If you’re shopping for a car for your college-bound student, you may be trying to decide between a clunker and something brand new. The clunker will accept four years of hard use and neglect without serious harm. The new car likely will see your student through college and, it is hoped, beyond.
If you’re among the second group, here is our list of seven solid campus cars — all 2009 models, save for the 2010 Mazda3.
This wasn’t a beauty contest. Our choices weren’t based on hot styling, zero-to-60-mph times or nifty accessories.
We faced the challenge as we thought most parents would, employing a number of important criteria:
Price: manufacturer’s suggested retail price, or MSRP, including destination charge, of less than $20,000.
Economy: estimated Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy at least 21 miles per gallon in the city and 30 mpg highway. (All are equipped with manual transmissions.)
Star ratings: at least 22 of 25 possible stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s, or NHTSA’s, five crash test categories — driver front impact; passenger front impact; driver side impact; passenger side impact and rollover.
Air bags: at least six.
Brakes: four-wheel anti-lock brakes. (All have brake systems consisting of discs in front and drums in the rear, except the Lancer ES.)
Comfort: All have air conditioning.
Editor’s note: Automobiles that have yet to be tested by NHTSA were not considered. In most cases we have identified specific trim levels because some have side-impact air bags as standard equipment, but less expensive versions might not. Side-impact air bags are essential for higher crash test scores, particularly in smaller cars, and all the cars on our list were tested with front side-impact air bags.
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Dodge Caliber SXT
At $19,175, the Dodge Caliber SXT is one of the more expensive selections on our list and the price reflects a $695 add-on for side-impact air bags. However, its standard content is high, and at 24 stars, it tied for the best crash test rating among our choices. It is also the only entry from a domestic manufacturer. Its distinctive styling appeals to drivers who don’t want to see themselves at every intersection.
Weighing in at more than 3,000 pounds, the Caliber is a lot of steel for the 148-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine to pull around. That it isn’t a sprinter, though, may put some parents’ minds at ease. Despite its weight, it still boasts an EPA rating of 24 mpg city and 30 mpg on the highway. Roomy and comfortable, it can carry a lot and is well-suited for carting a student’s cargo between home and campus. Its four-wheel independent suspension delivers a fairly pliant, yet controlled ride.
In addition to power accessories, air conditioning and cruise control, the SXT comes with a chilled compartment to cool beverages and food, and a reclining rear seat. Loaded with cupholders and storage cubbies, it matches the lifestyle of younger drivers. The four-speaker audio system includes a CD player and an auxiliary input jack.
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The least expensive entry of our group, the $15,460 base Honda Fit is arguably the best compact value on the market. Its cumulative crash test score is an impressive 23 stars. A 117-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine turns the front wheels. Small and lightweight, it feels exceedingly nimble whether negotiating crowded parking lots or zipping along a freeway. Its EPA rating is the second best among our entries at 27 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway.
Although you need to move up to the $16,970 Fit Sport to qualify for cruise control, map lights and a USB port with the audio system, the base version is nicely accessorized with air conditioning, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, full power accessories and a four-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack.
Redesigned for 2009, the current Fit is larger than the one it replaces. This translates into more passenger room and a surprising amount of cargo room — 57 cubic feet with the rear seat folded down. It’s a fun drive aimed at the youth market, but a car that more mature drivers can fall in love with.
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Hyundai Sonata GLS
The most expensive car on this list, the $19,395 Hyundai Sonata GLS is also the most substantial. It is about 3½ feet longer than the Mini Cooper and more than 700 pounds heavier — good for parents who feel a bit better with Junior buzzing about surrounded by some extra steel. It earned our highest crash test score of 24 stars. The EPA rated it at 21 mpg in town and 32 mpg on the open road.
The loudest complaint you will probably endure from your college student about the Sonata will be about its rather stodgy lines. Although its styling is current and appealing, it is, after all, a midsize sedan. As such, it is packed with some safety features others on this list don’t have, like stability control, traction control, emergency braking assist and electronic brake force distribution. It also has an anti-theft alarm system.
