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What are some of the Best Used Cars for a College Student on a Budget?

What are the Best Used Cars for a College Student on a Budget

Whether it is for you or your kids heading to college, you will need a car that is reliable, safe and budget-friendly. Choosing a college car can be tricky. Kids want a car that is fancy and fun while parents want something safe and low-cost. A good college car is way practical than a sports car but more reliable and dependable than an old Land Rover. Finding a car that meets these requirements can be really challenging, but it is possible.

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When you select the best used cars for college students, it is ideal to give yourself at least a $5,000 to $12,000 budget. Don’t be disheartened thinking that you might not be able to find the car that you like, because with this budget you are certainly going to find a decent and reliable car that suits you. 


There are lots of used cars available within your price range that have been proven reliable and dependable. These car models listed below are among the most reliable, affordable, and all-around practical options for college students. And they are listed in no particular order. The list includes the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP),EPA mileage estimate (city/highway), estimated price for used vehicles (private party), that will help you identify and choose the car that suits your needs.



  • MSRP: $24,200 (base trim with no options, per Toyota)
  • Used Price Range: $5,000 (older model year, fair condition) to $23,000 (newer model year, high-end trim with available options)
  • IIHS Safety Rating: Average to Good
  • EPA mileage estimate: 60/54 MPG (higher in city traffic)


This model was once the go-to car of the environmentally conscious. The Toyota Prius is now a flourishing family of small gas-electric hybrid hatchbacks and sedans. Though the most budget-friendly model is priced above $23,000, the family’s outstanding fuel efficiency, up to 60 MPG, partially offsets the upfront cost. The Prius family is also known to have admirable safety features which includes rain-sensing windshield wipers, blind spot camera, and an integrated backup camera.



  • MSRP: $16,190 (base trim with no options, per Honda)
  • Used Price Range: $5,000 (older model year, fair condition) to $19,000 (newer model year, top trim with all available options)
  • IIHS Safety Rating: Marginal to Good
  • EPA mileage estimate: 33/40 MPG


The Honda Fit is the close competitor of the Toyota Yaris. They are clearly comparable in a lot of ways. It possesses similar handling, similar MSRP, and similar entertainment and safety features. But there is one big difference, it is its configuration. Honda Fit is only available as a hatchback making it ideal for college students with above average space needs, but does not have enough budget to go for a bigger crossover or SUVs. The EX-L trim is more luxurious compared to anything the Yaris can offer. The downside of the Fit is that it does not have a revolutionary crash-avoidance system.



  • MSRP: $26,145 (base trim with no options, per Honda)
  • Used Price Range: $5,000 (older model year, fair condition) to $26,000 (newer model year, top trim with all available options)
  • IIHS Safety Rating: Average to Good
  • EPA mileage estimate: 28/34 MPG


The Honda CR-V is an excellent compact crossover that comes in five different trims. All of the trims have automatic transmissions. You can choose from front-wheel and all-wheel drivetrain options, depending on your preference and trim. The all-wheel drivetrain function is ideal for drivers who live in snowy and  freezing cold climates, or to anyone who is most likely going to drive on unpaved roads frequently.


Though the Honda CR-V is known as a family vehicle, it is also arguably ideal for students who need to  carry lots of friends or cargo. You can comfortably fit five inside with a lot of room for luggage or equipment in the back. The CR-V has amazing safety features such as adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance, and lane departure warnings. Its efficiency rating is surprisingly impressive compared to other crossovers



  • MSRP: $12,348 (per private listings)
  • Used Price Range: $2,400 (older model year, fair condition) to $12,000 (newer model year, excellent condition, private party transaction)
  • IIHS Safety Rating: Marginal to Good
  • EPA mileage estimate: 27/37 MPG


The Ford Fiesta is a subcompact, fuel-sipping vehicle that comes in two variants, a hatchback four-door sedan and a standard five-speed manual or available automatic transmission. The base trim is fairly priced as just $12,000 and has a satisfactory safety rating.


The higher-end trim includes a number of performance options, including aluminum wheels, high-performance tires and brakes, center airfoil, and a more powerful engine. All the trims have interior options that include heated leather seats and  the SYNC 3 entertainment system.



