The Best Cars for College Students
Going to college is a milestone that often comes with another one: buying a new car. Students need something to get around, especially if they live off campus or have a part-time job. But after paying for tuition, there’s only so much money left for the car fund. Luckily, being on a budget doesn’t mean you have to settle for a clunker.
There are plenty of high-quality vehicles that are not only affordable, they’re also extremely safe, something that the parents of young drivers will be glad to hear. If you or your child need a car for college, here are some of the best new and used options on the market today.
How we chose the best cars for college students
For our review, we put safety first and only accepted cars with a 5-star rating from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). We also prioritized Top Safety Picks from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). All our choices are some of the safest cars on the road, something that should help you (and your parents) sleep better at night.
We researched both customer and expert reviews on Kelly Blue Book (KBB) and Edmunds, looking for high scores of at least 4 out of 5 stars. Finally, we set a maximum price limit of $25,000 to keep costs within a college budget.
The new cars are the latest models available as of February 2019. For used cars, we found the best choices for 2016 models. Going back three years strikes the balance between a decent price break without the serious maintenance issues of older vehicles. Plus, there should be plenty of inventory available for these recent models. The prices for used cars are based on the highest range quoted by KBB for vehicles in “good” condition, so it may be possible to get these options at an even lower price. The location for the KBB search was Santa Clara, California so prices could also be slightly different depending on where you live.
To save more, you could buy older models of the cars in our review but we stuck with 2016 numbers to keep things consistent. We listed vehicles in order from least expensive to most expensive and explained all their different strengths and weaknesses below.
Best new cars for college students
No review yet available by KBB experts; 4.6 out of 5 by consumers on Edmunds (5 reviews)
IIHS Top Safety Pick+
31 city/41 highway/35 MPG combined
For a discount price, the Kia Forte offers a generous package. First, it comes standard with technology like an 8-inch rear-view monitor with parking guidance and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration. The Kia Forte also has a range of safety features like lane-keep and forward collision avoidance assistance. Though the 2019 model isn’t yet rated by NHTSA, the 2018 model received 5 stars. Finally, the Forte includes Kia’s leading 10-year, 100,000 mile limited warranty. Critics say driving the Kia Forte has a nimble feel because of its compact size, though the backseat is smaller than the average sedan. Kia also offers the 2018 Forte5, a slightly more expensive hatchback.
4.4 out of 5 by KBB experts; 4.6 out of 5 by consumers on Edmunds (37 reviews)
5 stars NHTSA; IIHS Top Safety Pick
28 city/38 highway/31 MPG combined
The Mazda3 is a stylish ride with decent performance, thanks to its steering, handling and strong brakes. The standard 155-horsepower, 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder takes some time to accelerate but once you get to higher speeds, it performs well. As far as downsides, the Mazda3 doesn’t have a ton of room for cargo. Also, the least-expensive Sport model does not come with some of the tech features standard, like Apple CarPlay/Android Auto integration and active blind spot monitoring. You need to upgrade to a more expensive trim for these features. The Mazda3 is also available as a (pricier) 5-door (with a hatchback.)
4.6 out of 5 by KBB experts; 4.3 out of 5 by consumers on Edmunds (15 reviews)
5 stars NHTSA
28 city/36 highway/32 MPG combined
The Toyota Corolla has been a bestseller for years thanks to its combination of quality, affordability and safety. The sedan has plenty of room and comfortable seating for long trips, something to keep in mind for that drive home for school holidays. The 2019 Toyota Corolla also comes as a hatchback at a slightly higher price (MSRP $19,990). The 2019 sedan has a standard safety package including features like pre-collision warning and lane departure alerts with steering assistance. With the Corolla, you’re not going to impress anyone with top speed and acceleration but critics say it’s an easy car to drive with decent gas mileage. Toyota has just released its 2020 version of the Corolla (MSRP $19,500), with a redesigned look and a new version of driver aids for the higher price. It also comes as a hybrid model ($22,950).
