This post may include affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, we'll receive a commission at no extra cost to you. This support helps us maintain and grow our site. Thank you for your support!

Headed to college and want a decent car? Shopping for your soon-to-be student? Many options will satisfy college kids and their parents.

Leaving for college can be nerve-wracking. Being able to get home is nice sometimes, and having your vehicle to do so is even better. There are a few things to consider regarding the best college student car: Gas mileage, safety, and price. Depending on where the student is going to college, they might also want to consider the size.

We recommend these cars for college students:

  • Ford EcoSport
  • Toyota Corolla
  • Toyota Yaris
  • Chevrolet Sonic
  • Mazda 3

Car buying can be a bit complicated as many want to find the perfect combination of the right price with the right size and maybe even style – for their needs. College students and their parents might also not agree on which car to get! We'll discuss which vehicles might be best for students based on what they need.

We've been a college students – and sold plenty of vehicles. We'll cite sources that look at the reliability and overall amenities of some popular cars so you can decide which ones best fit you.

Table of Contents

A college student's needs

When one thinks of the vehicle leaving a college parking lot, they tend to picture an old beater car. In some cases, a student might drive a nicer, newer car espcially if they work while in school. Students who are going into construction trades could drive trucks. This is to say that college students have a huge variety of needs for their vehicles, so we won't rule any particular kind of vehicle out.

Where will you park the car?

Colleges have either street parking or lots for their apartments or housing and academic buildings. Finding a good parking spot, especially on an urban campus might be a challenge. A smaller vehicle might become much easier to park if you are a busy area.

Gas mileage

Going home often? Living a few miles from campus? Seeing friends a lot? Consider how good of gas mileage you'll want to keep your visits to the pump as cheap and infrequent as possible. This might be harder to find for some students who want a larger SUV or truck.


Whether the student is planning to buy the car or their parents, the price tends to be a bit sensitive. Keeping prices on the low end tends to help, and having good finance options available is always good!


Some college students don't go into car-buying thinking too much about safety. The parents are usually the ones more concerned. Thankfully, most vehicles built in the last decade have a decent set of at least basic safety features – and all are required to have at least airbags and anti-lock brakes installed.

Best inexpensive, preowned small SUVs for college students

We'll start out with the more common sedan or hatchback-sized cars. We suggest these because they are often amongst the easiest to find on a dealer lot or for a private sale.

Ford EcoSport

Ford's EcoSport isn't especially well known behind their F-150, Fusion, and Explorer. The EcoSport is a compact SUV with great fuel economy, as most years will reach around 30 miles per gallon on highway – which is good for an inexpensive small SUV. While the engine doesn't exactly roar, it is supported by a 1-liter turbocharged engine which makes it quick for city driving and a great vehicle for a road trip.

The EcoSport is also winter climate-friendly with available all-wheel drive for not much more. While used prices may vary significantly, this is truly a budget SUV starting at just under $20,000 for a new one.

Jeep Wrangler

At a higher MSRP than the Ford EcoSport, we suggest seeking this one used first – we also suggest used because there are many out there, as the Wrangler has been around forever. The Wrangler offers some improvements over other small SUVs with a bit more space for your extra stuff. A used Wrangler is an especially good idea if your student is going off the beaten path at all or just wants more rugged options than the standard SUV.

The Wrangler has two small downsides: The gas mileage isn't as good as other compacts at 29 miles per gallon before adding all-wheel drive, and the crash test ratings aren't all that great.

Honda CR-V

With Honda's legendary reputation for economical vehicles that also last a long time, the Honda CR-V is definitely worth checking out. While probably a bit more money than the EcoSport (due both to demand and initial MSRP), the Honda CR-V makes up for it by offering plenty of room for 5. The engine is also efficient and capable of 28 miles per gallon city and 34 highway, which is good for just about any kind of college campus.

Like the EcoSport and Wrangler, you can find the CR-V available with All Wheel Drive, too. No excuses for getting to class when you can get through the snow!

Honda HR-V

An HR-V is basically an even more compact CR-V. They use the same engine and get about the same gas mileage too. Why choose the HR-V? It's a bit easier to park, especially if you are dealing with tight spaces or dislike parallel parking and have to do it anyway. The HR-V sacrifices some interior space for the purpose, so if you'll only be driving by yourself or with a friend or two most often, this is a good, economical choice that will make getting home and around the campus pretty easy.

