfect campus cruiser. It’s reasonably priced, gets 28/35 mpg and delivers sporty handling. A 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine nets 117 hp and works best with the standard five-speed manual transmission. An optional five-speed automatic includes steering wheel paddle shifters for quasi-manual operation. It’s roomier on the inside than its diminutive exterior might otherwise indicate, and its rear-seat folds into the floor to create a 57.3 cu. ft. cargo hold. MSRP: $15,100-$16,860
Honda Civic. This popular line of compact coupes and sedans were redesigned for 2012 with added style and substance. A 140-hp 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine teams with a five-speed automatic transmission in most models. A selectable “Eco Assist” driving mode affords 28/39 mpg, with the HF version boasting 41-mpg on the highway. Those comfortable sending their son or daughter off to school with a quicker car might consider either of the sporty “Si” models. MSRP: $15,605-$22,405.
Toyota Corolla. Arguably a “plain vanilla” compact sedan, the Corolla rewards parents with a reasonable entry price, solid resale value and low operating costs. It packs a 132-hp 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and offers a choice of a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission; fuel economy is a wallet-friendly 28/35-mpg. The Corolla’s cabin is roomy enough for four underclassmen, with a trunk that can hold a semester’s worth of laundry. MSRP: $15,900-$17,770.
Ford Focus. Redesigned for 2012, the compact Focus sedan and hatchback receive dynamic new styling and sportier European handling. A direct-injected 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine delivers 160 hp and can be paired with a five-speed manual transmission or six-speed sequential-shift automatic. It’s rated at a stingy 28/40 mpg. Available features include a function that automatically steers the vehicle into a parallel parking space. MSRP: $16,500-$22,700.
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