Small and practical isn't always what you think.
The school year is starting again, albeit slowly and with a new ingredient involved - distance learning. College students are going to spend a lot less time on campuses this year. However, with a pandemic still in full swing, public transport is best avoided. There's also a whole new generation of car enthusiasts coming up, and going for a drive for driving sake is a valid way to social distance and get out of the house or apartment.
To make this list of new and used cars, they need to be fun to drive, have a decent cool factor, be nicely compact for parking, and reasonably priced. Of course, a proper hand-operated emergency brake for pulling skids and an engine torquey enough for the occasional burnout are added bonuses.
Volkswagen's Jetta GLI is a compelling choice for any car enthusiast on a budget, and a student in particular. Compared to its rivals, the Jetta GLI is not an aggressive and attention-seeking car, but it exudes a sophisticated style for those paying attention. Inside, it's roomy, well-engineered, comfortable, and well laid out. The infotainment system comes with Apple Carplay and Android Auto as standard, as well as forward-collision warning, a post-collision braking system, blind-spot monitoring, and rear traffic alert. The 2.0-liter engine delivers 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels, while the chassis is sharp and responsive. It's not quite as sharp as the Civic Si, but the Jetta GLI is a more comfortable cruiser for trips back home to visit the parents.
For the middle ground between a fun car and a practical car blended with a reasonable price point, a used Golf GTI is a slam dunk. In the US, the last generation's model years are from 2010-2014 and have stood the test of time in dependency and performance. The 2.0-liter turbocharged engine is enthusiastic in delivering its 200 hp, and the manual version has a joyfully slick feel to it. The suspension blends sporty and comfortable incredibly well, and, because it's a hatchback, it has all the practicality that an adventurous student needs.
The Kia Forte GT is an aggressively priced performance car packing a surprising punch and Stinger-inspired styling. Under the hood is a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine making 201 hp and 197 lb-ft of torque. The default seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox is great, but enthusiasts will want the optional six-speed manual transmission. Build quality is exceptional, particularly for a budget compact sedan. The ride is a little on the stiff side for daily driving, but young students won't even notice.
Cargo capacity isn't exceptional but plenty for a college student on the move and will tuck away groceries, laptops, and textbooks with ease. Just as importantly, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay functionality are standard, but some essential safety equipment we want on a student's car is optional, such as forward collision avoidance with pedestrian detection, blind-spot collision warning, and rear cross-traffic collision warning.
When it comes to affordable rear-wheel-drive thrills, the Toyota 86 and its Subaru twin tick a lot of boxes. For students, they are surprisingly practical and fuel-efficient. The 2.0-liter boxer engine with its 205 hp and 156 lb-ft of torque isn't where the thrill lies, it's in the taught chassis, perfectly weighted steering, and predictably nimble handling. For a student, they also have the benefit of rear seats nobody will want to sit in but are useful for dropping a couple of bags on when on the move. The rear seats also fold down, and that creates a surprisingly useful amount of cargo space. There isn't anything to dislike unless a punchy engine is an absolute must.
If there's one thing you want to avoid as a student, it's becoming the designated driver and having drunks in your back seats on the weekends. The best way to prevent that is not to have any backseats. With the MX-5, you get no rear seats and one of the purest driving experiences money can buy. It's not fast enough in a straight line to guarantee speeding tickets, but it'll deliver thrill after thrill on a back road while the handling and grip remain intuitive and predictable. It's the purest distillation of fun on a budget, and that makes it an excellent student's car.
Sticking with avoiding having a back seat and seeking pure driving pleasure, we have the Honda S2000. You're not going to get something with as low mileage or in as good condition as other cars on this list for $15,000-$18,000, but even at 100,000 miles, it's just about broken in. The exception to that is if the vehicle has been thrashed or modified, so pay attention when shopping around. If you have more to spend, though, then you can pick up cleaner examples.
The S2000 delivered something that its competitors still don't, and that's a high-revving and enthusiastic 2.0-liter naturally aspirated engine matched to its grin-inducing handling. Ultimately, even the most beat-up S2000 is still cool and fun to drive. It was only built between 1999-2003, so you're going to get that period's infotainment and safety features, which is not a lot.
The Civic Si has a solid case for being the gold standard of cars for young driving enthusiasts. It takes all the practicality and fun of a standard Civic and infuses it with tweaked suspension, a limited-slip diff, a little more power, and a manual transmission. It also keeps the cost down while delivering an excellent interior, a decent infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard, and safety features such as lane-keep assist and a blind-spot camera. A turbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder sends 205 hp and 192 lb-ft to the front wheels, and the only transmission available is one of the best manuals on the market.
Cliches are often cliches for a reason. In the case of college kids driving previous-generation Mustangs, it's because they're relatively inexpensive, powerful, and incredibly fun to drive. To get the GT model with the 5.0 V8 on a $12,000- $16,000 budget, you'll need to look at 2012 models with reasonable mileage. That will get you 412 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque sent to the rear-wheels and clad in pure modern Americana. There's minimal rear seating and not a great infotainment system, but who cares? It's a Mustang.
The Stang does come with a warning, though. Make sure you don't become a meme or feature in a YouTube video of car show exit fails. And, of course, let's not forget that a Camaro or a Challenger is just as cool.
With a starting price of $27,495, the Subaru WRX has the highest base model price here. However, the value for money proposition is enormous. With 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque from its turbocharged boxer engine, the WRX has the most power in the used car list. It's also the only car here with all-wheel-drive. The only way it could be better, particularly for student life, would be if it came as a hatchback. It doesn't, but it's still practical, quick, and a lot of fun to throw around on back roads. It's not as refined as some cars on the list, but it makes up for it with a ton of character. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come as standard, but the base model and manual transmission versions aren't particularly well stocked with safety features.
To us, the Fiesta ST is the perfect college kid's car. It's small, practical, punchy, hilariously fun to drive hard, and has decent fuel economy when you take it easy. The Fiesta ST's last year in the US was 2018, and we've just spent far too long staring wistfully at 2014 models with 50-60,000 miles on the clock at $12,000. Under the hood is a 1.6-liter turbocharged engine that enthusiastically delivers 197 hp and 202 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels. It also only came with a six-speed manual and agile handling that makes even the most inexperienced driver feel like a hero on a back road.