Don’t Buy a Beater. Here are Our Top 8 Cars for College Students

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Tina Russell / The Penny Hoarder

For college students who want to travel home during breaks, having a car can be crucial. Plus, mom and dad might not want to move you in and out of the dorm every year (trust me, it gets to be a huge hassle). Plus having a car makes it way easier to run errands and get to work, especially if you have an off-campus job.

But what makes a good car for a college student? And what models are best for college students?

To take some of the guesswork out of it, we decided to pick out the eight best cars for college students. We selected four new options and four used models.

Multiple factors go into choosing a car: safety, size, features and more. For college students’ needs, we felt the following criteria were most important:

  • Manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) of $25,000 or less: You’ll keep your monthly payment affordable.
  • Predicted reliability score: You’ll save money on costly repairs.
  • 30-plus mpg combined: You can drive home without breaking the bank.
  • Basic connectivity (Bluetooth streaming audio or auxiliary cord): Because no twentysomething listens to CDs.
  • Engine output: Because you want to beat your grandma’s Oldsmobile in a race, right?
  • Cargo room: You need plenty of room for your belongings when you travel to and from school during breaks between semesters.  

Best Cars for College Students: New

We looked at Consumer Reports’ Best New Cars Under $30,000 report and then found the ones that best matched the above requirements.

Here are our top four picks for the best new cars for college students:

1. Mazda 3

Mazda/Facebook

Consumer Reports says Mazdas “tend to be very reliable,” which is one reason the 2017 Mazda 3 is at the top of our list.

It’s a vehicle that won’t cause you too many headaches, and it has an Environmental Protection Agency-estimated fuel economy rating of 30-31 mpg combined, depending on powertrain options. (Models with the 2.5-liter engine and manual transmission don’t meet our 30-plus mpg criteria, because the EPA rates them at only 28 mpg combined.)

The Mazda 3 is available as a four-door sedan or five-door hatchback and costs between $17,845 and $24,945. Standard features include blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, a 7-inch touch-screen, keyless entry and ignition, Bluetooth connectivity and an auxiliary input.

And even better, it’s spacious. Consumer Reports says its 12.4-cubic-foot trunk could fit two large upright suitcases and three duffel bags, making it a perfect candidate for lugging belongings around during semester breaks. The hatchback has 20.2 cubic feet when the rear seats are upright and 47.1 cubes with the seats folded, making this model even roomier.

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick Plus, which means it earned good ratings in five crash tests, an advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention, and a good or acceptable headlight rating.

Warranty:

  • Bumper-to-bumper: Three years or 36,000 miles.
  • Powertrain: Five years or 60,000 miles.
  • Rust through: Five years and unlimited miles.
  • Roadside aid: Three years or 36,000 miles.

2. Toyota Corolla

The Toyota Corolla has always been known for its functionality at an affordable price, and the 2017 model doesn’t disappoint.

Toyota made safety a priority for the 2017 Corolla. Standard features include forward-collision warning, automatic braking with pedestrian detection and lane-departure warning with lane-keeping.

The 2017 Toyota Corolla rings in between $18,500 and $22,680, meaning that even the highest-end model meets our budget criteria. Upscale features like a rearview camera, automatic climate control, LED headlights, Bluetooth connectivity and an auxiliary input are standard on this model.

The Corolla ranks “much better than average” on Consumer Reports’ predicted reliability spectrum, which is the highest ranking possible. The 13-cubic-foot trunk can fit up to three large upright suitcases and a duffel bag, and the rear seats fold down for additional room.

It also gets 30-32 mpg combined, according to the EPA.

IIHS rating: Top Safety Pick Plus

Warranty:

  • Bumper-to-bumper: Three years or 36,000 miles.
  • Powertrain: Five years or 60,000 miles.
  • Rust through: Five years and unlimited miles.
  • Roadside aid: Two years and unlimited miles.

3. Kia Forte

Kia Motors of America/Facebook

The Kia Forte ranks No. 3 on our list of the best new cars for college students. To hit our mpg requirement, we had to limit our picks for the Forte to its LX and S trims, which are priced between $16,600 and $19,300, to meet our 30 mpg requirement.

With an EPA fuel economy rating of 32 mpg combined, this vehicle is perfect for the student on the go. The Kia Forte isn’t as fun to drive as the Mazda 3, but it provides extras some college students might deem important, such as access to Pandora radio services, a USB port and auxiliary jack.

Consumer Reports says that three large, upright wheeled suitcases and one duffel bag can fit in the Forte’s 14.9-cubic-foot trunk.

IIHS rating: The 2017 Kia Forte did not qualify as an IIHS Top Safety Pick because it was never put through the required small-overlap test. It did, however, receive top ratings in other IIHS safety tests.

Warranty:

  • Bumper-to-bumper: Five years or 60,000 miles.
  • Powertrain: 10 years or 100,000 miles.
  • Rust through: Five years or 100,000 miles.
  • Roadside aid: Five years or 60,000 miles.

4. Chevrolet Cruze

Not all of the Chevrolet Cruze lineup fits within our budget of $25,000 or less, but if you leave out the priciest model — the Cruze Diesel with automatic transmission, which comes in at $25,395 — prices are between $16,975 and $23,945.

