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Summer is almost over and college is right around the corner, so here’s a look at the best used cars for college students listed on Carsforsale.com! 

College Cars to Consider 

Back to School
Back to School

Right after the 4th of July, you start to see it. Notebooks and backpacks show up in the Walmart and Target aisles. Those three dreaded words are displayed on signs and banners and Facebook ads: “Back to School!” All of the sudden, focus shifts from family vacations and barbecues to classroom supply lists and clothing sales. If your child has been using the family vehicle to get to and from high school but is headed off to college for the first time this fall, then a car may be the biggest item on your to-do list right now. If you’re in that situation, we’ve got three suggestions for you below. Other than the $10,000 budget, we left the selection wide open for this Critics’ Choice.

Jesse Batson

2011 Volkswagen Tiguan 

Short List:

2009 Saturn Vue
2017 Toyota Corolla iM
2011 Suzuki Kizashi 

2011 Volkswagen Tiguan - carsforsale.com
2011 Volkswagen Tiguan - carsforsale.com

When I was commuting to college, I had a used 1999 Ford Contour. Even though it was used, the previous owner didn’t put a ton of miles on it, so it was sitting at right around 55,000 miles when I first got it. By the time I parted with the Contour, that Contour had about 130,000 miles. It wasn’t exciting, but it got the job done. I liked my ’99 Contour, but if I had a redo (in today’s market), I think I’d at least try to find a crossover.

SUVs are just so handy with space for passengers and cargo. A vehicle that size, of course, helps on move-in day and at the end of the year when it’s time to pack everything up again. Beyond that, regularly hauling laundry, backpacks, and luggage back and forth isn’t an issue with a cargo area to make use of. That extra space is especially welcome if there are a couple of siblings who will be regularly commuting to school together in this vehicle. There are those times when other high school friends carpool together, too. The higher vantage point is another nice element when driving a SUV.

2011 Volkswagen Tiguan - carsforsale.com
2011 Volkswagen Tiguan - carsforsale.com

I do have a hatchback and a sedan on my shortlist. If you’re looking for one of those, the Toyota Corolla and Honda Accord are hard to beat. There’s a reason why they’re both on our list of the best-selling cars of all time. However, I was mostly looking at SUVs for this challenge, specifically those with all-wheel drive. That’s another feature that isn’t needed but is nice to have when traveling through the mountains or on icy interstates. It’s something I would’ve wanted for my younger self.

My final choice ended up being a 2011 Volkswagen Tiguan SE. I wanted it all in this challenge: the capability of AWD, the space for people and belongings, some updated driver assists, a rearview camera, Bluetooth, and the versatility of a SUV, but, for the price, I had to give up a few of my wish list items. With 80,845 miles, this 2011 Tiguan is priced at $8,995. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have AWD. There are other 2011 Tiguans available with AWD for around the same price, but the 2011 Tiguan with AWD that I was looking at was also sitting at 122,025 miles. If I’m not getting AWD, then knocking 40,000 miles off the vehicle was a nice consolation.

2011 Volkswagen Tiguan - carsforsale.com
2011 Volkswagen Tiguan - carsforsale.com

The 2011 Tiguan received very good crash test scores, which is important for me to know any time a loved one is getting into a vehicle. Acceleration is another important point since most college students take to the interstate to commute to college. That shouldn’t be an issue thanks to a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque. The engine is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.

A lot of the 2010, 2011, and 2012 models don’t offer a lot of the driver assists we’ve become accustomed to today, but this Tiguan does have a few. It has leather heated seats, which is by no means a must-have for any college student, but it also has adaptive cruise control and Bluetooth. Those were two important features I was looking for since, again, there’s likely some interstate driving involved in any college commute. Bluetooth ensures no reason to pick up the cell phone to answer a call. Adaptive cruise control could help alleviate any lead feet, too. There’s a decent-sized touchscreen with navigation and a rear-view camera. Those amenities weren’t included in my college car, but I’m sure I would’ve used them if they were!

2011 Volkswagen Tiguan - carsforsale.com
2011 Volkswagen Tiguan - carsforsale.com

Fuel efficiency is also important, especially now. This car isn’t stellar, but it’s acceptable with 18 mpg in the city and 24 mpg on the highway. The same could be said of the cargo space. There’s 23.8 cu-ft of cargo space in the 2011 Tiguan. With all the seats folded, there’s 56.1 cu-ft of space. That’s not as much space as some competitors, like the 2011 Nissan Rogue, the 2011 Honda CR-V, or the 2011 Kia Sportage. It does have more room than the 2011 Toyota RAV4 and 2011 Honda Element, though. Either way, it’s more than enough space for an emergency car kit and the bags a couple of typical college students will need on regular back-and-forth trips home.

The Tiguan may not have the cool factor that some other cars do, but new hubcaps and rims make a world of difference in that area. It’s actually already pretty sharp with the window tints and the black glossy paint. There are a lot of ways to spice up any vehicle with our Best Car Accessories Under $25 list, too. Then, it can have all the desired safety of a ‘Mom car’ without being called one. Of course, color and infotainment options expand a lot when increasing the price range, even just a little, to between $12,000 and $15,000. If you’re on a budget without much wiggle room, though, and still need a safe vehicle for your college-bound children, this 2011 Volkswagen Tiguan is one to consider.

