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Hitting the road for college soon? You better not leave it in mom’s ancient minivan. The best cars for college students are affordable, durable, efficient and stylish. You don’t have to be a car expert or enthusiast to find a pre-owned vehicle that checks all of these boxes. In fact, going back to the basics is the best approach for finding a reliable car that fits a small budget.
Without further ado, here are the 15 best cars for college students that money can buy!
1. Toyota 4Runner (2007-2010)
Price Range: $10,000-$18,000
Despite the higher-than-average price range, the Toyota 4Runner is one of the most affordable cars for college students. With quality maintenance, it can easily surpass 200,000 miles and even last for a ridiculous 300,000 miles. Most car enthusiasts will agree that the late-2000s 4Runners are the best all-around models in terms of both performance and design.
The 4Runner is also an exceptional vehicle for any college campus, urban or rural, hot or cold. It has a notoriously reliable four-wheel drive mode, a 5,000-pound towing capacity and a maximum 270 horsepower. As long as this SUV remains in circulation, it will always be one of the best cars for college students.
2. Subaru Outback (2005-2012)
Price Range: $4,500-$23,000
The Outback is the go-to model for any Subaru fan who needs an affordable and reliable vehicle. The AWD, 27 highway miles per gallon and unmatched storage space make it ideal for long drives to and from college with all of your stuff. Subaru also offers many safety upgrades for the Outback if you want to make some modifications.
Any Outback from the late 2000s and early 2010s is a fine choice, but the 2012 model is the crown jewel of this era. It won the award for U.S. News Best Wagon for Families and has maintained a positive reputation.
3. Hyundai Genesis (2009-2010)
Price Range: $5,800-10,000
Next on our list of the best college cars is the Hyundai Genesis. The 2009 model was Hyundai’s first-ever luxury sedan, but it has earned a reputation as a well-rounded vehicle over time. It’s consistently among the most popular Hyundai used car purchases every year because of its safety, low cost of ownership and extremely low down payments.
As a luxury car, the Genesis’s leather interior is much nicer than most of the other vehicles on this list. The Bluetooth speaker system was a major calling card when it first came out. Despite its age, it also comes with exceptional park assists — a huge bonus for college students who have to squeeze into parking spots on campus or around town.
4. Chevrolet Tahoe (2010-2012)
Price Range: $11,500-20,000
The best cars for college students need to be able to take a beating. The Tahoe is a hefty SUV that’s built to handle the rough college life. It seats eight people, reaches 320 horsepower and has a payload capacity of 8,500 pounds — more than enough size and strength to carry a crowd of students.
The Tahoe is also surprisingly luxurious, with features like tri-zone climate control, OnStar telematics system and heated seats with different settings. Overall, the Tahoe doesn’t get enough credit as a high-end SUV. It’s basically a Cadillac Escalade without the luxury brand reputation and higher price.
5. Dodge Ram 1500 (2011-2013)
Price Range: $12,800-26,500
We had to include at least one pickup truck on the list of best cars for college students. The Ram is an excellent option, especially the early 2010s models. The 2013 model is particularly attractive because it was the first-ever Dodge truck to offer new V6 engine options that made improvements to speed, acceleration and fuel efficiency.
The 2011 and 2012 models are still capable and among the most affordable cars for college students. It has all of the typical features of a quality pickup — 395 horsepower, a 9,000-pound payload, and an interior that comfortably seats five adults.
6. Lexus IS 250 (2009-2011)
Price Range: $9,500-15,000
This luxury sedan has the look and power of a sports car, and it’s a unique starter vehicle because it comes with a manual and automatic transmission depending on your preference. If you prefer a manual, your engine will be a 206-horsepower V6 with better fuel efficiency. If you prefer automatic, you’ll have a 306-hp V6 with all-wheel drive.
Lexus always delivers on the interior amenities for its luxury sedans. Extremely detailed climate control, unique seat-adjustment features and an advanced control panel are just a few of the highlights of the IS 250’s leather interior. You can roll up to college in style with a sleek sedan that packs a punch.
7. Hyundai Sonata (2008-2012)
Price Range: $3,500-15,000
Hyundai makes another appearance on the list of best cars for college students with the reliable Sonata. This vehicle is arguably Hyundai’s best vehicle ever made, known for its elite crash safety rating, spacious interior and overall durability. It can easily last for 15 years and 150,000 miles with a responsible owner.
Plus, just look at that price range. A $3,500 used car that still performs consistently is a godsend for young buyers on a budget. The Sonata earns its place on the list solely because it’s one of the most affordable cars for college students.
