7 best off-to-college cars

Red car with a University in the background
  • Our choices of the best cars for college all cost less than $20,000.
  • The 2009 Mini Cooper boasts EPA ratings of 28 miles per gallon city and 37 mpg highway.
  • The Hyundai Sonata GLS got the highest safety rating of our selections.

7 best off-to-college, new cars
  • Dodge Caliber SXT.
  • Honda Fit.
  • Hyundai Sonata GLS.
  • Mazda3 i Sport.
  • Mini Cooper.
  • Mitsubishi Lancer ES.
  • Nissan Sentra 2.0 S.

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.)
  • Safety:
    • 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.

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.

Honda Fit

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.

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.



Show Bankrate's community sharing policy
          Connect with us


Tara Baukus Mello

4 best bits of winter driving advice

A drag racing champ offers advice if you need to get behind the wheel during blustery winter weather.  ... Read more

Connect with us