Many college students get by just fine without owning a car.
If you’re studying abroad or in a major U.S. city with great public transportation and affordable ridesharing and bikesharing options, you might not need a vehicle, especially since traffic congestion and parking restrictions often create big headaches for student car owners. Throwing a car into the mix can add to the already high cost of higher education, exacerbating student debts.
Still, many students prefer owning a car. In many cases, it’s a necessity.
Millions of commuter students live far from campus, making for long and difficult daily commutes via public transportation. Other students need cars to get to off-campus jobs, internships, or volunteer opportunities. Some simply crave the flexibility that comes with on-demand access to a personal, private vehicle.
If you find yourself needing a student car, here’s the best way to go about it.
How to Find a Student-Friendly Car
Whether you’re a student yourself or are evaluating vehicle options for your college-age kid, keep these considerations in mind. Each contributes to the overall cost of car ownership, and many vary considerably from model to model.
This is the single most important consideration for cost-conscious car buyers, whether they’re buying new or used.
Generally speaking, new compact and subcompact cars with minimal add-on features cost anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 (MSRP). Midsize cars typically cost anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000, and sometimes more. Full-size cars, including compact SUVs and crossovers, typically cost $25,000 and up. Luxury brands are more expensive across the board. For example, the smallest, most basic BMW costs well over $25,000 new.
Remember that as new cars get more sophisticated — and therefore expensive — these ranges are subject to change. Used vehicle prices also vary considerably, ranging from 80% to 100% of new vehicles’ MSRP to as little as 10% to 20% of MSRP. Factors affecting used vehicles’ prices include make, model, age, condition, and accident history.
Many college students don’t have enough cash to afford the full sticker price of a new car, even after negotiating. However, those with substantial savings — or with parents willing to lend a hand — may be able to afford the down payment on a new car (typically 10% to 20% of sticker price, but usually negotiable) or a significant chunk of the cost of a used car (if not the whole thing).
All other things being equal, it’s best to put as much down as you can afford given interest charges on car loans can add considerably to your total lifetime cost of ownership. Make sure you know how to negotiate an auto loan. Alternatively, if you can’t afford to pay cash for a new car and don’t want to take on additional debt, consider leasing your vehicle instead of buying it outright.
Features & Optional Add-ons
Every vehicle model comes with a slew of optional add-ons that can greatly add to its final cost. If price is your top concern, resist the temptation to add bells and whistles. On the other hand, some optional features such as heated seats and backup cameras enhance safety and comfort. Models that include lots of fancy features in the base version are apt to be more expensive to begin with.
The cost of car insurance varies based on factors like the value of your vehicle, your driving record, your home address and state laws, and your car’s safety and security features. Fortunately, the car insurance business is highly competitive, so it’s easy to shop around online for reasonable rates. Make sure you know how to save money on insurance.
The price of gas fluctuates over time. When it’s expensive, owners of gas-sipping vehicles make out great. When it’s cheap, the difference isn’t so stark. But, by definition, efficient vehicles are always cheaper to fill up and drive than gas guzzlers.
When researching your vehicle options, pay close attention to EPA mileage ratings. If efficiency is a critical consideration for budgetary or environmental reasons, don’t forget to consider the ever-growing slate of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, which are vastly more efficient than gas-only and first-generation hybrid vehicles. (There are have some great fuel-efficient options further down.)
Safety is a crucial consideration for any car buyer. Many new cars, especially at the higher end of the market, come with potentially lifesaving safety features, such as emergency braking and lane drift warning systems. New safety features become available in higher-end vehicles every year and trickle down to more budget-friendly vehicles over time. If it’s important to you to have the best safety features money can buy, you probably need to buy new and should expect to pay a premium.
Fees & Taxes
Title fees, registration fees, annual vehicle taxes, and other ongoing levies on vehicle owners vary from state to state. When you buy new, the dealer typically bundles your title fee and initial registration fee into the final cost of the vehicle and handles all the paperwork for you. When you buy used, you’re responsible for filing the paperwork and paying those fees. Generally speaking, vehicle fees and taxes are proportional to assessed value. That means recurring taxes tend to drop over time and are much lower overall for used vehicles.
Parking Availability & Cost
This is one factor that’s completely independent of your chosen car model. However, it can certainly play into your decision to get a car in the first place. If parking is scarce or very expensive on or near campus, in the residential neighborhood where you live, or both, consider forgoing a private vehicle in favor of carsharing or public transit until you move.
