College is a special and unique time in a person’s life. It represents an often unharmonious collision of academia and celebration, of studying and having fun. It’s the only time in our lives when delivering a presentation on the Hawthorne studies and eating pizza bagels for breakfast can happen in the same 24 hour period and still be socially acceptable.
However, as anyone who is attending or has attended college will tell you, the experience often extends outside the physical bounds of the campus. Aimlessly driving around town serves as a head-clearing study break, and going into the city to catch a game is a favorite among weekend activities.
The vehicle (pun very much intended) for this exercise and exploration, of course, is your car. The car that takes us to the games or carries us around town while we clear our heads is much more than a mode of transportation. It serves as a medium through which memories are formed and kept. No matter what is is, the car you drive throughout college will be remembered as a part of the experience, and hopefully not the jalopy that left you stranded on the way to Chick-Fil-A. It’s important to drive a car that will fit all of your friends and be fun, safe, reliable, and most importantly—affordable while it does. So, here are my top five recommendations on the best cars for college students.
- 2005-2015 Lexus IS250
When it comes to reliability, it’s difficult to beat Toyota and its luxury brand, Lexus. Known for making comfortable and reliable cruisers with a splash of style and an upscale feel, Lexus has all the makings of being a perfect brand for college students. Its entry level model, the IS, is no exception.
The 2005-2015 IS250 was designed to compete in the luxury sports sedan class alongside the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4. And compete it did, as the IS cemented Lexus as a legitimate competitor in the segment, bringing in an element of bulletproof reliability that the Germans couldn’t beat, and are still struggling to match today. The IS250 is fun, stylish, good-sounding, and has five seats, perfect for a college student. What’s more, competing in a luxury segment means that the IS resale value dropped like a rock in the ocean—they can be found in great shape for well under $10,000 on the used market.
- 2007-2015 Infiniti G37
Infiniti, like Lexus, is the luxury brand of another popular carmaker: Nissan. Infiniti is to Nissan what Lexus is to Toyota. That means that Lexus and Infiniti compete in the same segment, so yes, I’m sticking to the entry-level luxury sports sedan segment that the Lexus IS250 competed in. And for good reason, too—what’s better for a college student than a well-styled, athletic and already depreciated luxury car?
Now, that’s not to say that these two cars, while similar in ethos, are the same. They are distinctly different in a number of ways. For one, the Infiniti is much quicker, boasting 325 horsepower, compared to the Lexus’ 205 horsepower. The Infiniti is also slightly larger, allowing for more room in the back seats which will often be occupied.
However, the Lexus gets the nod in reliability and, in my opinion, styling. So, the choice between these two really does boil down to personal preference, as they are priced similarly on the used market (though the Lexus on average is ever so slightly cheaper.) The great thing about this choice though, is that you really can’t go wrong. Both the Infiniti G37 and Lexus IS250 will serve any college student extraordinarily well.
- 2012-2016 Honda CR-V
Okay, so maybe you’re not as interested in style, brand name and sportiness for your college car, and that is perfectly fine. The 2012-2016 Honda CR-V is on this list for people like you.
Honda builds cars with efficiency, reliability and practicality taking priority over everything else, making them perfect for the college student who just wants something that will be great for point A to B traveling. And for that, the CR-V is perfect. It’s ceaselessly reliable, fuel efficient, and very practical.
Being a crossover rather than a sedan like the previous entries, the CR-V has more passenger space, and an even better cargo area. However, this does come at a slight premium, as the CR-V is the most expensive, on average, of the cars listed so far. They can still be found for under $10,000 used, but those examples are typically higher mileage, though that may be less of a consideration considering the CR-V’s impeccable reliability.
- 2000-2006 Chevrolet Tahoe
The Tahoe may seem like an odd pick on a list for college students, but hear me out before reaching a conclusion. The Tahoe is on this list for the college student who wants something a bit more rugged and utilitarian while still retaining all the hallmarks of the traditional “college car.” Despite being a mid-2000s GM vehicle, the Tahoe is actually quite reliable. Chevy’s Vortec V8s are famously simple and thus reliable, as long as they are well-maintained. Additionally, as a function of the Tahoe’s weight and size, it is the vehicle I would most want to be occupying in the event of a crash. Its traditional SUV body-on-frame design affords it a level of structural rigidity that the other choices simply cannot match.
Additionally, when optioned accordingly, the Tahoe can fit nine, count ‘em nine people. With an optional front bench seat combined with the optional 3rd row seats, a pair of Tahoes can fit an entire residence hall floor.
The icing on the cake for the Tahoe is its price, as plenty of examples can be found for under $5,000 (which is great, because you’ll be spending a bit more on gas for the thirsty V8.) You may have to do a bit of digging to find one in good shape for that price, but I assure you that it can be done. Just be sure to check for rust, as Tahoes of this era are entering an age where rust is somewhat of a concern.
- 2007-2012 Acura RDX
Rounding out the list is a car that combines the best features of all previous entries into one seamless package, representing a best-of-all-worlds pick for your college car. The 2007-2012 RDX was Acura’s entry in the luxury crossover market, meaning it has the practicality and fuel efficiency of an entry-level crossover, with the sporty flair of an upmarket brand.
The RDX comes equipped with a turbocharged Honda 4-cylinder engine that makes 240hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. There are two key words in that sentence: Honda and turbocharged. Acura bears the Honda name as the company’s luxury brand (think back to Lexus/Toyota, Infiniti/Nissan) meaning it has to live up to Honda’s lofty reliability standards.
However, the RDX is turbocharged, which means it serves as a perfect intersection of reliability and grunt. In addition to the powerplant though, the RDX looks good, and can be had with Acura’s “super-handling” AWD system. It’s practical, quick, sporty, fun, and fairly fuel efficient. And to top it all off, plenty of RDXs can be found used for under $10,000. It’s very nearly the perfect car for a college student.