10 best cars for college students

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

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Ross Martin

Insurance Writer

  • 4+ years in the Insurance Industry

Ross joined The Zebra as a writer and researcher in 2019. He specializes in writing insurance content to help shoppers make informed decisions.

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First car for college? Here’s what to consider

There are around 18.1 million students enrolled in degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States.[1] And millions of students are graduating high school and leaving home for the first time.

Some of them will be getting vehicles as a necessity for getting around their college town or for driving to visit their families on breaks.

In this article we’ll look at some of the factors to consider when choosing a car for the college-bound and provide some recommendations for cars to consider.

Do you need a car?

Some colleges have better transportation than others. If you (or your student) don’t need one to get around, you can save on gas, insurance, car payments, etc. by not having one. Some colleges also restrict first-year students from having cars or have limited parking permits available. Check with your college before making any decisions.

Factors in choosing a college car

The process of choosing a good car for college can be overwhelming. You need to consider factors like:

  • Your budget. Whether you’re paying for it yourself or your parents are generously providing a down payment, college students generally aren’t going to have a high budget for cars. For this list, we included a top budget of $25,000 for new models and $15,000 for used. 
  • Reliability. In addition to the costs of buying the car, you will likely want a car that is inexpensive to own and maintain and isn’t going to leave you stranded on the side of the road. 
  • Fuel efficiency. Depending on how far your college is from your hometown, you will likely want a car that can go the distance without racking up high fuel costs.
  • Safety. If you’re a parent buying a vehicle for your college student, safety features are likely going to be high on your list as your kid ventures off into the world. Newer models will tend to have more safety features, but will be more expensive.
  • Cost to insure. Because we’re an insurance comparison site and because insurance costs for college-aged drivers tend to be pretty high, the cost to insure the vehicle will be a big factor in the total cost of ownership.

Now let’s look at some of our recommendations for the best cars for college students.

Best new cars

First, let's look at the top five new cars we recommend for college students. All of these vehicles are under $25,000 new, have decent gas mileage[2] and have 4 or 5 star safety ratings[3]

1. Toyota Corolla Hybrid

While not super flashy, the Toyota Corolla is a great choice for college students thanks to its low maintenance costs and general reliability. It comes equipped with Toyota's Safety Sense 3.0 which includes safety features like pedestrian detection, automatic braking, adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist. You can get the hybrid option for around $23,000 MSRP, and that provides great fuel economy. Overall, the Corolla ticks all the boxes for the average college student's needs. 

Corolla by the numbers

Cost to purchase: $23,000

Gas mileage: 50 mpg

Average insurance cost per month: $11 to $98

Safety rating: 5 stars

2. Hyundai Elantra

With a surprisingly roomy interior, the Hyundai Elantra is another great compact sedan choice for college students. The 2023 model was named a Top Safety Pick by the NHTSA. While its fuel economy is not quite as high as the Corolla Hybrid, it does have decent gas mileage. Like the Corolla, the Elantra comes with an array of safety and driver-assist features.

Elantra by the numbers

Cost to purchase: $21,625

Gas mileage: 37 mpg 

Average insurance cost per month: $21 to $86

Safety rating: 5 stars

3. Kia Soul

With a starting price of just over $20,000, the Kia Soul is the cheapest car to buy new on our list. It also offers a lot of value for that price with the same collision warning and lane-assist safety features as more expensive models on the list. Its gas mileage is decent for a subcompact SUV, and its boxy shape gives it a decently roomy interior.

Soul by the number

Cost to purchase: $20,190

Gas mileage: 31 mpg 

Average insurance cost per month:$20 to $81

Safety rating: 4 stars

4. Mazda3

If safety is a top concern, look no further than the Mazda3! Both the hatchback and sedan models were a Top Safety Pick for 2024 by the IIHS in the small cars category.[4] The Mazda3 has a slightly higher price point than some others on this list, but still falls under $25,000. It also gets decent gas mileage and has excellent handling (you can add optional all-wheel drive if your college is located somewhere that gets a lot of snow).   