Toyota RAV4

Used RAV4s have the same reputation as the Honda CR-V – both are known for lasting a long time and offer mostly the basics. Expect to get up to and around 30 miles per gallon, making it the perfect vehicle for city and highway driving. Like the CR-V, the RAV4 is relatively small, though it can still fit your friends – so it's fairly easy to park in the city.

The RAV4 is also available in all-wheel drive if you're in a cold-weather area with the potential for snowfall.

Kia Soul

The Kia Soul is somewhere between a hatchback and a compact SUV. The Soul has a nice, low starting price at around $17,000 new, so a used one will fit just about anyone's budget. Kia gave the Soul a unique look and paired it with a decent 4-cylinder engine capable of just over 30 miles per gallon.

One thing to keep in mind: Souls before 2016 have some issues with their engines. We suggest buying one made in 2016 or later to have the best chances of your vehicle lasting a long time.

Mid-range small cars for college students

These vehicles are not the lowest priced, but they come with some amenities that you won't find readily on economy models. You will still definitely see a few on college parking lots, though.

Mid-price range compact SUVs

These vehicles will have a bit higher price tag than the previous ones and aren't meant to be “economy” vehicles – but they'll have more features!

Subaru Crosstrek

Subaru's history of developing superior All Wheel Drive systems extends to its fairly recently developed Crosstrek. A small but powerful 2.4 liter 4 cylinder engine gets the Crosstek up to 34 miles per gallon on the highway.

A Crosstek is an excellent choice for winter climates because All Wheel Drive comes standard. For safety conscience students, and their parents – the Crosstrek also earns very high marks for safety. You'll get more safety amenities standard too – though again this is a mid price range and you'll pay a bit more for it.

Mazda CX-5 or CX-3

Get a little more Zoom Zoom with a preowned Mazda. Mazda recently revamped lots of their lineup, so you might be able to find a preowned compact SUV for a better price. The Japanese automaker has a reputation for developing engines with some nice zip that also last a long time – and get great fuel mileage at up to 34 miles per gallon.

Some Mazda trims probably have too many amenities for the average college student – or even their parents budget. We would suggest sticking with their cloth trims because you won't need more than that.

Mazda also regularly earns 5 star safety ratings, like the Subaru.

Best Small to Midsize Cars for College Students

While compact SUVs have become very popular because of their higher stance an additional cargo space, small cars are still a great option for college students who want to save some money on gas.

Honda Civic

The Honda Civic is a perfect college student car. The Civic can range in amenities from having all the bells and whistles from safety features and navigation – to having just the basics with cloth seats and manual adjustments. A couple of the biggest benefits of the Civic are the gas mileage is great, with some years hitting nearly 40 miles per gallon highway, and they are about as reliable as a car gets.

While they won't win a race, the Civic is also known for having reasonably sporty handling for a small car.

Honda Accord

Technically speaking, the Accord is a midsize sedan. The interior difference for cargo isn't that significant though. The Honda Accord gets great fuel mileage at up to 38 depending on the year and engine – which is a slight downgrade from the slightly smaller Civic. The Accord also gets excellent safety ratings and is known for being quite reliable – so you'll less likely to face repair bills.

Toyota Corolla

The Toyota Corolla is akin the Honda Civic: Small, though it has enough room for your college books and a few extras, including a friend or two, but fuel-efficient. A cautious driver could achieve 40 miles per gallon in some iterations of mid-2010s Corollas. They are also a sharp vehicle to look at, in addition to having a reasonably fast engine that will get you around campus quick if you need.

We've spoken of the reputation of Toyota and Honda for making great engines – and the Corolla is no exception. You might want to keep it after college, too.

Toyota Camry

You see Toyota Camrys literally everywhere – for a reason. They get about the same gas mileage as the Accord, and they come at a reasonably inexpensive starting price. At the moment, you might not be able to get the best bargain on a used camry simply because their durability comes with a premium, but it's worth the price paid to have a fuel-efficient engine that will last a long time.

Ford Fiesta

The Ford Fiesta is actually similar to the Ford EcoSport. One significant difference is that the Fiesta doesn't come with all-wheel drive, and the smaller engine in the Fiesta (it doesn't really need a bigger one for a student) can get better gas mileage at up to 37 miles per gallon highway, making it seriously competitive against Toyota and Honda.

The Fiesta is simply sportier – and might be more fun to drive than the EcoSport. You can expect it to perform similar to your Camry, Corolla, Civic, or Accord.

Ford Focus

In same vein as the Ford Fiesta, you have the Ford Focus. The Focus is a slightly larger, slightly more powerful sedan. The result is less fuel mileage, but if you prefer more “get up and go” poer than the Focus might be a good choice too.