4.2 out of 5 by KBB experts; 4.4 out of 5 by consumers on Edmunds (8 reviews)
5 stars NHTSA; IIHS Top Safety Pick
23 city/30 highway/26 MPG combined
If you’d like more cargo space, say for the occasional road trip outside of college, the Hyundai Tucson will get the job done as a crossover SUV. Critics say it’s a quiet and smooth ride even for bumpy roads. And to handle tougher terrain, you can add all-wheel drive for another $1,400. The Tucson offers several standard safety features including forward collision avoidance assistance and lane keeping assistant. You can also add a 360-degree surround view monitor for more expensive trims. Finally, it comes standard with tech like an 7-inch touch screen, voice activation for apps and a wireless charging pad for mobile phones. Hyundai does offer the smaller and less expensive Kona SUV, but we like the Tucson’s increased storage for the money.
Best used cars for college students
2016 Honda Civic sedan
Fair Purchase Price $13,879 to $16,056
4.8 out of 5 by KBB experts; 4.3 out of 5 by consumers on Edmunds (260 reviews)
5 stars NHTSA
31 city/42 highway/35 MPG combined
The 2016 Honda Civic got a near perfect score from the experts at KBB and with good reason. It combines excellent fuel efficiency while keeping great performance, especially if you pick up the turbocharged 1.5L engine. It has a roomy cabin and was a 2016 Top Safety Pick+. Even though this used car is a few years old, the technology still feels modern with a touchscreen interface, driver memory settings, remote engine start and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto available. While a brand-new Civic with all the features could be out of a college budget, you can get the 2016 version for around $16,000.
2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI
Fair Purchase Price $15,309 to $18,950
4.2 out of 5 by KBB experts; 4.8 out of 5 by consumers on Edmunds (62 reviews)
5 stars NHTSA
25 city/35 highway/29 MPG combined
While the 2-door hatchback 2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI has a humble appearance, it hides a turbocharged engine and is a blast to drive. Even with the standard four-cylinder engine, it’s surprisingly fast (0 to 60mph in about six seconds) and has excellent handling around turns. For the 2016 version, they made several tech upgrades including adding a touch screen with voice-to-text integration and a USB cable for smart phones. Finally, the Volkswagen Golf GTI was another Top Safety Pick+ in 2016 (for the 4-door version, the IIHS did not review the 2-door but performance should be similar.) While older versions of the Golf with a diesel engine (TDI) were caught up in the Volkswagen diesel emission scandal, the 2016 model wasn’t affected.
2016 Toyota Prius
Fair Purchase Price $16,477 to $19,310
4.5 out of 5 by KBB experts; 4.6 out of 5 by consumers on Edmunds (120 reviews)
5 stars NHTSA
58 city/53 highway/56 MPG combined
If you want to save on fuel, it’s hard to beat the Toyota Prius hybrid. With a 56 MPG fuel efficiency, your trips to the gas station can be few and far in-between. The 2016 model was a notable upgrade over previous versions with a quieter engine and better driving performance. The 2016 models also had more body styles to choose from than there are in 2019. For example, you could buy a 2016 Prius V ($19,043) which is shaped like a small station wagon rather than a regular sedan. Finally, the IIHS selected the 2016 Prius as another Top Safety Pick+.
Ways to finance the best cars for college students
Before you hit the lot, it helps to get pre-approved for a loan first. While car dealers can set up financing, some try to make money by charging a higher interest rate. A college student with a sparse borrowing history could be a prime target for an overpriced loan.
Instead, set up your financing ahead of time through a bank, credit union or online lender. You don’t have to know what car you want before applying. The lender will tell you how much you could borrow and at what rate so you’ll know your exact budget. To speed up the process, consider filling out the online form on LendingTree. Based on your creditworthiness, you could get up to five different auto loan offers from lenders.