Best Cars For College Students: Stylish, Fuel-Efficient, and Budget-Friendly Models

Car Culture / 15 Comments

Your college days are upon you; here's how you'll get to campus.

At long last, high school is over; you've managed to pass your final exams, and it's time to move on to the next stage of your life. Let's be honest; you have a vision, a vision of a garage full of the best cars in the industry. What exactly does one need to acquire such exquisite automotive machinery? Money. But money doesn't fall from the sky, and on your way to wealth, you'll need something to get you to college and your job so you can start making that money.

But what car should you buy? Do you go new and cheap, or perhaps find something used with a luxury badge? We all want a little performance, but how much is too much? And how do you know the car you're buying is going to be reliable enough to not cost you an arm and a leg while you're already living off of ramen?

It's time to get shopping. College is arguably the most fun and exciting time of your life, and many memories are made with your first car. Picking the right ride is important, so we've put together a quick guide to picking the right college transportation.


What To Look For In A College Car

Whether you're purchasing the car yourself or you've managed to convince Mom and Dad to buy it, you'll likely be working to a budget that may not be too flattering. Nevertheless, a common mistake young enthusiasts make is buying a high-mileage, 20-year-old vehicle just to own a particular brand or to boast a certain performance level. This may be fun for the first few miles but ultimately will cause headaches owing to maintenance and reliability, or lack thereof.

At the other end of the spectrum, you don't want to be aiming for the cheapest possible car on the market, as this might pose issues in safety and quality, and being a new driver, safety is of great concern.

You want a Goldilocks car - something not too big, not too small; not too powerful, not too weak; not too old, not too new; and with middling mileage that mitigates reliability issues.

Key points to look out for include:

2016-2018 Toyota Prius Three Quarter Front Left Side View In Motion Toyota
  • Price: Make sure you look within budget, but avoid cars that are too new or too old; search for a middle ground. Importantly, when you have a set budget, make sure you shop beneath that, as any car you buy will need a little maintenance, and if you shop at your upper limit, you won't have money to fix important issues.
  • Reliability: Steer clear of cars known for having reliability issues; chances are you'll have your first car for a while, and you'll need it to run smoothly to prevent accruing unnecessary costs.
  • Fuel Economy: Whether driving to and from class or enjoying after-college outings, you'll probably put many miles on your car. For that reason, great fuel efficiency is a big factor. After all, when you're penny-pinching, spending as little on fuel as possible and getting high MPG are massively important.
  • Safety: You're young and new to driving; you'll ultimately make mistakes. In most cases, you may reverse into a pole or curb a wheel, but sometimes big accidents can happen. You'd want to find a car that has a relatively good safety rating and a few airbags, at least. If the budget allows, finding a car that has traction control, anti-lock brakes, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, a reversing camera, and other safety features would be of great help to the new driver.
  • Affordable Insurance: It's one thing to buy a car, but another to own it. Insurance is always a grudge purchase, but it's important when accidents happen. Before buying a car, check how much insurance will cost you, as it may also give you an indication of the safety of the car, the theft risk, and parts availability
You don't want this car
You don't want this car.

What To Avoid In A College Car

There's a lot to choose from when searching for the best first cars for students. Often, first-time buyers shop with their hearts and not with their heads. It's easy to fall into the trap of buying a previously written-off car or purchasing one that seems cheap and fun but is about as reliable as a Mazda RX-8 with 200,000 miles on the clock.

A great rule to remember is, "If it's too good to be true, it probably is."

Steer clear of strange dealerships or exceedingly good bargains. There are so many scammers in this industry, and being on the receiving end will be costly. Another great tip is to avoid modified cars. Generally speaking, modifications can cause problems if not installed properly or when putting the car under too much strain. Aftermarket turbo systems and similar engine modifications are usually red flags. If you know what you're doing, modified cars are one thing, but it's always risky.

Also, take note of cars with excessive scratches, evidence of heavy paint swirls, dirty engine bays, and below-standard interior quality. This may all just be cosmetic, but it indicates how the previous owner looked after the car.

Sports cars are generally a no-no.

To sum it up, avoid the following:

  • Accident-Damaged Vehicles: Cars that have been repaired after serious accidents are rarely ever fixed to their prior glory, and issues will inevitably occur.
  • Strange sellers/dealerships: Stick to credible dealerships, even if the smaller ones seem cheaper. It's very easy to get scammed in the automotive industry. Remember, if it's too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Modified Cars: Modified cars come with their own array of issues. If the previous owner didn't invest properly in appropriately modifying the vehicle, both with quality parts and quality workmanship, the car might be prone to advanced wear, possible reliability issues, and even safety concerns.
  • Signs Of Neglect: Unsightly interiors, forest-filled engine bays, and paint that looks like it was washed by sandpaper all indicate the car was not treated properly and will come with its own issues.
  • Missed Services: Vehicle service history is important. It doesn't necessarily have to be from a brand-specific dealership, but regular services at a reputable mechanic show that the owner has maintained a vehicle mechanically.
  • Performance: Don't aim for performance cars, rather stick to slower city cars that are easy to handle and make daily commutes simple. Remember, fast cars will come later when you're making money and have learned how to handle them properly.

Lastly, avoid luxury cars. They may be appealing because they lose value quickly, meaning they're super affordable despite not being very old or having high mileage. But remember, there's a difference between being able to buy a car and being able to own a car. Premium brands have premium ownership costs, parts cost more, and their advanced technology is more expensive to repair when it inevitably breaks.

Driving Front Angle Mercedes-Benz

Before You Buy

Do Your Homework: The car may seem appealing at face value, but who knows what's happened in the past. Ensure the car has a full service history, preferably by the manufacturer. Make sure the car hasn't been in an accident - be on the lookout for overspray, panel gaps, and doors not closing properly. And, if possible, get the car checked out by a professional first.