  • MSRP: $29,790 (base trim with no options, per Jeep)
  • Used Price Range: $5,000 (older model year, fair condition) to $31,000 (newer model year, top trim with all available options)
  • IIHS Safety Rating: Poor (side) to Good (front)
  • EPA mileage estimate: 23/25 MPG


The Jeep Wrangler is a small classic SUV with a ragged frame and is fully capable of going off road. The new wranglers can be significantly more pricey than the new Sonics or Fiestas, aside from being less fuel-efficient. The Jeep Wrangler is certainly great for students who regularly carry passengers or cargo around their campuses, college towns, and beyond.


If you are frugal, the basic Sport package will more likely fit you. For other students who have larger budgets, the Rubicon has a manifold of features specifically designed for off roading, plus a number of driver-friendly extras such as the Radio430N entertainment system. Its key safety features include Electronic Roll Mitigation and Electronic Stability control, both of which play a vital role in this commonly known roll-prone model. 


Don’t get intimidated by the Wrangler’s high MSRP, if you really want one, consider buying an older, used version.



  • MSRP: $15,650 (per Toyota)
  • Used Price Range: $2,500 (older model year, fair condition) to $11,000 (newer model year, excellent condition)
  • IIHS Safety Rating: Marginal to Good
  • EPA mileage estimate: 30/36 MPG


The Toyota Yaris is a subcompact vehicle that comes in sedan and hatchback versions with automatic or manual five-speed transmission, depending on your trim selection and preference. Aside from the hands-free Bluetooth calling system and steering wheel entertainment controls, it has a surprisingly strong safety suite, Toyota Safety Sense which comes with every new Yaris and includes automatic high beams, lane departure alerts, and a pre-collision deterrence system.


There are five different trims and all are comparably priced, which means that even the high-end Yarises are inexpensive and student-budget friendly. In addition, the Yaris model has been around in the U.S. for more than a decade, so you will surely find reliable, and affordable models on the road.



  • MSRP: $16,720 (per Chevy)
  • Used Price Range: $2,500 (older model year, fair condition) to $13,000 (newer model year, excellent condition)
  • IIHS Safety Rating: Good
  • EPA mileage estimate: 26/34 MPG


The Chevrolet Sonic is a small car that comes in four-door sedan and hatchback form with standard manual and available automatic transmissions. It comes in various trims, each priced differently and offers different options.


One of Sonic’s distinguishing features is its safety features. Unlike other small cars, it is packed with a rear-view camera, 10 airbags, and the Driver Confidence Package that includes rear park assist, lane departure warning, and forward collision alert. Chevrolet offers college student discount programs, dealer-specific discounts for current and recently graduated students and is subject to dealer restrictions.



  • MSRP: $21,500 (base trims with no options, per Mazda)
  • Used Price Range: $2,000 (older model year, fair condition) to $20,000+ (newer model year, excellent condition, top trim with all available options)
  • IIHS Safety Rating: Good
  • EPA mileage estimate: 28/37 MPG


The Mazda3 is a sought-after compact car that comes in sedan and hatchback options and your choice of automatic and manual transmission. Despite being infamous for its clutch problems, it is quite fuel-efficient, with a highway efficiency rating around 40 MPG.


In the cabin, there’s a nice lineup of accessibility and entertainment features, including the MAZDA Connect “infotainment” system and a seven-inch touchscreen display. The best part is, for a smaller car, it has an above-average roster of safety features which includes a standard rear-view camera and an optional crash prevention system. The Mazda3 was introduced in the market in 2003 as a 2004 model. So people who are working on a budget have lots of affordable used options to choose from.


There are many other used, reliable, reasonably priced cars out there but you will have to do a little more research to look for them. So we provided you with this list to make your life easier. In the end, it is only up to you to decide which car models you think will suit you best. 


Don’t you worry, we have prepared a guide for your second-hand car shopping.


How to Buy a Used Car

According to experts, utilizing all the car shopping tools available to you, like online listings, pricing guides, and vehicle history reports will save you time and money than just driving to a dealership or a showroom.


Shopping for a used car can sometimes be like a treasure hunt. With the emergence of the internet as a car shopping tool, finding amazing deals becomes easier. You’ll have a lot of opportunities to look for a car that meets your needs and fits your budget.