Chris Kaiser

2009 Lexus ES 350

Short List:

2010 Honda Fit
2012 Subaru Outback
2007 Chevy Suburban

2009 Lexus ES 350 - carsforsale.com
2009 Lexus ES 350 - carsforsale.com

I have two primary criteria when recommending a good car for college students, utility and reliability. You’ll be packing up your vehicle to the brim before driving off to university and once there you’ll make friends, so decent seating is a must. In addition to good cargo and passenger space, you’ll want a vehicle that won’t leave you stranded in the parking lot when you’ve got to get to a class all the way across campus. And for you parents out there, there are few more dreaded phone calls back home than the one from the waiting room of a local garage with your kids asking for many hundreds of dollars to get their car back on the road.

With these things in mind, my first instinct was to recommend a Honda Fit. This modest hatchback is the epitome of practicality. Small, and therefore fuel efficient, yet designed to maximize interior space. But say the Fit is still a bit too small for you 6’2” lacrosse player? A Chevy Suburban can easily accommodate them and a good part of their team too. For solid reliability and loads of room for friends, Suburban is a solid choice. Splitting the difference is a Subaru Outback, great cargo and passenger space plus standard all-wheel drive, in case you’re schooling in the norther climes of the US.

2009 Lexus ES 350 - carsforsale.com
2009 Lexus ES 350 - carsforsale.com

And yet, none of those three excellent vehicles made it as my recommendation. Instead, I’m going with a 2009 Lexus ES 350. Toyota/Lexus tend to my default when prioritizing reliability and the ES, which is based off the Toyota Camry, has a great track record. The engine is a 3.5L V6 making 272 horsepower and 254 lb ft of torque paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. The power is ample, more than good enough for highway passing with ease and the comfort-tuned suspension provides a serene, unfatiguing ride for long trips back home. Gas mileage is a reasonable 19 city and 27 highway MPG.

2009 Lexus ES 350 - carsforsale.com
2009 Lexus ES 350 - carsforsale.com

The ES 350 is basically a nicer Camry for the same Camry money. Luxury accruements include a moonroof, premium stereo, navigation, Bluetooth, rearview camera, and dual-zone climate control. Of course, you also get classy wood trim and plush leather seating. There’s a 14.7 cu ft trunk with passthrough for your skis, fishing equipment, or what-have-you. Perhaps best of all, this specific example is in excellent condition inside and out. For the car you wish the grandparents had passed down to your college kid, go with the Lexus ES 350.

Jesse McGraw

2008 Ford Escape Hybrid

Short List:

2014 Kia Soul
2004 Toyota Corolla
2010 Dodge Journey 

2008 Ford Escape Hybrid - carsforsale.com
2008 Ford Escape Hybrid - carsforsale.com

College kids want a fun car that’ll be exciting to drive around while they’re distanced from their parents. Stuff like the Subaru WRX STi, a lifted Chevrolet Silverado, or a restored muscle car will get all the attention of other students. None of those options are practical for college use though and in reality, students will have to settle on whatever gets handed to them if their parents are fronting the bill.

What college kids actually need in a college vehicle is a lot less cool. They need a car that can last a long while for a lot of miles, save on gas, and have enough room to move dorm stuff or friends around. Plus, parents shopping for a vehicle want something they know won’t be hot rodded around and can keep their child safe (having a good price helps too). That’s why I went with an affordable SUV that checks all the boxes and comes in at under $10,000 – a used Ford Escape Hybrid. Parents may be met with groans of disappointment when they pull up to the house and hand their kids the keys to a used Ford Escape Hybrid, but those college kids will learn to enjoy this SUV.

2008 Ford Escape Hybrid - carsforsale.com
2008 Ford Escape Hybrid - carsforsale.com

I found this single owner 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid for sale on Carsforsale.com that not only looks nice but would be a great choice for a kid heading to college. It has only 86,318 miles on the odometer and that’s well below what these Ford Escapes are known for. The city of New York famously employed this generation of the Ford Escape Hybrid for years as taxis and those have been known to last for over 400,000 miles. This example I found may not last that long, but it definitely has plenty of travel left in it with that kind of history behind the model.

With this front-wheel drive Escape being a hybrid, it also gets some wonderful fuel economy figures. Saving at the pump in college is a near necessity as that extra cash can be used for food, books, or maybe some extracurriculars after class. The EPA estimates that the 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid can achieve 34 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway for a combined rating of 32 mpg combined. That’s better than some modern hybrids when it comes to fuel economy numbers.

2008 Ford Escape Hybrid - carsforsale.com
2008 Ford Escape Hybrid - carsforsale.com

The previous owner of this Escape Hybrid must have been a nice old lady or something because that light blue paint job and clean tan interior look great for how old it is. Speaking of the interior, this Ford Escape features built in navigation, an easy to clean cargo tray, a cargo cover, and seating for up to five. Cargo space behind the second row measures out to 27.8 cu-ft and can expand to 66 cu-ft if you flip those rear seats down. It has the seating for friends when you want it while having the cargo space to toss your clothes and dorm furniture in the back when you need it.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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