Here’s $12,000. What’s the best car for college you can buy?

The Class of 2023 has taken the stage, accepted their diploma, thrown up silly hats and set forth for what comes next. If that includes college, chances are they’re going to need wheels once away at their new home away from home. And sure, plenty of colleges and universities can be attended without a car, but I attended one of those that is very much car depedent. Oh, they tell you on the Pepperdine tour that you don’t need a car, but dude, the school is in Malibu, on the side of a mountain, a two-mile walk up/down that mountain from any commerce, and at least 25 minutes through a canyon or along the coast to anything someone 18-22 would be interested in doing / could afford. You need a car, and that’s just an extreme example of many others. 

We’ve settled on $12,000 this week, because I don’t know, it seemed about right. A quick glance at classifieds showed we wouldn’t be putting our imaginary (or in one case, real) child in a Geo and that there were decent choices out there. Actually our editors were free to ponder what they would get for their children, or what they would get for themselves if they were a member of the Class of 2023. 

So, as always with this little game, there are rules … though they are a bit different this time.

  1. Unlike most weeks, you cannot go over. “Price is Right” rules.
  2. Unlike most weeks, you CAN be under. If you want to only spend $8,000 and blow the rest on beer, whatever. 
  3. You actually need to find a used car somewhere of this make/model in question at this price.

Here’s what we picked …


2012 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Senior Editor John Beltz SnyderFor this exercise, I kept in mind both what I would want to drive, and what I’d be cool with my own kid driving. I searched all body styles with a manual transmission and less than 100,000 miles, and browsing used listings in Southeast Michigan, I found a 2012 GTI five-door that fits the parameters. It’s fun, and the manual transmission means less temptation to pick up the phone while driving. It’s respectable enough for showing up to job interviews or date nights. The utility of the hatchback is enough to at least make those frequent moves a little easier, without being constantly borrowed by friends for the same purpose (especially if they can’t drive stick). It’s decent on fuel, which will hopefully encourage more visits home. There’s a reason the GTI has so often been the answer on the Spend My Money segment of the Autoblog Podcast.

2011-2016 Honda CR-Z 6MT

Senior Editor James Riswick: If I were recommending a car for any college kid, I would choose a Honda Fit or Toyota Prius C. Both are dependable, with the Fit offering unmatched practicality for moving into a dorm and such, while the Prius C (still a hatchback) offers tremendous fuel economy. Alas, this is about my kid, who clearly has inherited the car nut gene and for whom I’ve spend nearly 3 years curating a fine collection of Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars. I’m not going to ruin things now and give him a Prius C. My first thought was a GTI like John’s, but the maintenance and repair costs for a high-mileage Volkswagen give me pause (even though I loved the Jetta VR6 I had in college). That brought me to a fun Honda. I originally thought about a Honda Civic Si or Acura RSX Type S, but options at this price range were iffy in terms of age and condition. I was going to keep searching when I found this sucker up there: a 2015 Honda CR-Z. It has a six-speed manual that’ll be fun for him and that his friends can’t drive. It doesn’t have a back seat that his friends can pile into, thereby relegating him to DD duty (the problem with giving your kid one of the giant family vehicles Best Cars for Teens lists always recommend.). It’s a reasonably fun-to-drive two-door car, but it’s also a hybrid that gets 33 mpg combined. It’s a hatchback so it’ll be reasonably practical for hauling stuff to/from home. Importantly, this particular CR-Z is surprisingly cool. Larger Honda wheels in black, tinted windows, a crisp white paint job that pairs well with both, along with the standard black-and-red interior and, of course, the always-cool two-door body style. Maybe he’ll think a CR-Z is dorky and will hate me for not finding a Civic Si, but for $11,995, I think it’s neat. I have 15 years to convince him of such. 

Ford Fiesta ST

2014-2019 Ford Fiesta ST

Road Test Editor Zac Palmer: This is the car that I would buy for myself were I a few years younger and staring at four years of college ahead of me. For the budding car enthusiast, it’s an ideal setup. For one, the Fiesta ST checks all the fun-to-drive and fun-to-own boxes. It’s shockingly lightweight, has a dynamite engine and slick six-speed manual gearbox. All you need for serious auto-crossing or track days are some sticky tires and brakes. For those interested in modding their car or working on it themselves, the Fiesta ST is a relatively basic vehicle to start on, too. You can tune it with ease and sample from the wide variety of aftermarket parts available for this little ball of fun.

It’s also functional as hell being a hatchback. Sure, the Fiesta has a tight rear seat, but nobody you’re carrying around will care because they’re riding instead of walking. Plus, you’ll be able to easily move your things (or a keg) to and from college when you put the rear seats down to unlock a large cargo area. You’ll even get decent fuel economy if your college is far away from home, as it gets 34 mpg on the highway. The interior is cheap and kinda sucks, but that just means you don’t need to care too much about it and can focus on enjoying life in college. Thankfully, all this fun and practicality is affordable, as I found a well-kept 2014 Fiesta ST in Performance Blue Metallic for just $11,880. With just 97,240 miles on the clock, this little hatchback has a lot of life left in it and will likely get you through the four years ahead without any savings-wrecking repair bills.

