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Best Used Cars for College Students

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Beater Used CarI never had a car in college and I never really wanted one because our student IDs doubled as free bus passes (the cost was rolled into our student fees). In fact, there were only a handful of occasions where I really wanted a car and those were cases where the bus ride would take an hour and a half (from CMU to Monroeville, which is really just a 20 minute care ride away!). I was fortunate to live in a city where public transportation was pretty good, but what about colleges where the public transportation isn’t as good or where you need a car just to get to class? You need a reliable used car.

Every year, Edmunds.com puts out a list of their “Used Car Best Bets” where they look at models over a five year span and select what they believe is a good choice based on reliability, safety, and availability. I only looked at sedans because the other categories didn’t seem to fit for a student. For 2008, they limited the model years to 2001-2008.

  • Compact Sedan: They named the Hyundai Elantra the best bet in this category and the true market value of a 2001 used model GLS manual at just under $3,500.
  • Midsize Sedan: The Toyota Camry won out this category because of its reliability scores, with the Honda Accord taking a close second. Midsize sedan is pricer though, with a ’01 CE manual just under $6,000 and the 02′ LE just under $7,500 (the design changed between ’01 and ’02).
  • Large Sedan: Ford Crown Victoria at $5,000 for a 2001 model tied the Mercury Grand Marquis ($5,500 for the ’01 GS) for the large sedan category. One thing to be aware of is that these cars are V8s built during a time when gas was cheap though both have listed fuel economy scores of 18 mpg.

If the Elantra, Camry, or Crown Vic isn’t your style, you can always go with a Honda Civic, a car that was rated an A+ for College Students by Forbes in the “Small Car” category a few years ago. The listed base price is $15,000 for a new model but Edmunds says you can get a 2001 Honda Civic DX for a little over $5,000.

What was your first car? Mine was a used 2001 Acura Integra that was eventually totaled by a Dodge Durango that blew through a red light. It wasn’t a “beater” though I would argue that you don’t fully appreciate a reliable car until you’ve driven a beater for a few years, that’s the problem I have with many of the “best cars for students” lists out there (like this one from Forbes), they list brand new cars! A student should get a brand new car unless they pay for it themselves (and even then, it’s probably not a good use of their limited resources!).

(Photo: wickenden)

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34 Responses to “Best Used Cars for College Students”

  1. Brandon says:

    My first car was a 1984 Ford Bronco II that did not go in reverse, scarcely got 10 mpg, and was prone to shutting off at red lights and engine floodouts. This was in 2003.

    My second care was a more reliable 1989 Pontiac Sunbird that eventually gave out when the water pump blew (which is a surprisingly hard and expensive thing to fix on this car).

    I currently drive a 2000 Focus. My wife still does not quite understand why I love it so much.

  2. Eric N. says:

    My old (but reliable) Honda Accord…oh how I loved it. Then I went to college, passed it on to my younger sister, and she promptly got it totaled. :(

    • Jim says:

      That seems to happen a lot… lesson of the day – don’t give your younger sibling a car because he or she will total it.

      • Barry says:

        I had a 97 discovery that I took excellent care of until I left for college. younger sibling promptly rolled it… i feel your pain

        • Lucas says:

          I had a 06 Corolla which had to be left home when I went to college. 3 month later, my younger brother totaled it. It sucks….i know what its like

  3. Traciatim says:

    I’m still driving my first car, a 2002 Ford Taurus with the Duratec engine. I really like it’s size . . . not so big like a crown vic so you can park, but not so small like a civic so you don’t have to sit on someones lap if you have more than 1 person in there.

    Being 7 years old I’ve been thinking about trading up to newer and going with an off lease Ford Fusion or possibly a Nissan Altima. I’m not really sure on the car I want yet since ford dropped the Taurus. The new Taurus is a little too big, and the Fusion is a pretty good size, but seems a little bit small. Maybe I just need to get in them and see for sure.

    • Jim says:

      My friend’s first car was a Ford Taurus and that thing had so many problems. The window wouldn’t go down, it had no power steering, it was awesome though. Back in high school, anything with wheels meant FREEDOM!

  4. MissMartha says:

    I’ve driven quite a few cars but my first car (the one that I paid for) was a 1990 Toyota Celica. I loved it, paid $2k for it and put about 35k miles on it before I blew a head gasket. The only hitch was that it was a stick shift. I “learned” how to drive a manual when I was 16 however this was 5 years later, needless to say I had to relearn how to drive all over again! When I bought it I had to get my best friend to fly with me to pick it up since she could drive a manual :) Thanks to her we survived the 11 hour drive back to college!

    • Jim says:

      I think it’s important to note that at the time you bought it, it was like 15 years old with 10 miles on it!

      • MissMartha says:

        Yes, it was a great car for me! It only had 50k miles on it when I got it. I miss that car… its was a lot more fun to drive than my current Honda Civic.

  5. My first car was a 1968 Chevy Impala. I started driving in in about 1998. I probably pushed it more than I drove it. My dad and I fixed it up from beater status – but I still found myself frequently doing dangerous things like pouring gas directly into the carburetor. Because of this, I really appreciate the 2004 Toyota Camry I drive now – it has about 65k miles on it but hopefully it will last a long time.

    • Katie says:

      My dream car is a 1967 chevy impala. The car I drive now is a 1995 toyota camry. I got it when i was 16 and i am currently a college student. I hydroplaned and hti a guardrail and someone else hit me in the back before but i barely felt it and the car still runs great. Toyota camry’s are beasts! they are great cars and although i am getting a new car soon, im going to miss it terribly. have fun with yours!

