As Boston-area folks know all too well, another year’s worth of college students will soon graduate and move on to their next stage in life. Whether that next stage will be an entry-level job, more school, volunteer or charity work, or getting right to work on their first (next?) startup, we wish this year’s graduates nothing but the best with whatever comes next.
We ran a recent survey that determined more than half of graduating college students plan to buy a car, and we were happily surprised to learn that over half of them expect to buy it themselves. Two-thirds of those getting a new car plan to buy a used one, and almost half expect to spend $15,000 or less, though we also learned that graduating college students don’t understand a car’s true costs. Over half plan to work in the city, and 71% plan to commute by car.
So here’s a graduation present from CarGurus: a list of 10 cars available used at an average cost of $15,000 or less that are all fine commuting cars and should hold their value relatively well. We deliberately avoided sports cars, which might tempt even a valedictorian to drive unsafely and would cost substantially more to insure. We hope all recent graduates plan to continue learning in their next stage of life, and we look forward to celebrating some of their successes in the no doubt impressively near future.
We know today’s college grads are a pragmatic bunch, and no car embodies reason and practicality quite like the Honda Fit. Prices for the latest-generation Fit run a bit too high for an entry-level budget, and the initial generation had some quality concerns. Luckily, like the classic Goldilocks story, the second generation of the Fit is just right. Not too expensive, with an average price ranging from just under $12,000 for a 2009 to just over $14,000 for a 2013, the Fit is a veritable Swiss Army knife on wheels. You won’t want for cargo room, with 20.6 cubic feet of storage behind the rear seat, and 57.3 cubic feet if you fold the rear seat down, and the Fit’s nimble front-wheel-drive architecture helps deliver an engaging driving experience despite the little 1.5-liter 4-cylinder’s measly 117 hp. Tack on impressive safety ratings and combined fuel economy of 31 mpg, and the Fit is the perfect choice for a college grad who needs a car that delivers a little bit of everything.
Of the college grads we surveyed, 71% expect to commute via car, so finding a ride that delivers great fuel economy is paramount. Each car on our list today offers at least 25 mpg in combined driving, but the Toyota Prius blows that number out of the water, delivering 50 combined mpg. A 2010-2011 Prius will set a young college grad back only about $12,000, but the amount you’ll save on gas alone makes this an especially frugal pick. The Prius isn’t a one-trick pony, either. The hybrid’s liftback design affords 21.6 cubic feet of space with all seats in position, and just under 40 cubic feet if you drop the rear seat. Tack on a NHTSA 5-star safety rating, and the Prius is a smart choice for young college grads.
One of the best ways to guarantee a good deal on a used car is to shop for models currently saturating the market. Between 2011 and 2013, Chevrolet recorded nearly a quarter-million annual sales of its compact Cruze sedan, surpassing that figure in 2014 with 272,060 U.S. sales. When we started looking at the data for this list, there were nearly 15,000 Cruzes listed for sale on CarGurus – the most of any car on this list by a wide margin. Thanks to this bounty, the Cruze ranges in average price from just under $11,000 for a 2011 model to $14,668 for a 2014. Beyond an appealing price tag, the Cruze also delivers an impressive suite of technology, including Internet radio, bluetooth connectivity, and Siri Eyes Free telematics. College grads looking for the most tech bang-for-their-buck will be well rewarded by the Cruze.
We have a confession to make: there are precious few SUVs on the used car market that deliver more than 25 mpg, and even fewer that do so with an average price tag of less than $15,000. The 2011 Ford Escape has been well-reviewed by CarGurus users, who appreciate its ride and handling, along with its rugged looks and comfortable seating position. Beyond those merits, SUVs provide more capability than sedans or hatchbacks. The allure of driving off the beaten path, the threat of winter weather and slippery roads, and the downright capacious interior dimensions provided by an SUV all point toward Americans’ obsession with larger cars. At only $13,322, the 2011 Escape is hard to pass up for anyone looking for a fuel-efficient SUV.