Size & Maneuverability
If you attend an urban college or university where street parking is scarce and lot or garage parking is often tight, you probably don’t need a pickup truck or full-size SUV; a compact sedan or hatchback will do just fine. On the other hand, if you attend school in a small town or rural area and frequently drive in the snow, go off-road, or haul and tow stuff, a bigger, heavier vehicle is probably more appropriate. Generally speaking, larger vehicles cost more, but it’s certainly possible to find bargains on used trucks and SUVs.
Top Affordable Cars for College Students
These eight car models are among the most affordable, reliable, and all-around practical choices for college students. Some are only available used but made it onto the list because they’ve held their value exceptionally well. Others are available new or used, depending on your budget and preference.
These models are listed in no particular order. Listings include MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price for the lowest-priced new vehicle trim with absolutely no add-ons or optional features), estimated pricing for used vehicles (private party), EPA mileage estimate (city/highway), and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) crash safety rating for the relevant vehicle class. Unless otherwise noted, all information is current to 2018 or 2019 model years.
1. Ford Fiesta
- MSRP: $14,205 (per Ford)
- Used Price Range: $2,000 (fair condition, older model year, dealer sale) to $12,000 (excellent condition, newer model year, private party transaction)
- EPA Mileage: 27/37 MPG
- IIHS Crash Safety: Marginal to good
The Ford Fiesta is a pint-sized, fuel-sipping vehicle available as a four-door sedan or hatchback and a standard five-speed manual or available automatic transmission. The base version is competitively priced at just over $14,000 and has decent crash safety ratings for a subcompact.
The higher-end ST trim includes a host of performance options, including a more powerful engine, aluminum wheels, high-performance tires and brakes, and a center airfoil. Interior options on all trims include the SYNC3 entertainment system and heated leather seats.
Looking for a break on your new Ford Fiesta’s list price? College students and recent graduates may qualify for a $500 discount on their purchases, subject to certain dealer-specific restrictions and guidelines.
2. Chevrolet Sonic
- MSRP: $15,420 (per Chevy)
- Used Price Range: $4,000 (fair condition, older model year) to $13,000 (excellent condition, newer model year)
- EPA Mileage: 26/34 MPG
- IIHS Crash Safety: Good
The Chevrolet Sonic is a small car available in hatchback and four-door sedan form with standard manual or available automatic transmissions. It comes in several different trims, each priced differently and endowed with different options.
One of the Sonic’s key differentiators is its safety features. Unlike many small cars, it’s packed with available and standard features such as 10 airbags, rear-view camera, and the Driver Confidence Package, which includes lane departure warning, rear park assist, and forward collision alert. Chevrolet’s college student discount program offers variable, dealer-specific discounts for current and recently graduated students, subject to dealer restrictions.
3. Jeep Wrangler
- MSRP: $27,945 (base trim with no options, per Jeep)
- Used Price Range: $2,000 (fair condition, older model year) to $31,000 (excellent condition, newer model year, top trim with all available options)
- EPA Mileage: 23/25 MPG
- IIHS Crash Safety: Poor (side) to good (front)
The Jeep Wrangler is a classic small SUV with a rugged frame that’s fully capable of going off the beaten path. Though new Wranglers are significantly more expensive than new Fiestas or Sonics, not to mention less fuel-efficient, they’re great for students who regularly ferry human or inert cargo around their campuses, college towns, and beyond.
For frugal buyers, the basic Sport package is probably fine. For more discerning students with larger budgets, the Rubicon has a slew of features tailor-made for off-roading, plus a host of driver-friendly goodies such as the Radio430N entertainment system. Key safety features include Electronic Stability Control and Electronic Roll Mitigation, both of which are important in this historically roll-prone model.
If you’re put off by the Wrangler’s high MSRP, consider buying an older, used version. The Wrangler has been around forever, so affordable back-year models abound, some priced competitively with compact sedans of comparable age.
- MSRP: $18,095 (base trim with no options, per Mazda)
- Used Price Range: $2,000 (fair condition, older model year) to $20,000+ (excellent condition, newer model year, top trim with all available options)
- EPA Mileage: 28/37 MPG
- IIHS Crash Safety: Good
The Mazda3 is a popular compact car that comes in hatchback and sedan options and your choice of manual or automatic transmission. Despite its reputation for performance, it’s quite fuel-efficient, with a highway efficiency rating near 40 MPG.
In the cabin, it has a nice lineup of entertainment and accessibility features, including a seven-inch touchscreen display and MAZDA CONNECT “infotainment” system. For a smaller car, it also has an above-average roster of safety features, including a standard rear-view camera and optional front crash prevention system. The Mazda3 model dates back to 2004, so budget-conscious buyers have plenty of affordable used options to choose from.
