Best Cars for College Students

By Russ Heaps 10/11/2023 12:00pm

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Regarding the best cars for college students, opinions are like belly buttons: everyone has one. The problem with creating a collection of such picks is weighing the qualifiers.

That is, measuring requirements like safety options against fuel economy and price against utility. Several considerations should influence a buying decision when shopping for cars for college students, but sometimes they conflict.

We are going to help you tiptoe through this minefield.

Things To Consider When Buying a Car for College

There are many variables to weigh in picking any car, let alone one for a college student. The process can be overwhelming. We started with a price ceiling of $25,000. That may seem high, but we wanted to include some new models. You can find several picks among our used cars that cost much less than that ceiling.

Other factors include car ownership costs, safety, technology, and practicality.

Do You Need a Car in College?

When considering a car for the college-bound, need versus want is the first hurdle. Does this particular college experience require a vehicle? If it doesn’t, a car will simply be another fuel, insurance, and maybe parking expense. It will also be a distraction.

Some colleges don’t allow first-year students to have cars. Many colleges limit parking on campus through permits. A car at college can be a real hassle. If a personal vehicle isn’t necessary for getting to a job or to and from an off-campus residence, it may be more of a want than a need. If so, consider skipping it, at least for the first few years.

What Is Unique About Buying a Car for College?

Chances are a young adult heading to college will still rely on family to some degree, at least for financial support. Though not always the case, more often than not, it is. So, car buying will be somewhat of a balancing act between what your student wants and what the family, maybe already stretched thin by college expenses, can afford. Everyone involved should be ready for some compromise.

When picking, remember that this car may also need to continue as the primary mode of transportation after college and into the first few years of building a career. Put a little time into thinking about what that may look like regarding the cost of ownership, commuting needs, and lifestyle.

Can I Afford a Car in College?

An affordable payment is a function of a vehicle’s cost. Those payments must be kept low whether the parents or the student shoulder the monthly installments. Most carmakers use a captive financing company, such as Ford Credit or Honda Financial Services, that offers financing deals on new and Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) vehicles. This is an excellent place to start.

If you are securing a loan outside of captive financing, all things being equal, you will almost always score a lower monthly payment on a used vehicle than a new one. Credit unions are known to offer lower percentage rates on car loans. With interest rates going up these days, it’s something to consider.

Check out the Kelley Blue Book 5-Year Cost to Own tool to compare the lowest cost-to-own car models. It considers the costs to maintain the vehicle and depreciation.

How Much Will Car Insurance Cost a College Student?

Insurance cost is a key contributor to the total cost of ownership. It’s no secret that some vehicles cost less to insure than others. Auto insurance is highly competitive, and shopping around can save you money.

However, premiums are influenced by several personal factors, such as driving record, annual mileage, place of residence, and so forth. Historically, drivers younger than 25 can expect insurance to be a significant factor in the total cost of ownership. Involve your insurance costs in your purchase decision.

Does a Car’s Fuel Economy Matter at College?

Gasoline is one of those monthly expenses that can vary wildly from year to year. It all has to do with fluctuations in the price of oil. Seek vehicles delivering better fuel economy, especially if operating on a tight budget.

Even if you can afford to keep a truck or large car fueled at current pump prices, what if the per-gallon price increases by $1 over the next year?

Other than the occasional trip home for a weekend, college students tend to do most of their driving in an urban setting. Although a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) might not be practical for dorm or apartment living, a traditional hybrid (HEV) will certainly save a few trips to the pump. HEVs tend to cost a bit more than gasoline-fueled cars. A used HEV may be a better choice.

What Role Does Safety Play in a Car for College?

Safety features and ratings should always be a key qualifier in purchasing a vehicle for anyone, regardless of age or purpose. As you narrow your choices, check out the crash test scores from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Our picks scored high with most of them. You can see what crash tests entail in our story on the best cars for teens.

There are certain safety features you don’t want to do without. If you stick with 2013 and newer models, that’s the first year antilock brakes, traction control, and stability control were all mandated by the United States government. If a backup camera is essential to you, the federal government mandated the feature in 2018. However, many cars already had them by then.