Fun: A cheap, reliable, fuel-efficient car doesn't have to be a complete drag. Try and find a car you'll enjoy driving that can fit your friends in the back seat and have a decent sound system. Being 2023, most cars nowadays come standard with Android Auto and Apple Carplay, adding to the car's fun factor and convenience.

Generally, compact cars such as the VW Golf, Ford Fiesta, or Fiat 500 are great go-to cars for college students. If possible, purchasing a car with a bit of a warranty left over and maybe a few included services may be a great bet. You'd save significant amounts of money not needing to pay for servicing, and warranties generally protect you from what can be costly mechanical issues.

Above all else, remember to be logical; choose fuel-efficient cars over fast ones, avoid cars without basic safety features, and remember, this car is supposed to be reliable; fun cars will come later.

So now that we've given you the tips to finding the right car, here are some good cars we'd recommend for college buyers:

2014-2019 Ford Fiesta Hatchback Sideward Vision Ford

Volkswagen Golf Mk7

Although slightly bigger than the Fiesta, the Volkswagen Golf is the perfect city commuter. It's easy to drive, looks good, includes German quality, and won't be overly fast in most cases. The Mk7 was the last Golf to hit US shores and went straight back to basics, so enjoy the Golf while you still can.

2018-2021 Volkswagen Golf Front View Driving Volkswagen
2018-2021 Volkswagen Golf Rear View Driving Volkswagen

Toyota Prius

If you're a gearhead, you may be shaking your head now. Unfortunately, it's difficult to call the Prius a lousy appliance. On the used car market, it's incredibly affordable and offers excellent fuel economy thanks to its hybrid system. Inside, it's not the most exciting, no matter which generation you look at, but it's functional and offers enough seating space for you, your friends, and even your whole family.

2017-2022 Toyota Prius Prime Front Angle View Toyota

Ford EcoSport

In many cases, it may be advisable to go with a car a little taller. Crossovers and SUVs have become expensive today, but the EcoSport is a pretty affordable choice. EcoSports will easily handle bumpier routes and include nice infotainment systems with reversing cameras - even in the S guise. It's by no means an enthusiast vehicle, but it is one of the best SUVs for students.

2018-2021 Ford EcoSport Front View Driving Ford
2018-2021 Ford EcoSport Rear View Driving Ford

Ford Fiesta

Although the latest Fiesta never made its way to the US, the previous generation is still arguably the most fun subcompact hatchback to drive. The Fiesta produces a respectable 120 horsepower from a 1.6-liter engine in most cases, boasting gas mileage estimates of 30 mpg combined. Some Fiestas include high-quality Sony sound systems, side-impact airbags, park distance control, and leather seats, among other features.

Front View Driving Ford
Rear View Driving Ford

Fiat 500

Small, funky, inexpensive, and quite the head-turner. The Fiat 500 oozes retro-Italian style. It's modern and is fitted with seven airbags to keep you safe. This makes for one of the best cheap cars for students owing to its fun yet logical design for new drivers. Just make sure you don't need to drive more than one passenger around.

2016-2019 FIAT 500 Hatchback Front Side in Motion Fiat
2016-2019 FIAT 500 Hatchback Rear Angle in Motion Fiat

Honda Civic

The Honda Civic may not be the smallest option, but owing to Japanese quality and modern flare, the Civic is arguably one of the best cars in its class. Newer Civics come standard with the Honda Sensing systems, keeping you out of trouble and aware of other vehicles around you at all times. Civics are also great fun to drive, no matter which generation to choose. It's spacious, it looks great, has a Bose sound system, and it's reliable; what more could you ask for?

2022-2023 Honda Civic Sedan Driving Front Angle Honda
2022-2023 Honda Civic Sedan Rear-Facing View Honda

Mazda MX-5 Miata

If you're not too concerned about rear seats, the MX-5 makes for one of the most timeless and enjoyable first cars anyone can ask for. The Mazda MX-5 is known for its driving ability but infamously lacks power - not a bad thing for the young car enthusiast. Luckily, there's a Miata to meet any budget, dating all the way back to 90s models. They're reliable, fun, and will certainly turn heads at college, all without breaking the bank.

Older models are starting to increase in price, but there are still deals to be found. Importantly, there is loads of aftermarket support to help you should anything go awry.

2016-2023 Mazda MX-5 Miata Front Angle View Mazda
2016-2023 Mazda MX-5 Miata Soft Top Mazda

Hyundai Elantra

On the topic of affordable cars, the Elantra may just be worth it with a new car price of just $20,500. On the second-hand market, there are great bang-for-buck options for the college student to enjoy. The interior boasts a more premium design language and has more than enough space for you and your friends. You'll also get to enjoy safety features like lane-departure warning and overhead airbags.

2021-2023 Hyundai Elantra Hybrid Driving Front Angle Hyundai
2021-2023 Hyundai Elantra Hybrid Driving Back View Hyundai

Mazda CX-30

This is for the student wanting an EcoSport with a larger budget. The CX-30 is the perfect small SUV, with a futuristic yet minimal interior design, the capability to go anywhere, all the latest technology and safety equipment, and nimble handling. As standard, you'll get all-wheel drive, 191 horsepower, and the latest version of the Mazda Connect infotainment system.

2020-2023 Mazda CX-30 Frontal Aspect CarBuzz
2020-2023 Mazda CX-30 Aft View CarBuzz

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2014-2019 Ford Fiesta Hatchback Sideward Vision
2018-2021 Volkswagen Golf Front View Driving
2018-2021 Volkswagen Golf Rear View Driving
2018-2021 Ford EcoSport Front View Driving
2018-2021 Ford EcoSport Rear View Driving

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