Mazda 3

The Mazda 3 adds a slightly different element than previous mentions on our list. The 3 isn't especially big, though it'll fit you and a couple of friends. The Mazda3 stand out as a performer both with gas mileage and performance. More recent generations of the 3 use a power, proprietary Skyactiv engine which provides serious torque and makes highway driving fun. The engines are also built quite well and are on par with the Toyota and Honda.

Best Compact Cars for College students

Compact cars are great for when you don't need a lot of space but want a lower price, serious fuel efficiency, and the ability to park just about anywhere.

Chevrolet Spark

You can get a Chevrolet Spark cheap, especially if you can drive a manual. Most Sparks are under $16,000 – even less at $14,000 with the manual transmission. As you might expect, the Spark is small, but you can still fit two friends in the backseat and your backpack in the trunk.

The Spark also has one of the shortest wheelbases available. You won't have to worry – as much- about parallel parking because the length of the vehicle is very helpful in creating a short turning radius. It's also an excellent option for trips home with around 37 miles per gallon highway. Some college students might also like to know that the Spark comes in more than a few colors – and they are commonly available too.

Honda Fit

The Honda Fit is impressive. You get lots of flexibility with folding rear seats and a low starting price at $15,776. The safety ratings are also surprisingly strong safety ratings earning 5 stars through the NHTSA. You'll also get nearly 40 miles to the gallon highway, making it an excellent economy option.

The Fit is also available as a sedan and a hatchback, which is awesome for those who want either a little more space or a more sleek design.

Toyota Yaris

The Yaris isn't big – and is about the same size as the Fit, though larger than the Spark. Toyota armed the Yaris with a reasonably large 1.5 liter engine with the small size. It's also super agile and will be easy to park in an urban environment. Like the Fit, the Yaris available in both a sedan and a hatchback, which is great for those who want the option of a “fifth door.” The Yaris gets excellent safety ratings too and provide the nice assurance wanted by most parents.

Hyundai Accent

The Accent is fairly small – and from an up and coming brand in Hyundai. They recently made serious progress in making their vehicles more reliabile. The Accent will surprise you with fairly roomy seats. It even gets 41 miles per gallon highway in some years, though it isn't exactly a fast car with the overall efficiency. You'll find that the Hyundai Accent is fairly inexpensive – both in original MSRP and in used pricing.

Best Trucks for college students

Students in some parts of the country might want to drive a truck to school. Whether they plan to haul lots of things around, or are just used to driving a truck, there are some options for young drivers who want a truck. Since full size trucks are out of the price range of many college students – even for used trucks, we'll still to midsize.

Toyota Tacoma

The Toyota Tacoma is a great value for a mid size truck. You also get better gas mileage with the option of a 4-cylinder or 6-cylinder engine. One of the best parts about the Tacoma it's resale value. They don't dip too much in price, so if you intend to buy a full size after college, you should get a good trade in value when you decide to let it go.

Chevrolet Colorado

There are a couple of generations of Colorado to look at. The more recent is going to cost a bit more, but be more fuel efficiency. The Colorado is also available in 4 cylinder and 6, giving you the option to get a more fuel friendly engine if you aren't hauling a lot.

Nissan Titan

The Nissan Titan is a true budget option. Most models are either dedicated as work trucks with cloth everything, or have an off-road package – there really isn't much in between! This also makes an excellent option for finding a fairly cheap used truck.

Leasing vs Buying

Financing a car for college can lead to some decisions that you may not have experience yet, especially as a college student. One of these challenge is leasing vs buying. Our previous discussion centered around buying a used car from a dealer or private party. Some college students could also choose to lease a vehicle instead or buying one. Let's talk about some of the advantages and disadvantages to both buying and leasing.



You own the vehicle

While you can finance a vehicle or buy it with cash, you can eventually own it. After paying cash or making the final payment, the car is legally yours and no longer requires monthly payments. The best part of this is you can get some serious value out of your vehicle if you keep it in good shape – and just save or invest the money instead.

Build credit

A college student who is starting out probably has little credit to their name. A car loan is a good way of building credit for future purchases.

Drive as much as you want

Buying a car lets you drive as much as you want. There are no contract restrictions to mileage.

Higher monthly payment

While paying interest and for more money overall, your monthly payment may be higher than a lease. In the end though, the car itself will be yours.

Fixes and Repairs

Unless you buy the warranty for a vehicle, you will have to pay for any fixes to the vehicle. While paying for oil changes and tire rotations is normal for a vehicle, you'll also probably be on the hook for mechanical breakdowns.