Here is an overview of the steps that you can take in shopping for a used car:



  • Set your Budget


Whether you are paying with cash or a car loan, you still need to set your budget. Remember to allocate money for registration and insuranceand it’s not a bad idea to set aside money for future repairs.


You can protect your savings and buy a more expensive car model by taking out a car loan. Ideally, your first move should be to get preapproved for a car loan to make the buying process smooth. It will also put you in a better position at the car dealership.


Tip: Use an auto loan calculator to compute the best loan for you.


Prepare your 10% down payment, and finance the car for three years. Ideally, your total monthly auto expenses should exceed 20% of your monthly income.



  • Choose the right Car


When choosing the right car, you will have to determine how you plan to use the car. For example, you have a family of 4, you will need enough room for everyone and enough cargo space. 


Tip: You might want to check the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or IIHS for crash tests.


You can narrow down the search by making a list of the must-have features or traits. Then, search for car models that possess these traits that you are looking for. After finding the models that fit the description, pick your top 3 and do more research on them.



  • Check reliability


Every used car has been driven differently. Some have more wear and tear since they have more miles than the others. However, you should focus on choosing the model that has been tried and tested, and is proven by many to be dependable. You might want to check some legitimate websites like Consumer Reports and Consumer Affairs which provide consumer reports about a lot of products.



  • Locate good used cars


There’s lots of websites that list used cars, and each site has its own characteristics.



  • Price the Cars


Once you find your top 3 picks, look up those car models in a pricing guide such as Kelley Blue Book or NADAguides, before you even physically inspect them. Use the guide to estimate the market value of the actual car you are eyeing by assessing its condition based on factors such as mileage, options and age. You can use all the information you have to negotiate effectively.



  • Check the vehicle history report


It is a wise move to run a vehicle history report first before driving across town to see the actual car you are interested in. You can use Carfax or AutoCheck to get a detailed report of the vehicle’s history by providing the vehicle identification number or VIN.


Do not skip this step because it will protect you in so many ways, like you will know if the car odometer has been tampered, if the car got into some accidents, if the car has a clean title, or whether the repairs needed were done on time and where the work was performed.



  • Contact the Seller


Talking to the seller over the phone will answer a lot of questions and save time. You can verify the information you read in the advertisement in just a quick chat. You can just throw some questions like, “are you the first owner? Are the service records available? Or is the title clear?”



  • Test Drive the Car


This is the time to see if you like this model and also decide whether this particular car is worth buying or not. We are not all experts or mechanics, so we can’t really do a thorough inspection on our own. But you can give the car a good initial inspection when test driving. Plan your route and make sure that it has a little bit of everything: hills, curves, rough pavement and even a stretch of highway. Make sure to drive with the radio off so you can hear any weird sound, if there is any.


Pay close attention to the following: Brakes, Acceleration and cornering, Ergonomics, Visibility and the Mechanical condition. After the test drive, it is time to turn on the sound system and check if the bBluetooth is working.



  • Inspect the Car


If you liked the feels of this car and you think it is worth it, then enlist the services of a trusted or certified mechanic, which will cost you around $80 to $100. Some dealers might insist that they’ve already had it inspected but it will be more favorable to you if you had it inspected by a third-party mechanic.



  • Negotiate the Best Price


Negotiation doesn’t have to be stressful, especially if you’ve done your research and have a good idea what the car is worth. Compare the seller’s price to the average market price provided by your pricing guide. Most of the time, the seller is asking more than the average. For example, the seller is asking $12,000 and your research shows that the car is worth $10,500. Start by pointing out any issues you have about the car’s condition. In this case, you can say, “I like how the car drives. But it really needs a new set of tires. And aside from that, the book value is only $10,500. So, I would be willing to buy it for $9,800.” If the seller tries to counteroffer and the offer is still high, you can either stick to your offer or use the famous phrase, “I’ll meet you halfway,” and split the difference.



  • Seal the Deal


Add the car to your insurance, before taking ownership. Make sure you get the seller to sign it correctly. You can always check the state’s registry website for more information, if you have any doubts.

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