This vehicle comes standard with a backup camera and a touch-screen infotainment system, complete with full color and Bluetooth connectivity. Consumer Reports says the sedan’s 14.8-cubic-foot trunk is a “good size” for items, and by folding the rear seat, you’ll have plenty of room for longer items.

If you need even more space, consider the hatchback version, which has 22.7 cubic feet of room with the rear seats up and 47.2 cubic feet with the rear seats folded.

With its combined fuel economy ratings of 31-32 mpg for the hatchback and 32-37 mpg for the sedan, the Cruze will save college students a ton on fuel. .

IIHS rating: The 2017 Chevrolet Cruze did not qualify as an IIHS Top Safety Pick because it has not gone through full testing yet. It did, however, receive top ratings in the two IIHS tests it’s completed.

Warranty:

  • Bumper to bumper: Three years or 36,000 miles.
  • Powertrain: Five years or 60,000.
  • Anti-corrosion: Six years or 100,000.

Best Cars for College Students: Used

To find the best used cars for college students, we compared all the major car brands’ certified pre-owned programs.

We looked at Consumer Reports’ 30 Best Used Cars for Under $30,000 report. From there, we narrowed our list by limiting it to models no more than 5 years old that best matched our college student criteria. We did, however, drop our fuel economy requirements to 28 mpg, since cars that get 30 mpg or more were not as common five years ago as they are today.

Here are our top four picks for the best used cars for college students:

1. 2012-16 Toyota Corolla

Ranking as one of the cheapest college cars on our list, the 2012-16 Toyota Corolla is a winner. With a price range of $10,250-$17,250, the 2012-16 Corolla has available Bluetooth connectivity, so students can talk hands free or stream music from their devices. 2014, 2015 and 2016 editions have available rearview cameras, another safety bonus.

Consumer Reports hails it as a car of practical size with good performance and great reliability. The rear seats fold down, giving ample room for packing it to the brim when moving back home for the summer. With a 29-33 combined mpg, this fuel efficient compact car is worth considering.

IIHS rating: 2012-2014 Top Safety Pick, which means it received at least a good rating on a variety of safety tests. Beyond 2014, it did not qualify for a top safety pick because it received only a “Marginal” rating on the required small-overlap test, which simulates a vehicle’s front corner crashing into another vehicle, or a tree or pole.

2. 2012-16 Honda Fit

Best cars for college students

A 2016 Honda Fit is an affordable used car option for college students to buy. Tina Russell / The Penny Hoarder

The Honda Fit is a cute hatchback that has a 29-36 combined mpg. It has up to 57.3 cubic feet of cargo room with the rear seats folded, putting it above other smaller-sized crossovers. The rear seats fold completely flat, giving ample room to transport belongings to and from campus.

The Fit has all the connectivity a college student needs, including USB ports, Bluetooth and auxiliary ports. Sweetening the deal is its spacious interior and cheap price tag of $9,775-$17,600. Newer models come standard with backup cameras.

IIHS rating: 2012-15 Top Safety Pick. In 2016, IIHS changed its requirements for the Top Safety Pick designation, and the Fit’s “Acceptable” rating for the small-overlap front test was no longer good enough to receive this designation.

3. 2013-15 Buick Encore

The Buick Encore made its debut in 2013. Its price, features, size and fuel economy make it hard to leave out.

According to Consumer Reports, a 2013-15 Buick Encore costs between $14,300 and $21,575. In its front-wheel-drive setup, this subcompact crossover gets 28 mpg combined and comes standard with all the features a young adult might need, including a rearview camera, USB and auxiliary cord connectivity.

With up to 48.4 cubic feet of cargo room with the seats folded, hauling your stuff back home for the summer won’t be an issue.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to skip the all-wheel-drive versions, as they do not hit out 28 mpg combined requirement.

IIHS rating: 2013 and 2015 Top Safety Pick. In 2014, the IIHS began requiring at least an “Acceptable” rating in the small-overlap test to receive the Top Safety Pick designation, and the Encore’s “Poor” rating wasn’t up to snuff.  

4. 2012-15 Toyota Prius V

The Toyota Prius V is the wagon version of the famous hybrid. While it may not be the sexiest car on the list, the 2012-15 editions cost $14,375-$19,575 and get an incredible 41 combined mpg, which certainly makes up for what it lacks in appearance.

This Prius V also has massive cargo space — 34.3 cubic feet with the seats up and 67.3 cubes with the seats folded. Transporting dorm items back-and-forth over the years won’t only be easy on your wallet, but you won’t have to worry about how you’ll manage to fit all of it in one trip.

The Prius V seats five and meets our entertainment connectivity requirements, and it has an available rearview camera. In the 2015 model, the rearview camera is a standard feature.

IIHS rating: 2012, 2013, Top Safety Pick; 2015 Top Safety Pick Plus. The tightened requirements for receiving the Top Safety Pick designation and the Prius V’s “Poor” small-overlap rating caused it to lose this designation in 2014.  

Your Turn: What are your picks for the best cars for college students?

Kelly Smith is a junior writer and engagement specialist at The Penny Hoarder. Catch her on Twitter at @keywordkelly.