The newer the model, the more likely you will find other essential safety and driver-assist features like automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning, and blind-spot monitoring. If you need more information about which trim levels include the safety features you want, go to Kelley Blue Book’s Expert Reviews for new and used vehicles.

What Other Factors Impact a College Car?

Features like four doors, creative storage solutions with places to hide laptops, easy parking manners, and so forth are important, particularly if the vehicle will jump from college to first-job transportation.

Technology features are critical on several levels. For example, voice recognition allows vocalizing commands to change the music or temperature level without taking your eyes off the road. But staying connected is of the utmost concern for most college-age people.

At the very least, they expect to be able to charge and integrate their devices into a vehicle’s infotainment system. Again, the newer the model, the more connectivity options will be available.

Car Shopping in Today’s Market

Several factors continue to conspire to reduce select new and used vehicle inventories. The industry’s primary culprit is residual issues from the resolving microchip shortage. Inventories of new and used cars have greatly improved in recent months. We watched a downward movement in the average prices for new vehicles that now have leveled off. Still, some brands may have stubbornly high prices and limited choices. But, there is hope now that inventories are near-normal for new vehicles for some brands. For used cars, expect those costing less than $20,000 to remain the most difficult to find.

Your vehicle-buying dollars may not stretch as far, and you will probably need to make a few compromises on car color and content to secure the type of car you want. If you shop for a new car, you may find a better deal among your dealer’s CPO cars or on the used car lot. In other words, stay flexible.

Note: The used car prices range from the KBB Fair Purchase Price of the oldest model’s base trim level to the Fair Purchase Price of the newest top-of-the-line trim level. For example, pricing for the 2015-2016 CR-V ranges from the 2015 LX to the 2016 Touring.

Best New Cars and SUVs for College Students

1. 2024 Toyota Corolla

Starting Price: $21,900 | Rating: 4.4

White 2023 Toyota Corolla near trees

The Toyota Corolla is one of several vehicles on this list that’s an IIHS Top Safety Pick. It also boasts low cost-to-own figures and historically good reliability. The Corolla’s starting price reflects the entry-level LE model. It offers standard equipment like automatic climate control, remote keyless entry, and a rear-seat center armrest.

Every 2024 Corolla comes with Toyota’s Safety Sense 3.0. This is a suite of driver aids that includes pre-collision with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, traffic sign recognition, and automatic high beams.

A blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert is available as part of an optional Premium Package. Connectivity features include Bluetooth, voice recognition, four USB ports, Amazon Alexa, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Wi-Fi capability. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) government-estimated combined fuel economy is 35 mpg. 

2. 2024 Honda Civic

Starting Price: $23,950 | Rating: 4.7

2024 Honda Civic Sedan in red driving on a road.

We made the Civic one of our picks for several reasons, not the least: it has been a frequent Kelley Blue Book Best Buy Award winner. In addition, the all-new Civic retook the throne as our Compact Car Best Buy for 2022 and repeated for 2023. The IIHS named it a Top Safety Pick, and it earned a 5-Star rating from NHTSA. It also gets a government-estimated 36 mpg in combined driving.

Every 2024 Civic arrives with the Honda Sensing suite of driver aids, including forward collision warning, auto emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, and adaptive cruise control. Connectivity technology includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, one USB port, and Bluetooth connectivity. Honda typically doesn’t offer option packages. To gain more content, you must move up the trim-level ladder. And look to the hatchback model ($24,950) for more cargo space. 

3. 2023 Hyundai Elantra

Starting Price: $20,950 | Rating: 4.6

Red 2023 Hyundai Elantra near desert

The refreshed Hyundai Elantra is right around the corner. In the meantime, the 2023 model is very easy to recommend. For the modest price of the entry-level SE, you get an estimated 37 mpg combined mileage and Hyundai’s SmartSense suite of safety driver-assist goodies. Forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, lane centering, driver-attention warning, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert are included.

Other standard features include high-beam assist, an 8-inch touchscreen, wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, Bluetooth connectivity with voice recognition, and two USB ports. These are some reasons why it’s a past KBB Compact Car Best Buy.

The 2023 Elantra earned a 5-Star rating from NHTSA. In addition, the IIHS tested the 2023 model and named it a Top Safety Pick. 

