Selecting Cars for College Students

Whether the car is used to drive back and forth to college, or a recent graduate needs basic transportation to a new job, finding the best car for a college student (or high school) is all about striking the right balance.

In this article, we're going to outline a thought process that parents should use when shopping for a new car for young drivers.  We'll start by describing the high-level attributes to look for in a car, and finish up with a list of three new vehicles that include the balance we're looking for when buying one.

Best Cars for Students

The easiest way to narrow the field of acceptable cars is to start with a list of requirements.  These are the ideal attributes of the car.  For example, it must be:

  • Reliable:  the purpose of a car is to transport the student from Point A to Point B.  Students need a car they can depend on to get them to school or work each day.
  • Safe:  young drivers are inexperienced, and statistically they have more accidents.  That's the reason their car insurance premiums are so high.  The ideal car needs to be able to protect its young occupants too.
  • Stylish:  while some college students will be happy just to have a car, others will be concerned about how they look in the front seat.
  • Cheap:  from this point forward we're going to substitute the term inexpensive for cheap.  An inexpensive car is a reasonably priced vehicle, a bargain, or one we'd consider a good value.  A cheap car is a poorly constructed automobile that's going to cost more in the end.

We're talking about a process, and this is a good starting point because now we have the requirements of the car.  The next step is going to involve some research.  The best place to start is with cost or price.  There are many makes and models of automobiles on the road today, but we're looking for a good "starter" car.

Affordable Cars

Everything is relative, so affordable to one person might be expensive to another.  Since we're talking about new cars, we're going to start with vehicles that are selling for less than $20,000.  We found 50 make and model combinations that sold for less than $20,000, so we narrowed the field even further to less than $18,000.  This left 28 from which to choose.

For anyone shopping for a less expensive vehicle, this same approach would apply to the used car market.

Our list includes 2017 model years, but with the recent economic pressure on car manufacturers, this list could be a good starting point in 2018 or even 2019.  The table below contains the 28 new cars screened for affordability:

Chevrolet Cruze Sedan Kia Forte Sedan
Chevrolet Sonic Hatchback Kia Rio Hatchback
Chevrolet Sonic Sedan Kia Rio Sedan
Chevrolet Spark Hatchback Kia Soul Wagon
FIAT 500 Convertible Mazda 3 Sedan
FIAT 500 Hatchback Mitsubishi Lancer Sedan
Ford Fiesta Hatchback Mitsubishi Mirage G4 Sedan
Ford Fiesta Sedan Mitsubishi Mirage Hatchback
Ford Focus Sedan Nissan Sentra Sedan
Honda Fit Hatchback Nissan Versa Note Hatchback
Hyundai Accent Hatchback Nissan Versa Sedan
Hyundai Accent Sedan smart fortwo Hatchback
Hyundai Elantra Sedan Toyota Yaris Hatchback
Jeep Renegade SUV Toyota Yaris iA Sedan
Kia Forte Sedan Volkswagen Jetta Sedan

Now that we have a list of new cars that cost less than $18,000, we're going to apply filters for safety and reliability.

Safe Cars for Student Drivers

In this step in the process, we're going to screen these same cars for their safety records.  Here we're using information from Safercar.gov, which is published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSA.

The vehicle safety research conducted by this program uses a Five Star Safety Rating system, where the highest rating a vehicle can receive is the 5-star rating.  The rating is based on the chances a passenger will sustain a serious injury when striking a barrier at 35 miles per hour.  A 5-star rating indicates a 10% or less chance of a serious injury in this test.

We've filtered the list to include cars that achieved a 5-star overall rating, and those cars that achieved at least a 4-star rating for side impacts.  A 5-star rating in the side impact test indicates a 5% or less chance of a serious injury, while a 4-star rating indicates a 6 to 10% chance of a serious injury.

The table below contains the five cars that passed the requirements for safety:

  • Hyundai Elantra Sedan
  • Mazda 3 Sedan
  • Nissan Sentra Sedan
  • Toyota Yaris iA Sedan
  • Volkswagen Jetta Sedan

Please note that each of the cars in this list is equipped with Side Air Bags (SAB) and 2017 model years were tested.

Because less experienced drivers are statistically more likely to be involved in an accident, we've eliminated SUVs, ultra-small vehicles, and trucks from our list.  These vehicles are too small, or too easy to rollover to have a young driver behind the wheel.  If budgets were to permit, it's also a good idea to eliminate vehicles with high performance engines.  Fast cars and inexperienced drivers are not a good combination.

The safety filter used above has narrowed our list from 28 affordable cars down to just five makes / model lines that meet the safety criteria too.  Let's see how these cars made out in reliability ratings.

New Car Reliability Metrics

Our reliability measures are going to be based on ratings published by Consumer Reports, which operates one of the largest independent automobile testing centers in the world.  The reliability ratings are based on subscriber experiences with 1.4 million vehicles.

Keep in mind that reliability is based on real-world experience, so the ratings will always lag the current model year.  For example, the 2016 ratings will involve experience with older models that have been driven for several years.  Using historical information, Consumer Reports develops a new car reliability prediction.  Example ratings are shown in the table below:

Hyundai Elantra Sedan Better than Average
Mazda 3 Sedan Better than Average
Nissan Sentra Sedan Average
Toyota Yaris iA Sedan Much Better than Average
Volkswagen Jetta Sedan Much Worse than Average

If our requirements state the car must be considered reliable (average or much better than average), then we've narrowed our list down to just three cars.  At this point, we've found a good choice of cars for college students that are inexpensive, safe, and reliable.

This last statement takes us back to something mentioned earlier.  By all measures, these cars should service the needs of a college student very well.  These are not cheaply made cars.  They're quality vehicles that represent a very good value.  The only step we have left now is to find something with style.

Stylish Cars for Young People

It's often surprising how young people react when they're looking for their first car.  Some teenagers will be grateful for anything with four wheels, while others will insist on driving a car that projects the status they believe they've achieved.

Not every student will be happy selecting from a relatively narrow list of cars chosen by their parents.  But often a middle ground can be found by allowing the student to participate in the final selection process and / or picking the color of the car.

By allowing the student to participate in the decision-making process, they're going to believe their opinions are valued.  In turn, they should feel a greater sense of pride in the car, and should treat it with the respect this investment deserves.


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