Five great (cheap) cars for college kids


So you're 18 - you don't want to bum rides off your parents anymore. They're probably pretty sick of shuttling you around, but you don't live near public transit. Time to get your own set of wheels! But you're just starting college, so unless you've just hit Mega Millions, you're a bit strapped for cash.

Your parents might help you out a little for your first car, but as much as they love you they're not made of money. So whatever you get has to be less than ten grand - that's a good compromise on both age and reliability.But it's worthless if it's not safe and efficient, so here are five of the best used cars under ten grand. All prices reflect Kelley Blue Book "excellent" condition and dealer pricing.

Vincent Balestriere,

2002-2004 Honda Civic LX $6,500 - $10,000 The
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2002-2004 Honda Civic LX

$6,500 - $10,000

The Civic is well-known to parents and youths. The older ones like these helped perpetuate the "legendary" Honda reliability, but many also fell into the laps of tuners and aftermarket companies. Guys will like the potential these cars have, if they're willing to put in a lot of effort for engine swaps. But fear not, parents - this generation Civic has the 1.7L, SOHC D-series engine. It is supremely slow (110 hp. but efficient (35-plus miles per gallon highway). The Civic did well in crash tests for a compact car, too. So why isn't it higher on this list? As I mentioned earlier, EVERYONE knows its reputation - the book value on Civics tends to run high for what you get, plus they're still among the most stolen vehicles in the country. And the Civic isn't exactly a looker.

2005-2006 Chevrolet Cobalt LT $7,600 - $9,500 The
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2005-2006 Chevrolet Cobalt LT

$7,600 - $9,500

The Cobalt was the first GM compact in a generation worth buying the first time. While these first two model years did have a few Technical Service Bulletins, they're still worth a look even though the later models' interiors were vastly improved. A five-speed LS coupe would be an especially nice compromise for parents and young drivers - it's a good-looking car, handles decently, the insurance isn't too high (thanks to decent safety scores) and can get upwards of 32 miles per gallon on the highway. Its cabin, obviously designed for the North American market, has enough space up front for two large men. Plus, there are plenty of aftermarket additions available for the gearheads. The Cobalt loses points for availability, however - most Cobalts were sedans, which was ugly even compared to the Neon.

2004-2006 Pontiac Vibe $8,000 - $9,900 First a
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2004-2006 Pontiac Vibe

$8,000 - $9,900

First a Chevy, now a Pontiac in a list of compacts? Brand reputation aside, the Vibe is a real winner - assuming you can find one. The Vibe could never match the sales of its sister car - the Toyota Matrix - but its engine and chassis were the same. The Matrix would be on this list instead, if it was easy to find one at a dealer for less than ten grand. Instead, its GM sister takes this spot, an overlooked diamond in the rough: Toyota's fabulous 1.8L engine worked smoothly, especially if mated to a manual. The downside to the Matrix and Vibe however, is that the cabin is quite small - I could not comfortably drive even an automatic version for more than a few minutes. Still, for the less gargantuan amongst us, this quirky Pontiac is worth your cash.


2004-2005 Mazda3 $9,200 - $9,900 Mazda is no
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2004-2005 Mazda3

$9,200 - $9,900

Mazda is no stranger to cool, youthful compacts - the Mazda3's predecessor, the Protege, was a popular choice among drivers who wanted fun in their commuter car. The Mazda3 is a great successor to Mazda's effervescent "Zoom-Zoom" motto, the quickest car on this list. Despite the relatively quick pace (7.5 seconds to 60 mph for a five-speed "S" model, the same as my V-6-equipped midsize sedan with 55 more hp.), the Mazda3 can still hit 30 miles per gallon in 2.0L "I" trim. It is stylish as well, and has a great stereo system (which, let's face it, is essential for a college car). It's a hoot to drive, too, in both sedan and hatchback form. Unfortunately, the Mazda dealer network is widely regarded as one of the worst in the country, and the hatchback version is just too heavy for the 2.0L motor, so it was equipped only with the 2.3L - rarely did it yield 30 mpg.

2004-2007 Ford Focus $6,500 - $10,000 Arguably the
(Credit: Wikimedia)

2004-2007 Ford Focus

$6,500 - $10,000

Arguably the best car on this list, and my personal recommendation for anyone in this price bracket. The Focus is the best bang for the buck here, and also the most versatile: the Focus was available is a sedan, wagon, and three- and five-door hatchbacks. It's been around long enough that all of its idiosyncrasies have been documented, and there's a busy online community at Focus Fanatics. Since these years are part of the first generation, depreciation has pushed prices down to very affordable levels. Still, the Focus is safe, economical (30-plus miles per gallon), fun to drive, and good to look at. It's roomy inside, to boot - even though I'm 6-foot-1 and the Focus is a compact car, the driving position is lovely. My one gripe is that the armrest gets in the way of spirited shifting, but that's a non-issue if your teen doesn't drive stick.

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