"No, you don't need a car on campus at all!"
Virtually every college tour guide has said those very words, but despite what their admissions departments would like prospective students and their parents to believe, some campuses just aren't ideal without an automobile. Perhaps there's insufficient public transportation, inconvenient off-campus housing or faraway nightlife. Maybe you need to drive to work, or you simply want to be able to drive home for the weekend. There are a lot of reasons why having your own wheels at school makes sense. Even if it's not strictly necessary, we certainly can't imagine our four years without them.
As such, we've compiled a list of the 11 best used cars for college students. You will note that we left out sensible used car choices like the Honda Civic, Toyota RAV4 or Ford Fusion. Why? Because they're generic enough to appeal to anyone. Our focus here is on what matters to today's students. Key attributes include low cost of ownership, modern electronic features, good crash ratings, distinctive style and a versatile cargo area to fill up with dorm contents, a bicycle, a keg, frat pledges or what have you. In order of the lowest to highest starting price, here are our top picks.
Mazda 3 (2004-'09)
Price Range: $4, 000-$15, 000
The first-generation Mazda 3 was the top-rated compact car when new. Its mix of sharp styling, sharper driving dynamics, above-average cabin quality and a versatile available hatchback body style made it stand out. Abundant features, including optional luxury items like heated leather seats and xenon headlights, were icing on the cake. Years later, its appeal in comparison to similarly aged peers has not waned, and we now know that it has enjoyed better-than-average reliability.
Although the succeeding generation shared many of these elements, the competition was starting to catch up by then. On top of that, prices for the first generation should make it appealing for used car shoppers looking to spend less than $10, 000 for something highly desirable.
One downside to consider is fuel economy. The available 2.3-liter four-cylinder is energetic, but only returns an EPA-estimated 24 mpg combined with the automatic transmission. The smaller 2.0-liter is barely better.
Honda CR-V (2002-'06)
Price Range: $4, 900-$13, 000
Every Honda CR-V has been versatile, reliable and efficient, but we call out this generation for two reasons. The first is price. CR-Vs hold their value extremely well: Even 10-year-old models can top $10, 000 if well maintained. The second reason can be found in the cargo area, or rather, underneath it: The cargo floor doubles as a picnic table. Just pull it out, fold out the legs and voilá! Better still, the bin underneath the floor/table is watertight, drainable and therefore doubles as a cooler. Saturday mornings in the stadium parking lot will never be the same again.