Mazda3 by the numbers

Cost to purchase: $24,170

Gas mileage: 31 mpg 

Average insurance cost per month:$11 to $91

Safety rating: 5 stars

5. Honda HR-V

And last in our top picks for new cars for college students is the Honda HR-V. While a little more expensive and a little less fuel-efficient than some of the smaller vehicles on the list, the Honda HR-V is a good choice for college students who need a bit more space. The roomy interior and cargo capacity can come in handy when moving into the dorms or carting friends around town.

HR-V by the numbers

Cost to purchase: $24,600

Gas mileage: 28 mpg 

Average insurance cost per month: $9 to $85

Safety rating: 5 stars

Best used cars for college students

Buying new isn't in the cards for every new grad heading off to college. But it can be hard to figure out where to start with used cars. We've gathered a few models and years to consider. Prices are based on average market value of the make and model of the earliest year listed, but may vary based on where you live and, of course, on the mileage and condition of the car.[5]

6. 2014-2015 Toyota Prius

The Toyota Prius is a hybrid with a reputation for excellent fuel economy and very good resale value. The 2014 and 2015 models received Top Safety Pick+ from IIHS and Bluetooth connectivity and rearview camera were standard. The Prius 5 from these years with the advanced technology package includes more modern features like lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control.

2014 Prius by the numbers

Average cost to purchase: $10,585

Gas mileage: 50 mpg 

Average insurance cost per month: $91

Safety rating: 5 stars

7. 2015 - 2018 Mazda CX-5

For those who want a little more room than a Prius, and don't mind sacrificing a little fuel economy for it: enter the Mazda CX-5. While not as fuel efficient as a Prius, this 5-passenger compact SUV does offer a number of safety features and overall reliability. All three years mentioned were Top Safety Pick years for the model.

2015 Mazda CX-5 by the numbers

Average cost to purchase: $10,585

Gas mileage: 50 mpg 

Average insurance cost per month: $91

Safety rating: 5 stars

8. 2015 - 2016 Honda CR-V

2015 was an exciting year for the Honda CR-V. The compact SUV got a more fuel-efficient engine. These years also got a Top Safety Pick from IIHS. And the 2016 model was the winner of the Kelly Blue Book Best Buy Award among small SUVs. It has excellent reliability and easy driving, along with a large interior to cart around friends or whatever else you need.

2015 Honda CR-V by the numbers

Average cost to purchase: $11,662

Gas mileage: 26 mpg 

Average insurance cost per month: $67

Safety rating: 4 stars

9. 2015 - 2017 Toyota Camry

The Toyota Camry is out of range of our budget for purchasing new, but buy one a few years old and you've got a great, reliable and roomy sedan with decent gas mileage. These years were all Top Safety Pick+ winners, and the 2015 model was the first to get a rearview camera standard. 

2015 Toyota Camry by the numbers

Average cost to purchase: $12,300

Gas mileage: 30 mpg 

Average insurance cost per month: $80

Safety rating: 5 stars

10. 2014 - 2016 Toyota RAV4

Another solid pick for a used compact-crossover SUV is the Toyota RAV4. It's the most expensive pick on our used list, but still a great value. It has a number of standard safety features including a rearview camera. It also has pretty good fuel economy for its size. The 2015 and 2016 models were both Top Safety Picks.

2014 Toyota RAV4 by the numbers

Average cost to purchase: $12,755

Gas mileage: 28 mpg 

Average insurance cost per month: $71

Safety rating: 5 stars

Wrapping up

Going off to college is a big deal. For many, it's your first foray into living on your own — and doing fun things like paying for gas and car insurance.

If a car is in your budget, it can be a fun addition to your college journey. Just make sure to consider the total cost of ownership. You won't just be paying your car payments, but also: gas, insurance, maintenance and parking fees on campus. Choose wisely and get something that suits your budget and lifestyle, even if it's not the flashiest.

  1. College student enrollment statistics. [Best Colleges]

  2. Fuel economy power search. [FuelEconomy.gov]

  3. Vehicle safety ratings. [NHTSA]

  4. Top Safety Picks for 2024. [IHSS]

  5. National average car value. [Auto Blog]