The GLS comes with full power accessories, cruise control, tilt steering wheel, heated outboard mirrors, air conditioning and a honking-big six-speaker audio system with XM satellite radio, CD player, auxiliary input jack and iPod integration that permits iPod operation through the head unit.
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Mazda3 i Sport
Slotting in at $16,725, the Mazda3 i Sport is among the less expensive of our campus transports. The 2010 Mazda3 is the second generation of this wildly popular small car. The 148-horsepower, 2-liter, four-cylinder engine that powers the i Sport gets an EPA mpg rating of 25 city and 33 highway. The anti-lock brake system includes emergency braking assist and electronic brake force distribution. Mazda3’s cumulative crash test score is 23 stars.
With its contemporary styling and fun-to-drive attitude, the new Mazda3 should be a hit on campuses. All i Sports arrive with height-adjustable driver’s seat, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel with redundant audio controls, full power accessories, air conditioning and a four-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack.
The Mazda3’s suspension emphasizes athletic handling as opposed to a pliant ride. The interior is more upscale than one might expect at this price point. At 11.8 cubic feet, trunk space is a little cramped, but about average for a small car. Passengers should have adequate room.
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By far the best fuel economy in our group, the $19,200 Mini Cooper boasts an EPA mpg rating of 28 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway. Small and wiry, it captured 22 stars in our crash-test measure. A car that makes you smile even before climbing behind the wheel, the Cooper is as much fun to drive as anything on the road. Its tidy, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine generates just 118 horsepower, but it only has a little over 2,500 pounds to move.
Tuned for optimum handling, the four-wheel independent suspension may prove too stiff for parents, but the kids will love it. From the traffic light it accelerates with dogged determination. Stability control, traction control, emergency braking assist and electronic brake force distribution are all standard. The retro styling is carried from the exterior to the inside. The large round speedometer dominates the center of the dashboard. Rear-seat room is stingy, as is the trunk.
At best the Cooper only seats four, but it is loaded with standard features such as height-adjustable front seats, full power accessories, remote keyless entry, tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel and a six-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack. A small car with a big heart, the Mini Cooper seems right at home on campus.
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Mitsubishi Lancer ES
Just squeaking into this lineup, the Lancer ES gathered a total of 22 stars in our crash test measure. Likewise its estimated EPA fuel economy barely qualified with a rating of 22 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. Its $17,435 sticker puts it squarely in the center of the pack in price. The Lancer appears content to do and be just enough to put it in the running in many areas. A competent sedan, the ES blends value with decent performance, comfort and quality, but it doesn’t go to the head of the class in any of these areas.
Attracting fans through its handsome styling, the Lancer possesses some personality. Its 152-horsepower, 2-liter, four-cylinder engine is a bit noisy, but its get-up-and-go won’t embarrass you when the light goes green. The Lancer ES takes safety a little further than the others on this list by adding a driver-side knee air bag, as well as disc brakes on all four wheels. It rides on a fully independent suspension.
Furnished for five, the cabin is roomy and the seats are comfortable. The gauges and controls are well placed and uncomplicated. Standard features include full power accessories, remote keyless entry, cruise control, tilt steering wheel with redundant audio controls and a four-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack. It probably won’t wow you, but the Lancer ES earned its way on this list over better-selling cars.
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Nissan Sentra 2.0 S
Planting Nissan’s flag in this group is the $17,680 Sentra 2.0 S. Its 140-horsepower, 2-liter, four-cylinder engine uses a six-speed manual transmission to funnel output to the front wheels. This marriage is good enough to earn the 2.0 S an EPA mpg rating of 25 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the open road. The cumulative crash test score is 23 stars.
Scads of interior room highlight Sentra’s cabin. Larger than most of the others on this list, the trunk holds 13.1 cubic feet of cargo. The split rear seat folds forward, increasing cargo capacity. Front and rear legroom are also generous, fit and finish in the cabin is above average, seating is supportive, and even taller drivers and passengers will enjoy adequate headroom.
The standard equipment list is brimming with features such as full power accessories, cruise control, tilt steering wheel with redundant audio controls, suede door trim and a six-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack. It’s not flashy, but the Sentra 2.0 S is a dependable workhorse.