5. Toyota Yaris
- MSRP: $15,635 (per Toyota)
- Used Price Range: $3,000 (fair condition, older model year) to $11,000 (excellent condition, newer model year)
- EPA Mileage: 30/36 MPG
- IIHS Crash Safety: Marginal to good
The Toyota Yaris is a subcompact car that comes in hatchback and sedan versions with manual five-speed or automatic transmission, depending on your preference and trim selection. In addition to steering wheel entertainment controls and a hands-free Bluetooth calling system, it boasts a surprisingly robust safety suite, Toyota SafetySense, that comes standard on every new Yaris and includes lane departure alerts, automatic high beams, and a pre-collision deterrence system.
Though there are five different trims, all are comparably priced, meaning even high-end Yarises are affordable on a student budget. Plus, the Yaris model has been around in the United States for a decade, so there are lots of affordable, reliable models on the road.
6. Honda Fit
- MSRP: $16,190 (base trim with no options, per Honda)
- Used Price Range: $4,000 (fair condition, older model year) to $19,000 (excellent condition, newer model year, top trim with all available options)
- EPA Mileage: 33/40 MPG
- IIHS Safety Rating: Marginal to good
The Honda Fit is a direct competitor of the Yaris and is clearly comparable in many ways. It boasts a similar MSRP, similar handling, and similar entertainment and safety features. One big difference is its configuration; it’s only available as a hatchback, meaning it’s ideal for college students with above-average space needs, but no room in their budgets for bigger SUVs and crossovers.
With optional leather seats and built-in navigation, the EX-L trim is more luxurious than anything offered by the Yaris, though that’s also reflected in its $20,000-plus sticker price. On the downside, the Fit doesn’t have a sophisticated crash-avoidance system.
7. Honda CR-V
- MSRP: $24,250 (base trim with no options, per Honda)
- Used Price Range: $2,000 (fair condition, older model year) to $26,000 (excellent condition, newer model year, higher-end trims with optional add-ons)
- EPA Mileage: 28/34 MPG
- IIHS Safety Rating: Average to good
The Honda CR-V compact SUV is a sleek crossover that comes in five available trims, all of which have automatic transmissions. Depending on your trim and preference, you can choose from front-wheel and all-wheel drivetrain options, the latter being ideal for drivers who live in cold, snowy climates or who anticipate driving on unpaved surfaces frequently.
Though it’s billed as a family vehicle, the CR-V is also ideal for students who need to carry lots of cargo or friends; it can comfortably seat five, with plenty more room for luggage and equipment in the back. Plus, CR-V has an impressive safety lineup, including many features not found in comparably priced models, such as lane-keeping assistance, adaptive cruise control, and lane departure warnings. And its efficiency rating is surprisingly good for a crossover — north of 30 MPG on the highway, just a few ticks below the far smaller Honda Fit.
If you can’t afford to buy a new CR-V, take heart in the model’s 20-year heritage. Thousands of reliable CR-Vs from the late 1990s and early 2000s remain on the road, many in decent condition. Though they’re not quite as roomy in the back, these vehicles are great for cost-conscious students with above-average carrying needs and can be bought for a relative song.
8. Toyota Prius
- MSRP: $23,475 (base trim with no options, per Toyota)
- Used Price Range: $5,000 (fair condition, older model year) to $26,000 (excellent condition, newer model year, higher-end trim with available options)
- EPA Mileage: 60/54 MPG (higher in city traffic)
- IIHS Safety Rating: Average to good
Once the niche vehicle of choice for the environmentally conscious, the Toyota Prius is now a thriving family of small gas-electric hybrid sedans and hatchbacks. Though the most affordable Prius model, the One, is priced above $23,000 new, the family’s excellent fuel efficiency — up to 60 MPG — partially offsets the upfront cost.
The Prius family also has a slew of impressive safety features, including a blind spot monitor, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and an integrated backup camera. Keep in mind, however, that though the Prius lineage stretches back before the start of the millennium, older Priuses are not very plentiful and may have significant reliability issues.
These clearly aren’t the only eight car models available to current and prospective college students. Many other affordable, reliable, reasonably safe options are worthy of your consideration. Ultimately, your choice will come down to your unique needs, preferences, and personality. After all, it’s much more fun to love your car than simply see it as a necessary evil.
Do you or your college-age kid need a car? Which makes and models are you considering?