Best Cars for College Students

Posted Tuesday, Jul 02, 2019

It’s now July, and many recent graduates are preparing for their next life chapter at college. And often that preparation involves getting a new vehicle. What are the best cars for college students? Answering this question necessitates some determining criteria. 1. Since most college students are on a budget, it should be inexpensive to own and operate. 2. Since most college students are swamped with homework and college life, they don’t need the stress of a car breaking down; it should be reliable.

best cars for college students1. Several factors impact the cost of ownership and operation. The easiest costs to begin with are those that arise on a recurring basis. The most obvious expense is purchasing the fuel; hence, a car with great gas mileage is advisable. As a general rule, the larger the displacement and/or the greater the number of cylinders, the less fuel-efficient the vehicle will be. So, from the start, we’re probably looking at a 4 cylinder (maybe a 6). However, the mileage range among 4 cylinder models is vast, so don’t assume every small car is fuel-efficient. Look for one that gets around 30 mpg, and your student will spend very little for fuel per semester. Another cost that will recur is engine oil, but oil changes for most cars and smaller trucks cost about the same. The takeaway here is to ensure the car you buy isn’t leaking or burning oil. Aside from the risk of engine problems, leaking/burning oil will cost more over time- especially with oil running $5-$6 per quart. Another recurring expense is tire replacement. The most common tire sizes, and hence cheapest, are those for 15” wheels; incidentally, compact cars that get great mileage generally require this size. The second most common size is 16”, which would probably cover any efficient car not riding on 15s.

Anyone who owns a vehicle realizes that recurring costs are not the only expenses of ownership; there are always the costs of repairs. For the most part, a car for which the most units were sold in a particular year are going to have lower priced parts; you know, the whole supply and demand thing. Since there were 387,000 Toyota Corollas sold in the US in 2006, parts for those cars are more abundant and cheaper than parts for a 1998 Toyota Supra (of which there were less than 1300 sold in the US). Another thing to consider in the way of repairs is the ease of access for the repairman. What I mean by that is, “How easy is the car to work on?” If you open the hood and cannot see the battery, the alternator, or the engine itself, then the car, as a general rule, is going to cost a bit more in labor. For example, some vehicles house their batteries inside one of the front wheel wells. Typically, to change the battery in one of these cars requires the repairman to lift the car, remove one wheel, and dismantle the inner fender liner. Contrast that to a vehicle in which you simply open the hood and replace the battery. Which do you think would cost more in labor?

2. Speaking of repairs, frequency of having repairs affects cost drastically as well. One major repair every couple of years or multiple small repairs over the same time frame can become quite expensive. Not only that, but having a broken down car while away at college can add undo stress upon the student. Therefore, reliable cars are a must to be considered as best cars for college students. At this point it’s a cliche to say that Japanese cars tend to be the most reliable, but if the shoe fits… Anyway, any perusal of the internet will quickly reveal that Toyota and Honda always rank at the top for reliability. In fact, I’ve written several articles over the years, including this one from last November: Most Reliable Used Cars You Should Consider, in which I researched car reliability; Toyota is always in the top 2, and is almost always #1. The other manufacturer that’s always in the top 2 is Honda. To be sure, there are reliable cars from many other manufacturers, but I like to bet on a sure thing. So, we’re now looking at a 4 cylinder Toyota or Honda. Another benefit of these two manufacturers is that most of their 4 cylinder, fuel-efficient models were sold in the hundreds of thousands- reference the 2006 Corolla above. If a car from one of these two does fail, repairs are usually cheap to reasonable.

So now that we’ve narrowed down the field tremendously, the last issue would be that of vehicle age. The easiest answer is to buy one as new as you can afford. However, I think that most vehicles made around 2010 (plus or minus 5 years) tend to be the best in terms of reasonable mileage, inexpensive initial cost, and inexpensive repairs. So, what are the best cars for college students? I would say a 2005-2015 model 4 cylinder Toyota or Honda compact sedan (to haul laundry, books, and friends). And I put my money where my mouth is: I have a son in college and a daughter starting this fall; I bought them each a Toyota Matrix for college (2007 and 2006 models, respectively). So far we’re pleased with the reliability and economy. And my teens seem to like them, too. Once you've bought your student a vehicle, make sure they know the 5 things all drivers should know. Now, let me research the best vehicle for a middle-aged blogger...

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