2000-2005 Lexus IS 300

Senior Editor Jeremy Korzeniewski: These early Lexus IS 300 sedans and wagons are getting a bit harder to find these days, but their prices haven’t launched into the stratosphere either, which means a prospective buyer can cast a wider net and still have some money left over for a plane ticket or to pay a shipper to drop the chosen car off in your driveway. The 2002 Lexus IS 300 sedan above was sold earlier this year on Bring A Trailer for $11,850. At the time of sale it had 152,000 miles, and I have faith in the 2JZ-GE inline-six engine and five-speed manual transmission to last a long time with proper care. The rest of the car is as solid as can be with no serious rust issues to worry about. Score one for buying outside the rust belt, and a father-son or father-daughter road trip with a car from the West Coast sounds like fun.

Ideally, I’d choose either one with a manual transmission — like the silver example shown here — or in the funky wagon shape. But a quick glance at the classified ads on our own pages prove that the original IS has proven reliable enough that they are still out there in numbers that make them relatively accessible. In other words, you wouldn’t have to bid on a site like BAT to score an IS. But I really like this specific car, so that’s what I went with. It ought to prove a great first car that’s practical and fun to drive. As an added bonus, as long as the teen keeps it in good working order it shouldn’t drop very far in value.

2010 Subaru Forester 2.5

Associate Editor Byron Hurd: My first choice for this challenge was inspired by own college transportation: a first-gen Mazda6. I searched high and low for a five-speed wagon but finding one of those in any kind of serviceable shape proved impossible. So I pivoted. Roomy, plentiful and available with a stick? That’ll do. No, the turbocharged XTs weren’t available with the manual transmission anymore, but the base Forester was, and you can find them all day long with decent miles for under $12,000. It may not be exciting, but it’s safe and reasonably dependable, plus there’s plenty of room to load a small dorm room’s worth of junk in the back for move-in and move-out. Also, being relatively mundane, you won’t care so much when it gets dinged up in a tight campus parking spot. 

 2005 Mercury Grand Marquis

Managing Editor Greg Rasa: Wait, wait, hear me out …

You want a college car to be like dorm cafeteria food: not fancy, maybe bland, totally dependable.

Civics, Accords, Corollas, Camrys, Imprezas, all good choices. But at $12,000, those have super-high miles. A Ford Focus or a Mini can be had for the same money with half the miles. Or consider a Chevy Volt.

But this generation of kids thrives on irony. If you think a car is not cool, they’ll probably dig it.

So here’s a car in my area that your college freshman might ironically love. Or at least it’d be the greatest dad joke you ever pull. This is the kind of car well-meaning Midwestern grandparents traditionally have foisted off on a grandchild. More typically it’d be a Buick. My wife’s college car was a hand-me-down Oldsmobile.

This Grand Marquis costs $8,000 – maybe less if the little-old-lady owner meets your child and is charmed. That frees up $4,000 from our car fund to be used for college costs instead. Or pizzas. It has just 56,000 miles; its Lincoln Town Car siblings rack up hundreds of thousands in limo service. It’s a private party sale. It has “practically new” tires, no small expense. It looks super clean inside and out. Crash test scores are decent for a car its age. It probably has a cassette player, so you kid might really love the irony of that. It’ll haul lots of possessions for the move to the dorm — and beer kegs thereafter. It could be converted into the Deathmobile from “Animal House” if a futile and stupid gesture is ever called for. And it has a backseat you can make out in.

PS: Just ran it past my college-bound kid. She does not want a car, but particularly not that one.

PPS: After laughing at my Grand Marquis, Riswick found this Avalon. Double the miles, same grandparent vibe, but Toyota.

2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata

2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata

News Editor Joel Stocksdale: An impractical, rear-drive sports car for going away to college? Yes! It’s what I took away to college. Honestly, my first car was a Miata that I took from high school to higher ed. And I have a list of reasons that I used back when I was convincing my parents that a Miata was a good idea as a first car of sorts.

Among those reasons that will continue to be useful going into college: no room for friends for foolishness. You can’t cram a bunch of distracting bad influences in a Miata. Plus, lots of friends won’t be begging you to drive them everywhere, keeping the wear and town down potentially.

Then there’s the fact most of them are manuals, or at least you’ll want it to be a manual. That means friends won’t be asking to borrow and potentially ruin it, either with bad driving or crashing (which I suppose is just the natural end point of bad driving). And manual transmission makes it harder to fiddle with a phone.

A Miata is also new enough that it has a full complement of air bags, and on what would be my ideal pick at this point, an NC like the one you see, things like ABS and traction control. And even if it didn’t, it’s a very predictable, responsive car, but also without much power, so very easy to handle.

It’s also dead-nuts reliable, and reasonably fuel efficient. That keeps costs down for you and your studious offspring. Plus, it falls into our budget. The one above I found for $9,995 with 130,000-ish miles, a six-speed and cruise control. That’s fewer miles and better equipment than my NB had a decade ago.

And of course, it does all this while still being fun. It still looks good. And the NC in particular has a really usable amount of space as far as Miatas go, one of the things that makes it appealing even in the face of the other generations. The convertible top can even add some surprising practicality with the convertible top. My college roommate and I moved a minifridge to our dorm with my Miata because it could actually fit it with the top down. So yeah, I’m sticking to the solution that worked for me.

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