  6. Ethan says:

    I have a ’98 Saturn SL. It’s really loud inside as saturn didn’t bother with any sound proofing and it’s mostly plastic. But I still get about 30 mpg and it gets me where I need to go.

    I think something comparable is all a college student really needs. Nothing frivolous and you don’t really have to worry about small dings / scratches.

    • MissMartha says:

      The first car that I drove at college for a summer was my parent’s ’94 Saturn SC2. It was a great car; especially good for the *few* (cough) accidents I had that summer.

  7. MAC says:

    I’m also still driving my first car, a ’97 Saturn SL. Stick, no power steering, it’s awesome! I drive almost solely on the interstate and average 39 mpg. It also has just over 205,000 miles on it! I am hoping that Saturn will become an independent company so that I can buy another when the time comes.

    • Jim says:

      200,000+ miles wow, that’s awesome, you could be in a Saturn commercial with that longevity. It’s amazing that a car from 1997 gets 39 mpg too!

      • MAC says:

        I doubt it would get that high of mpg if I were driving in a city. 50 out of 60 miles every work day are on the interstate (plus I drive 60 and not 70). And every other weekend, it’s 90 out of 100 on the interstate. I drive a lot! And I am saving for the next car – but this one has definitely lasted a lot longer than I thought it would.

        She’s definitely not the best looking car out there though.

        • T-R-A says:

          It’s not uncommon for earlier Saturns to get better mileage than was originally advertised when they were new. My ’95 SL1 averages around 42 (and I “stretched” that last summer to 46 when gas was $4/gal). And after a ring-job, the engine seems to last forever. Mine also has 208,000 miles and is a daily driver (102mi./day)

  8. Patrick says:

    I used to have a 97 Lumina in college that was given to me by my parents. I just recently got a new car but it had 150+k miles with little or no problems.

  9. Brianne says:

    My first car was my mom’s old 1987 Toyota Corolla hatchback when she bought her new Toyota Tercel in 1995. I still see them on the streets here in LA so I know they were pretty dependable little cars, with lots of interior space. (It got totalled in 1999.) I drive practically the same car now since I have a Toyota Matrix.

  10. SB says:

    My son just bought a 98′ Ford Escort SE with 150k on it for $600. We put new wires and a battery in it. He’ been driving it for 3 months with no problems. The insurance costs are less than $40/m.

  11. Aunt Alma Richards says:

    I never had a car until I was married, but the two cars I got for my kids had to have one requirement. WHEN they are in am accident I want the kid to walk away unhurt. I got MaryEllen a subaru to drive in Michigan so that she could get around in the snow and also it was big enough to protect her in a crash. The car and MaryEllen made it through many small “accidents.” The first cause of death for a young adult is car accidents and the parent part of me wants to do everything to avoid it. I have a neighbor who took a cadilac and put a little 4 cylinder engine in it. His sons drove it happily. It could get up to 40 on the down hill. Saving money is not #1 here it is safty.

  12. fdfsd says:

    my first college car will be a 2006 savlage titel BENZ C230 SPORT SEDAN…beat that suckers

  13. Matt says:

    Watch out for salvage titles. Bad news a few months/years down the road when critical components start failing

  14. kasey says:

    mine is a ’96 dodge ram 1500, aka gas guzzler! it has, so far, lasted me for a little over 3 years and currently has over 270,000 miles on it. i cant believe its still running! of course, thats probably b/c ive replaced just about everything in it!! as much as i love it, the gas prices are forcing me to look for a smaller, more fuel efficient vehicle ;) im thinking honda?

  15. Sarah Ahmed says:

    Hi everyone I have a Question how I get free car if you know help me please.

    • Barry says:

      What do you need the car for Sarah? There are plenty of ways to get around without a car. Check your local bus routs. Maybe ride a bike to and from the bus stop. Plus, no car is free. Gas costs are going up, and not to mention insurance is another substantial cost.

  16. Neil says:

    I am still driving my first car. A 1993 Ford Probe. I bought it with 140k miles on it and I have been (and still am) driving it since I was 16 and I am now 21. I have put just over 60k miles on it since I bought it for 2k back in 2005. Albeit, I have fixed a few things on it but it was a 2k dollar car. It gets about 30 mpg and I am shopping to replace it. As of now I’m thinking of a 2002 Mitsubishi Lancer OZ rally. It’s 4k and has 114k on it. I’m not scared at all to purchase a used vehicle with some mileage on it with my first experience being so good.

  17. Katelyn Fischer says:

    I’m currently sitting in the vw service department as we speak. I have a 99 Volkswagen beetle. I absolutely love the car, if there weren’t as many COSTLY problems as there are. It’s engine is built to last a lifetime while the remainder of the car is 80 ish % plastic pieces that break too easily and cost an arm and a leg to repair. I feel bad because my dad keeps putting so much money into this car that is practically on it’s death bed. Don’t get me wrong I do live thiscar and am thankful to have something to drive but I wish it wouldn’t keep thinning out the wallets. The amout put in already could have gotten me a dfferent car.

  18. Barnaby says:

    Currently, 2000 neon, had it for 2 years now. Never let me down after 75 000 kms of owning it. 5 speed, good on gas, roomy, good looks, peppy, and at 1400 bucks you can’t go wrong.

  19. Bob says:

    Had an 01 Civic… was stupid and bought it with a salvage title. I love it but I keep finding new things wrong I didn’t know about. Selling it and buying a new used civic :)

  20. Kokolooks says:

    My first car was a Citroen Xantia….it was a beast on the road but it proved to be a very complicated car when the time came to replace various parts….I now own a 1995 Mitsubishi CB3 Lancer…although i miss the power that allowed me to whiz pass other everyday cars, I’m content with the reliabilty the Lancer gives that the Citroen couldn’t.


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