4. 2024 Honda HR-V

Starting Price: $24,100 | Rating: 4.7

2023 Honda HR-V

Larger, more powerful, and more refined for 2023, the revamped Honda HR-V is an excellent choice. Highlighted by its large interior, the Honda HR-V delivers a respectable 28 mpg in combined city-highway driving. The HR-V is an IIHS Top Safety Pick+.

The price here is for the entry-level LX trim, which comes standard with the Honda Sensing suite of driver aids like forward collision warning, auto emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, and adaptive cruise control. However, you have to move up to the Sport to get the Blind Spot Information System with a cross-traffic monitor.

The base HR-V also has a 7-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth connectivity, two USB charging ports, and one USB interface port. The LX also comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. 

5. 2024 Mazda3

Starting Price: $24,170 | Rating: 4.0

2024 Mazda3 Hatchback in white next to a long barn.

Mazda earned a Top Safety Pick from the IIHS for the Mazda3. It’s also good for an EPA-estimated 30 mpg in combined city-highway driving. Boasting excellent handling, the Mazda3 can be fitted with all-wheel drive (AWD). Its optional AWD is also why we named this one of our Best Cars for Snow.

Inside, the Mazda3 feels more expensive than it is. Although you must move up to the Select grade for blind-spot monitoring, the entry-level Mazda3 comes with forward collision warning, emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, driver attention alert, and high-beam assist. Bluetooth connectivity with voice recognition, an 8.8-inch touchscreen, and two USB ports come standard. Look for a Mazda3 hatchback ($25,690) for up to 47 cubic feet of cargo space. 

6. 2024 Subaru Crosstrek

Starting Price: $24,995 | Rating: 4.6

2024 Subaru Crosstrek in blue with bougainvillea in background.

Redesigned for 2024, Subaru’s go-anywhere Crosstrek comes standard with all-wheel drive (AWD) backed by a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Fuel economy is a respectable 29 mpg combined, or 27 with the Wilderness trim.

Every Crosstrek comes standard with Subaru’s EyeSight Driver Assist Technology. It also comes with forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, and adaptive cruise control. A blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert is optional or standard on upper trim levels. Connectivity includes dual 7-inch touchscreens, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto (wireless is an option), Bluetooth connectivity, and hands-free phone integration. 

7. 2024 Kia Seltos

Starting Price: $24,390 | Rating: 4.8

2024 Kia Seltos SX in white near Palm Springs wind turbines at sunset.

The Kia Seltos is a surprisingly roomy subcompact SUV. An IIHS Top Safety Pick, every version of the Seltos comes with a full suite of safety features, including forward collision warning with emergency braking, driver attention warning, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, lane centering, and high-beam assist. To add blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, you must move up to the S grade, adding $600 to the bottom line.

Connectivity features include Bluetooth with voice recognition, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and one USB port. With a second-row seat large enough to accommodate adults, Seltos also provides class-leading cargo space. 

8. 2023 Hyundai Kona

Starting Price: $22,140 | Rating: 4.4

Blue 2023 Hyundai Kona Limited driving by a park.

The Hyundai Kona is a subcompact SUV that offers tremendous value. Its small size means it’s easy to park on campus, and the rear cargo area is well suited to carry gear. In addition, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity come standard. Fuel economy is as good as 35 mpg on the highway with the gas engine. An all-electric version (EV) is also available.

The Kona has been on the market for a few years and has proven reliable. In addition, it’s rated by the IIHS as Good and gets an NHTSA 5-Star rating. There is plenty of value here, as even the base SE model comes standard with blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping assist, forward collision-avoidance assist, lane-change assist, and rear cross-traffic collision warning. An all-new model is coming for 2024 but is only starting to reach dealer showrooms now. 

9. 2024 Nissan Sentra

Starting Price: $20,630 | Rating: 4.1

2024 Nissan Sentra in blue near a concrete wall.

The Nissan Sentra offers practicality, upscale styling, and a bit of sportiness. This compact car has “zero gravity” seats designed to be comfortable on the drive to school or your job. The Sentra delivers fuel economy as good as 40 mpg on the highway (34 mpg combined), so trips to the gas station won’t be too costly. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on all models.