8. Acura TSX (2011-2014)
Price Range: $13,000-$15,500
The Acura TSX wasn’t around for very long, but it made a lasting impact by having a perfect balance of speed and mileage. The 280-hp V6 under the hood is a capable engine for any driver, and the 22 city mpg and 31 highway mpg are exceptional. You’ll be hard-pressed to find another sedan from the early 2010s with that kind of mileage.
The interior has comfortable leather seating, a navigable control panel and a surprising amount of trunk space for a sports car. In fact, calling the TSX a sports car understates how well-rounded the vehicle is. It looks like any other early-2010s sedan, but the performance will exceed your expectations.
9. Ford Explorer (2011-2014)
Price Range: $7,000-$20,000
You can never go wrong with the Ford Explorer, especially if you have gear, friends or groceries to haul. The Explorer might not get the best gas mileage, but it makes up for it in affordability and long-term durability. If you take a look in any newspaper classifieds, chances are good you’ll find a cheap Explorer in good condition.
The Explorer might be one of the best college cars, but its popularity can actually be a disadvantage. With so many pre-owned options on the market, many listings are scams. Make sure you thoroughly inspect the vehicle online and in person before committing to a purchase.
10. Toyota RAV4 (2009-2012)
Price Range: $9,000-19,000
Any RAV4 from 2009 onward would make a great vehicle for college students, but the 2012 model stands out among the rest. It won the award for Best Affordable Compact SUV and was the final RAV4 to offer third-row seating. It was also the first model with Bluetooth connectivity, which is a huge upgrade from previous years.
RAV4s tend to have higher down payments compared to other used vehicles, but that’s because of their low cost of ownership and long lifespans. You’ll save money in the long run thanks to its fuel efficiency and minimal maintenance expenses.
11. Volkswagen Golf GTI (2012-2014)
Price Range: $9,200-$16,000
The Golf GTI is a fan favorite among car enthusiasts, and for good reason. It has power, with a 200-horsepower turbo four-cylinder engine. It has the mileage, with 30 city mpg and 42 highway mpg. It’s also available with an automatic and manual transmission. Simply put, this car is an optimal choice for any driver in any environment.
The Golf GTI is also as stylish as they come. The chassis has all of the features of a quintessential European hatchback. The interior looks like it belongs in a luxury vehicle. It even gives you the option to add more cargo space with the split-folding back row. This vehicle meets all of the criteria for the best cars for college students.
12. Nissan Leaf (2016-2019)
Price Range: $11,000-23,000, but super low monthly payments!
The Leaf can be had for the low, low price of $200 a month with no down payment. Electric vehicles also have fewer maintenance requirements than gas-powered vehicles, so you can save lots of money on repairs over time.
Students who live in growing college towns should have an abundance of charging stations around campus. You can find them at gas stations, car washes and even restaurant parking lots. There is also a growing number of campuses that offer free charging with a parking pass for students who are looking to invest in an electric car.
13. Mazda 3 (2004-2009)
Price Range: $4,000-$15,000
Demand for this great car has not subsided in the years following its debut. In its initial years, the Mazda 3 was consistently among the top-rated compact cars. It has stood the test of time as a reliable hatchback with a sharp style, both inside and out.
The price range is great for a durable car with a good reputation. The Mazda 3 has an impressive 24 city mph and 32 highway mpg that has become the standard for other hatchbacks. It also has a notoriously smooth and quiet driving performance which your roommates and neighbors at school will appreciate.
14. Kia Soul (2010-2013)
Price Range: $7,000-$10,000
If you have a detailed checklist as to what you want from a great college car, the Kia Soul is guaranteed to fill all of them. Its unique styling makes it stand out among all the other plain-Jane cars in the parking lot. The most basic Soul includes an aux jack and satellite radio.
For its size, the interior space is massive, and you still might have a bit of Kia’s powertrain warranty left when you buy it. The Kia Scion xB is an honorable mention that closely compares to the Soul, but the Soul is the cheaper choice and thus one of the best college cars.
15. Honda Accord (2008-2011)
Price Range: $10,000-$15,000
There’s a reason why you can pick out any random car on the road and it’ll likely be one of these. It received excellent ratings from the NHTSA and a 5-star safety rating. It features all the ins and outs to keep you protected — a compact frame, side-curtain and front-side airbags, anti-lock brakes and much much more.
You can also get from point A to B efficiently, with a four-cylinder engine capable of returning 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway. This car is arguably Honda’s most popular vehicle ever made, and you can get your hands on a reasonably priced pre-owned Accord before heading off to college.
The Best College Cars at an Affordable Price
If you need something to ferry you and your friends wherever you need to go, whether that’s from one end of campus to another or from one side of the country to the next, all of these cars should be on your shopping list. The best cars for college students come in many shapes and sizes, but they’re all affordable and ready to handle anything you throw at them.
Original Publish Date 2/29/2016 — Updated 6/30/2023