By Aaron Crowe
Not every incoming college freshman needs a car, of course, but it’s a nice luxury to have if they — or their parents — can afford it.
As a college student without a car, I unfondly remember using my bike’s handlebars to hang grocery bags, or balance a bag of clothes on the way to the laundromat, borrowing a roommate’s car so I could get to a part-time job, or bumming a ride home to visit my parents.
It wasn’t horrendous and I saved a lot of money, but having a car would have made college life a lot easier.
What’s the best car to get a college student? Something affordable in the low teens is a good start, and it should be reliable, safe and have low insurance rates.
While fewer young adults are driving or getting a driver’s license, for students who need a car and can afford it, they should consider a few factors beyond price. Mike Rabkin, president of the website From Car to Finish, which helps negotiate car deals, recommends several resources.
The first to check is a car’s safety rating with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the government agency that crash tests vehicles. The NHTSA website also shows vehicle recall history. Fuel economy ratings from the federal government should also be compared, along with a car’s emissions and learning how to read the new EPA fuel economy labels on new vehicle window stickers.
Finally, check a car’s reliability at a source you trust, such as Consumer Reports, which requires an online subscription.
With those standards in mind, here are some cars to consider buying an incoming college freshman:
Honda Fit. It’s a very roomy car with an amazing amount of cargo hauling ability for its size, Rabkin says. Priced at about $15,000, it’s reliable, fun to drive — it has paddle shifters — and its rear seats fold up to create a bigger area on the floor to put tall items that students may need to haul to college.
Hyundai Accent. This car leads its class in fuel economy, Rabkin says. It has a lot of features for the money — about $12,500 — has a long warranty and drives feeling a little more upscale than its segment. It also has good acceleration and braking.
Chevy Sonic. Priced at about $13,000, this small car from Chevrolet is a refined drive that’s quiet on the highway and good for long trips to college, Rabkin says. It also has good cargo space and youthful styling.
Honda CR-V. Starting at about $22,000 for a new car, the CR-V costs more than less established brands partly because it holds its value very well, says David Boldt, an automotive freelance writer. It provides reliable service, reasonable efficiency and prodigious capacity within a relatively small footprint, Boldt says. If you buy a used one with less than 100,000 miles, you’ll likely get another 100,000 miles of utility, durability and low cost of operation, he says. Used CR-Vs can cost as little as $5,000.
Chevrolet Tahoe. These SUVs are expensive — about $38,000 for a new one — but for a student with a parent willing to spend, they’re worth the cost for the safety factor, according to Barbara Bergin, a doctor who buys her college kids Tahoes for the safety factor. “I always got my kids vehicles in which they would win if they had a wreck with me,” Bergin wrote in an email. “I want them safer than I want myself.” So far they’ve never had a wreck, she adds.
Scion XD. This subcompact car made by Toyota is about $19,000. The hatchback is known for being reliable, and gets about 27 mph in the city and 33 mpg on the highway.
Toyota Prius. If you can afford the $23,000 entry price, the Prius is a smart way to cut down on gas costs, averaging 44 mpg overall and 55 mpg on the highway, according to Consumer Reports. There’s also a plug-in version that delivers around 12 miles on electricity and boosts gas mileage to 67 mpg. Consumer Reports rates the reliability of both versions well above average.
Some colleges, for better or worse, prohibit cars for incoming freshmen and others, and have strict parking regulations that make it difficult to have a car on campus, says Richard Masoner, who runs a bicycling website. Students can check this list of campus car bans or check with their school before bringing a car to campus, and should also check how much a parking permit is.
Universities may prohibit cars because devoting space to car storage is expensive and isn’t a good use of limited space. And because colleges can be significant traffic generators, they may limit cars to students so that their traffic doesn’t impact the surrounding communities as much.