It won’t be long before incoming freshmen head off to college. That means it’s prime time for students — and parents — to find suitable, affordable cars for the road ahead. Edmunds has compiled a list of used hybrid, compact and crossover SUV vehicles that best lend themselves to varied demands of college life.
We chose vehicles for their strong value, utility, fuel efficiency, performance and the availability of advanced safety features. We also offer some other alternatives in our picks’ respective classes. The prices shown are the average prices paid for the cars at a franchised car dealership, compiled by Edmunds.
2014 HONDA ACCORD HYBRID
Average used transaction price: $16,430
Estimated fuel economy: 47 mpg combined (49 city/45 highway)
Though Honda only sold the second-generation Accord Hybrid for the 2014 and 2015 model years, it holds up well, even when compared to new hybrid sedans. Its spacious cabin easily seats four adults. On the safety front, all models come with a rearview camera and an additional camera that displays what’s in the driver’s right-side blind spot. EX-L and Touring models further add lane departure and forward collision warning systems.
If the Accord Hybrid doesn’t appeal, several other worthy midsize hybrid sedans are worth a look. Chief among these is the Ford Fusion Hybrid, with a similarly roomy interior and excellent ride comfort. Maximum cargo capacity isn’t great in either car, but the Fusion’s rear seats fold down to accommodate larger items.
Overall, the Accord is desirable for its superior fuel economy, quicker acceleration and more intuitive touchscreen system.
2013 VOLKSWAGEN GTI
Average used transaction price: $13,826
Estimated fuel economy (automatic): 27 mpg combined (24 city/33 highway)
Hybrids are great for saving on gas, but college-bound shoppers who want excitement will want to look elsewhere. Luckily, there are a handful of cars that are both fun and sensible. The standout in this group is the sixth-generation Volkswagen GTI, produced from 2010 to 2014. A sport-tuned suspension and turbocharged engine provide the thrills, while high-quality interior materials and eye-catching upholstery make the GTI feel more refined than its primary rivals.
We think the GTI offers the best blend of performance and comfort, but there are competitors also worth considering. The Ford Focus ST is notable for its bold styling cues, beefier engine and larger cargo area. The Ford’s stiffer ride, subpar infotainment system and lack of an automatic transmission option make the GTI a better choice for everyday driving.
Note that the sixth-generation GTI actually carried on until 2014, but the final model year offered fewer choices: It had a limited color palette, only two trim levels and ditched the available two-door body style.
2014 MAZDA 3
Average used transaction price: $12,770
Estimated fuel economy (automatic-equipped hatchback with 2.0L engine): 33 mpg combined (29 city/39 highway)
For those who like the GTI’s utility but need something more affordable, a standard compact car might be the best choice. The Mazda 3 is a good representative. The Mazda’s interior is one of the nicest in the segment, with plenty of soft-touch plastics. It’s a tech-rich car as well: There’s a dash-mounted screen with high-quality graphics, an available head-up display, and safety options such as blind-spot monitoring, a rearview camera and forward collision warning. It’s also one of the most fun-to-drive compact cars on the road.
Popular rivals include the Honda Civic and the Ford Focus. But thanks to its many standard and optional features, excellent driving dynamics and nifty fold-flat seats, the Mazda 3 shines brighter.
2016 TOYOTA RAV4
Average used transaction price: $21,235
Estimated fuel economy (LE and XLE): 26 mpg combined (23 city/30 highway)
Though small cars and hybrids are useful and fuel-efficient, they can’t carry much. For students who are moving cross-country or who frequently transport large items, a crossover is the way to go. The Toyota RAV4 is a solid pick due to its comfortable ride, generous amount of interior space, and Toyota’s reputation for reliability. It’s also available with all-wheel drive, which can provide extra traction in snowy conditions.
While the fourth-generation RAV4 has been on sale since 2013, a handful of noteworthy additions make newer RAV4s more desirable. For 2015, Toyota revised the RAV4’s front structure to improve its crash scores, while 2016 brought a restyled front end and the introduction of a host of advanced safety features.
The RAV4 isn’t the most exciting vehicle in the class. The Ford Escape offers more powerful engines, and the Mazda CX-5 stands out for its impressive handling. But the RAV4’s all-around competence and widely available safety equipment make it a top choice.
EDMUNDS SAYS: A number of newer used cars provides good value for students heading off to college while offering the features and little luxuries that make a new life that much more fun.