New cars

While some dealerships actually do lease used cars, most of them are focused on new. The nice part about leasing a new car is that you can get the latest technology, and the vehicle will drive like new. For people who like the latest and greatest, this can be a good option.

Little to no maintenance

One big perk of a leased vehicle is that you'll not pay much, if anything in maintenance. In some cases, even oil changes are covered. A leased vehicle is under warranty. Anything besides obvious abuse, and tires, are covered by the manufacturer. No surprise bills!


Newer model year cars will have more “stuff” in them from technology to safety features. If you highly value these, you could consider a lease.

You don't own the vehicle

Leases have a couple of options: You can either turn the car back in when the lease is over (usually 24 to 36 months) or you can pay the residual value. Paying the residual value means you can buy the car – but it's generally more expensive then just buying the same used car in the first place. Leasing can create a cycle in which you don't build up vehicle equity, but just continue paying for vehicles month to month.

You'll often need money down

You can buy a car with money down too, of course. Some leases require at least some cash down to secure the car itself.

Treat your vehicle nice

Unlike owning a car, this is one you'll eventually bring back. Be sure to be extra nice to the interior and exterior of the vehicle. You'll end up paying for any damages that occur, from torn seats to stains or dings and scratches.

Finance vs Cash

While not many college students can afford to pay for a vehicle in cash, it's definitely a nice option to own a vehicle outright right away. Another benefit of paying cash is not having to pay any interest for the life of your vehicle, which will probably save you thousands.

Financing a vehicle is a more common choice, and at least helps you build up your credit for future purchases and getting loans.

Safety Features & Amenities to look for

When you've only been driving for a couple of years or less, there are some safety features you'll want to look for.

Backup Camera

Not every vehicle in your price range will have a backup camera. The backup camera uses a camera to display what is behind you (and in some high end cases, creates a complete 360 picture of everything around your vehicle) so that you avoid bumping into people, pedestrians, and anything else. A backup camera used to be an added expensive, but they are fairly common now. The biggest benefit of the backup camera is that they make low speed, parking collisions very avoidable.

Automatic Emergency Braking

College campuses are known to have plenty of foot and bike traffic. Some newer models of Hondas and Toyotas come standard with automatic emergency braking, which helps in these situations. These features are most helpful at low speeds, as they detect objects or people that are in front of the vehicle, and automatically apply the brakes to avoid hitting them. When you look away even for a split second and someone dashes into the crosswalk – you might be happy you have automatic braking.

Side Blind Zone Alert

Leaving a college parking lot on the way home can be chaotic. Side Blind Zone Alert uses a light and often an audible tone to warn you that something is in your blind spot. These are great to avoid accidents during quick lane changes, as most are designed to beep if the turning signal is on and something is present.

Safety Ratings

Look at the International Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) and NHTSA for crash test ratings. These will tell you how well a vehicle holds up under specific kinds of collisions. Most vehicles are now at least acceptable – but a better rating does make a difference in a crash.

Buying for reliability

College students tend to not have much cash to pay for additional repairs on their vehicle. Every vehicle does have it's bad years and flaws. We have a couple of recommendations for you:

Find reliability ratings

Use programs like J.D. Power and Consumer Reports to find potential, common issues with the vehicles you are interested in. You can also use sites like Car Complaints to find specific issues reported directly by users.

Vehicle history

Check to see what has been repaired – using vehicle history reports, before jumping into a vehicle. Use information about what has been fixed and compare it to the problems people are complaining about. This helps avoid a vehicle that historically has drive belt problems – a potentially expensive fix – that hasn't experienced those problems yet.

Get the car inspected

Even if you are buying the car at dealership, get the vehicle inspected before purchase. Dealership inspections often only go as far as they legally have to, and don't really test the car. They might even be limited to brake pads, oil leaks, and tires. Paying a mechanic to dive in with a more serious inspection can help you save money down the road -or give you a bargaining chip for negotiations.

A warning against fast cars

As a relatively new driver, you probably want to try to own a fast cars, like a Camaro, Mustang, or something rear wheel drive and sporty. Having been there at one point ourselves, we have a suggestion: Wait for that moment.

Sports cars are more expensive to insure, especially when you are under 25, because the chances of getting into a crash are much higher. The high powered engine also makes them gaz guzzlers. Save up for one for the future, but you don't need it now.

Best Cars For College Students

About The Author

Charles Redding

Charles Redding

I've spent many years selling cars, working with auto detailers, mechanics, dealership service teams, quoting and researching car insurance, modding my own cars, and much more.

Read More About Charles Redding