I’m A College Kid Looking For A Reliable Ride! What Car Should I Buy?

Matt is helping his eighteen-year-old niece search for the right set of wheels before she goes off to college. She is currently driving an old Prius that is no longer reliable and is looking for something reliable, and fuel-efficient for under fifteen grand. What car should she buy?

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Here is the scenario.

Quick Facts:

My niece is currently searching for her first car to buy. Currently she drives a Prius that’s on its last legs and isn’t safe to be on the road. I’m helping her hunt for a car and looking for suggestions. The overall gist here is she needs something reliable with good gas mileage. She might be able to stretch up to $15,000. It should also be well suited for a novice driver

Budget: $15,000

Location: Arlington, TX

Daily Driver: Yes

Wants: Reliable, easy to manage, good MPG

Doesn’t want: High maintenance costs

Expert 1: Tom McParland – Here We Go

Image for article titled I'm A College Kid Looking For A Reliable Ride! What Car Should I Buy?

Image: Hiley Mazda

Even with a changing car market, that $15,000 segment is still a tough one since most of the “affordable” cars have gone by the wayside. However, iff the target is a nice, solid ride for a newer driver without breaking the bank, for me the answer is obvious, get a Mazda3. I have stated that the Mazda3 might be the perfect car for new drivers since it offers an excellent balance of affordability, features, style, and quality.

Sourcing a Mazda3 with reasonable miles isn’t easy, but possible. Here is an example with under 50,000 miles for a very reasonable price, though it does have an accident history so some kind of pre-purchase inspection would be advisable. This is a mid-level Touring trim, but the smaller 2.0-liter motor which doesn’t have the same passing power as the larger mill, but can return up to 40 MPG. Despite the fender-bender, it could be a solid buy.

Expert 2: Collin Woodard – Let’s Live A Little

2010 Dodge Challenger

Photo: Plano Preowned Auto Group

You’ve got several options here, Matt, but they aren’t going to be exciting. In fact, they’re all pretty obvious. You could go with a Mazda 3 like Tom suggested, or a Toyota Corolla. Or a Honda Civic. Heck, just point her in the direction of the nicest Toyota Prius that she can afford. Here’s a 2017 Prius in Denton for less than $15,000. If she wants a crossover, Toyota, Honda and Mazda have you covered. Here’s a 2017 Mazda CX-5 that’s in budget.

On the other hand, let’s live a little. You are in Texas, after all. I say stick her in this 2010 Dodge Challenger R/T that’s technically within budget. It’s got the 5.7-liter V8, so it’ll be easier for her to drive than a Hellcat, and it gets more than 20 mpg highway, so it’s also more fuel-efficient than a Hellcat. Most importantly, though, it has a manual transmission that will force her to pay attention while she’s driving and reduces the odds of it ever being stolen.

Will her parents be thrilled when she rolls up in a 372-hp muscle car? Probably not. Will she look infinitely cooler when she shows up to college in it instead of a 2017 Prius? Hell yeah, she will. And isn’t that what’s most important when you’re 18 and striking out on your own for the first time? Just make her promise you she won’t crash it, and you should be good to go.

Expert 3: Rory Carroll – Let’s Live A Little Longer

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Photo: Autotrader

Unfortunately, $15k doesn’t get you quite as far as it used to as far as a reliable used car, but there are still plenty of options. I was tempted to suggest this Accord Sport which is one of the prettiest sedans of the last 20 years, but the mileage is on the high side. I don’t usually care too much about mileage, provided that we know a lot about maintenance, but because we’re looking for a car for a young driver, I gave it a little higher priority than I normally would and ended up with this 2019 Corolla LE. Is it the most exciting car in the world? No. But the color is nice and it should be on the road for another decade or so. Someday when you’re enjoying the incredible success afforded to you by a UT education, you’ll be pressured into trading this Corolla in on something more suited to your elevated station, and you’ll think: “I loved that car, there was nothing wrong with that car.”

Expert 4: Steve DaSilva – Why Not Have It All?

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Photo: Ally Auto Group

Matt, you’ve been given two main schools of thought here today. On one hand, you’ve got the sort of fun a college student deserves (the Challenger) and on the other, you’ve got the sort of staid practicality that’ll see your niece through to graduation (the Mazda3 and Corolla). I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to pick between the two — you can have it all, if you just know how to find it.

I’m talking, of course, about the Honda CR-Z. All the fuel economy that your niece has come to appreciate about the Prius, but with the fun of a sleek little three-door hatchback. These cars are safe, good on gas, and reliable, but still have the nimble handling characteristics you’d expect from car of this size. The two-seat layout means your niece will never be The Person With The Car Who Has To Drive Everyone Everywhere, and a design this compact — with this much glass — makes college town parallel parking easy.

Here’s a stick shift CR-Z in your area for just over half your niece’s budget. College costs enough already, so why spend more than you have to on transport? Get something relatively inexpensive, and spend the rest of your budget on concert tickets and Everclear — I mean, uh, textbooks.

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