A red 2014 Mazda3 from a used car dealership near you is driving on a city street and shown from the front.

Four of the Best Used Cars for College Students

While you may have been okay with borrowing your parent’s car or driving an old beater during high school, when you go away to college, it is usually time to purchase a car of your own. However, you probably will not yet have the budget to buy something new and will instead find yourself searching “used car dealership near me,” for something affordable. Fortunately, shopping used is not necessarily a downgrade, and there are plenty of used car models out there that are excellent choices for college students. No matter what you need, the odds are that some patient searching will eventually turn up the perfect used car for your budget and situation.

But what characteristics make for a good car for a college student? The number one criteria will, of course, be affordability. College is expensive, and it is better not to be using your limited funds buying more car than you need. However, an affordable car does not just refer to the sticker price at the used car lot. It also means a car with low fuel costs, low insurance costs, and good reliability. Unless you are a hardcore gearhead, the last thing you want is for your car to become a white elephant that demands all of your disposable income to keep it running.

The second most important criteria that make a good car for college students is versatility. College is a turning point in your life, and what you think you will be doing going into college may very well not be what you are doing coming out of college. So do not lock yourself into a car that limits your options. Instead, look for a versatile vehicle that can handle more than just taking you to class or a part-time job. This includes road trips with friends, moving into and out of dorms and apartments, and the many other events that you might want a car for.


The Mazda3 might not be a car that you have considered before, but it is an extremely good choice for college students. Mazda is a smaller Japanese manufacturer, and its products have the same excellent level of reliability that is expected of cars from Toyota or Honda. However, Mazda’s lower profile means that its name does not usually command the same premium that the larger companies do. This makes the Mazda3 a more affordable option than the competing Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.

Further, the Mazda3 wins in the versatility category as well thanks to its hatchback variant. While the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic have recently had hatchback variants released, these newer cars are still relatively expensive and difficult to find used, while older Mazda3 hatchbacks are both affordable and available. Additionally, the Mazda3 offers sportier handling and more power than other compact cars without sacrificing efficiency, giving it a more youthful feel.

A gray 2015 Toyota RAV4 is driving on a mountain highway.

Toyota RAV4

While most college students will be fine with a compact car like the Mazda3, upgrading to something a little larger and more capable is not a bad idea. Compact SUVs like the Toyota RAV4 will be more expensive to buy and run, but the extra cost is outweighed by how much comfort and utility they offer. If you anticipate spending a lot of time in your car because of a lengthy commute, extracurricular activities, or any other reason, then upgrading to a RAV4 is likely worth it. This is especially true if you are going to school in an area that regularly experiences bad weather, where an SUV’s ride height and all-wheel drive can help keep you safe year-round.

While there are now a bewildering variety of compact SUVs on the market, the best option is the Toyota RAV4. With its high popularity, long production run, and excellent reliability, finding an affordable used example in good condition will be easy enough. If you are willing to look at older cars, up until 2012 the RAV4 was available with a surprisingly powerful V6 engine that transforms it into a remarkably fun package.

MINI Cooper

While it is difficult to go wrong with more mainstream options like the Mazda3 and RAV4, sometimes, you might want to stand out from the crowd. If you are looking for a cute and playful little car, then the MINI Cooper is an excellent choice. With its eccentric looks and nimble handling, the MINI Cooper has a well-deserved reputation as a unique and fun vehicle. Also, if you are attending school in a more urban environment, its small size and sharp handling make it a breeze to drive and park in crowded city streets. Finally, the MINI Cooper S version offers a rather powerful turbocharged engine should you desire more performance.

Unlike many more interesting cars, the MINI Cooper handily meets our criteria for affordability and versatility. First, the average price for a used MINI Cooper is exceptionally low for what the car offers. Second, while these cars are on the smaller side, their hatchback design gives them a surprising amount of cargo space. Although they only have two doors, they do have four seats, so you will have no problem transporting friends or visiting family. However, the British-built MINI Cooper can be a bit more finicky than other options, and you will likely want to find a mechanic that you trust to keep one running properly.

A red 2010 Ford Mustang convertible is shown from a low angle.

Ford Mustang

Although your parents might not approve of this purchase, college is a time to have fun, and a Ford Mustang is sure to put a smile on your face. A true sports car icon, the Mustang has two doors, rear-wheel drive, plenty of power, and is even available as a convertible. In short, this is the car that will let you enjoy your youth to the fullest before you graduate, get a job, get married, and have to buy something more practical. While it may be a flashy sports car, buying a used Mustang as a college student is not actually as bad an idea as your parents might think.

While the Mustang GT with its V8 engine is indeed a gas-guzzling monster with sky-high insurance rates, an older V6 Mustang is a surprisingly sensible choice. The fuel economy and insurance rates on these models are not noticeably worse than those of your average all-wheel-drive SUV. While the Mustang only has two doors, it still has four seats, and the hard-top version even has a relatively large trunk with fold-down rear seats to accommodate bulky items. If you do decide to go for a used Mustang and are on a budget, then the 2011 model year is the one to aim for as that year saw a substantial power upgrade to the V6 engine that put it within spitting distance of the 2010 and older V8 engines.

Find a Car You Like

Whether you are interested in a flashy Ford Mustang, a cute MINI Cooper, a reliable Toyota RAV4, or an efficient Mazda3, it is important that you find a car that fits your needs and style. Everyone’s college situation and personality is different, and you should take the time to find a car that you will enjoy owning rather than simply getting what your parents recommend. Just make sure that your car is something that does not stray too far from the criteria of being affordable and versatile.