In addition to 10 airbags, even the base grade comes with the full suite of SafetyShield 360 driver aids, including auto emergency braking with pedestrian detection, rear cross-traffic alert, rear automatic braking, blind-spot warning, lane-departure warning, and high-beam assist.

10. 2024 Kia Soul

Starting Price: $19,990 | Rating: 4.4

Blue 2023 Kia Soul GT-Line near a green wall.

We like that the roomy Kia Soul has the most affordable base price on this list. But it isn’t only on this list because of price — it also offers impressive value. Forward collision warning, lane-keeping assist, and driver attention warning are standard. If you add the LX Technology Package (adding $500 to the bottom line), you’ll gain lane-departure warning, blind-spot collision avoidance, automatic high beams, and rear cross-traffic collision avoidance, all optional on the LX. Those features come standard on the S, which starts at $22,490 and includes many more features than the LX. The IIHS gave the Soul a Good rating for 2023.

Connectivity features in the base model include Bluetooth (no voice recognition), Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and one USB port. Armed with an automatic transmission (CVT), the Soul delivers up to 31 mpg in combined driving, 35 on the highway. 

11. 2023 Toyota Prius

Starting Price: $27,450 | Rating: 4.8

2023 Toyota Prius in silver with mountains in the background.

The most expensive pick on this list, the Toyota Prius, is the car that made “hybrid” a household word. Toyota redesigned the Prius for 2023, molding it into the sleek shape of a speedster. Well, it’s not that. However, it still manages an impressive combined driving fuel economy of 57 mpg. Students heading for the snowbelt can add AWD. Its rear-seat legroom is about average for the segment.

The IIHS named the Prius to its Top Safety Pick+ list. Every Prius comes with automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning with steering assist, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, and high-beam assist. Blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert come standard as well. The 2024 models are starting to reach showrooms, but in the meantime, you can still find brand-new 2023 models. And if these are out of your price range, the previous-generation Prius is also an excellent choice. 

12. 2024 Subaru Legacy

Starting Price: $24,895 | Rating: 4.0

2024 Subaru Legacy in blue parked on the street.

A must-have for every student at a college in the Snowbelt, every Subaru Legacy comes standard with AWD. The Legacy blends a roomy cabin with impressive fuel economy and a go-just-about-anywhere attitude. It won’t win a beauty contest, but it’s an IIHS Top Safety Pick, and even the base grade’s features include the EyeSight bundle of advanced safety features. Those are automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, and lane-keeping assist. High-beam assist is standard, too.

With as much cargo space as the Toyota Camry and nearly the best rear-seat legroom in its class, the Legacy can comfortably haul several people and their stuff. Even with AWD, Legacy claims a combined-driving fuel economy of 30 mpg. 

13. 2024 Chevrolet Trailblazer

Starting Price: $23,100 | Rating: 4.2

2024 Chevrolet Trailblazer ACTIV in yellow near a lake.

Although the 2023 Trailblazer is still in testing, the 2022 was an IIHS Top Safety Pick+. Nothing but the IIHS testing protocols will change for 2024. In any event, the current generation Trailblazer has performed well in safety testing. Moreover, its standard advanced safety features include automatic forward emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keeping assist, and lane departure warning. High-beam assist is also standard. We recommend opting for the $345 Driver Confidence Package that adds blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. It’s a bargain.

With the most rear-seat legroom in its class and a little better-than-average cargo space, the Trailblazer is an impressive hauler. At 30 mpg, its combined fuel economy is above average among rivals. You can add AWD for $2,000.

14. 2024 Mazda CX-30

Starting Price: $24,995 | Rating: 4.4

Red 2023 Mazda CX-30 with a green hedge in the background.

If your college student is heading to school in a snowy climate, the Mazda CX-30 is a solid pick because of its standard AWD. It is a member of the IIHS Top Safety Pick awards. Thanks to its AWD, the CX-30 posts the highest horsepower of its segment, yet its combined fuel economy is 29 mpg. That’s still about average mileage for its class. It doesn’t provide as much cargo space as many of its rivals. However, its rear-seat legroom is about average.

As for advanced safety features, the entry-level trim comes with forward automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, and high-beam assist. It also comes with blind-spot monitoring and rear-cross traffic alert. See Mazda CX-30 models for sale near you