Hyundai has come a long way since its Reagan-era arrival in the U.S., having recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and currently ranked as the world’s fourth-largest automaker. Its Elantra has a shorter history, but the 2011-2015 Hyundai Elantra was a huge success, selling more than 186,000 units, a 41% jump from 2010. The 2011 Elantra marked the arrival of the fifth generation, a dramatic change from previous versions, getting a totally new look, a more powerful and efficient drivetrain, and a roomier cabin. Its 145 hp won’t set any records, but the Sport trim that arrived in 2014 packs a little more power, and as we noted at the top, more power might be fun, but it’ll cost more, too. A 2011 Elantra averages just over $10,600, but even the 2015 version, which has a 32-mpg combined mileage rating, averages just under $14,325 used, making it the newest car on this list.
If you’re shopping for an inexpensive car, chances are you won’t find too many German sedans on that list. An exception to this is the 2010-2012 Volkswagen Jetta. Volkswagen tweaked the Jetta for mass appeal, and the result is a spacious, feature-rich sedan for an incredibly affordable price. In a similar capacity, the Jetta Sportwagen brings the appeals of its sedan counterpart and brings them into a stylish, spacious, and, most importantly, affordable wagon. The average listing price for both a Jetta and a Jetta Sportwagen on CarGurus fall within the $9,500–14,000 range. The Jetta and Jetta Sportwagen carry with them the German automaker’s reputation for refined engineering and build quality. Also, now you’ll likely be able to find insane deals on TDI versions of the Jetta variants, if you can live with their high emissions numbers.
While it hasn’t yet matched the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry in sales, the Mazda6 is a terrific midsize sedan that offers a little more driving excitement than its better-known, bigger-selling rivals. The 2012-2013 Mazda6 marks the end of the second generation of the Mazda6 in the U.S., and while it falls short of the Accord and Camry mileage-wise, 4-cylinder versions of the Mazda6 from either year meet our 25-mpg-combined minimum (barely). That 4-cylinder measures 2.5 liters and produces 170 hp, and while it has less zoom-zoom than the V6, it should cost less up front and over time, and the Mazda6’s handling and braking both get strong reviews from users and critics. The 2012 version is available at an average price of less than $12,384, while the ’13 averages just under $14,884.
Most of the retro-looking cars on today’s roads don’t meet our mileage minimum for this list. But BMW’s 2010-2012 MINI Cooper Clubman manages to strongly remind us of the very distinctive original car that arrived in the UK just before the swinging sixties started while also managing to get 30 mpg combined. And because MINI is now owned by BMW, the new cars offer tight handling and an exciting drive despite having no more than 121 hp, but you’ll need to take a slightly older version of this model to stay under $15,000. The Clubman extends the standard Cooper’s platform to add second-row legroom and cargo space, not to mention barn-style rear doors that make loading and unloading the trunk easier. The 2010 Clubman averages $11,395, the 2011 averages $13,376, and the 2012 averages $14,881. The Clubman certainly isn’t the most effective cargo carrier on this list, but it should be near the top in terms of driving enjoyment.
Not an enthusiast car in the traditional sense, the Kia Soul was introduced to appeal to a younger market segment as a unique and highly stylized hatchback. Most used Souls can be found for under $15,000, with an average listing price on CarGurus in the $9,500-14,500 range for most Souls from 2014 back. And Soul listings are bountiful, with well over 6,000 for sale on CarGurus right now. As we mentioned above, the more listings you can find, the better chance you’ll have of finding a great deal. In line with Kia’s trendy marketing for the Soul, this cubic hatchback is as modern as any other vehicle out there, offering a relatively high tech value. Even for a car a couple of years old, the Soul includes some great standard tech features that also come standard on new, more expensive brands, such as Bluetooth and hands-free calling, an 8-inch touchscreen with voice-command navigation, and door-mounted speaker lights that pulsate and change color along with the audio.
Young adults are perhaps the most environmentally conscious car-shoppers out there. Yes the Toyota Prius’ excellent fuel economy makes it a premier pick for a green-friendly commuter car, but it’s hard to beat an emissions-free electric vehicle. And with the available options in the market for an EV, you really can’t do any better than the 2012-2014 Nissan Leaf. The Leaf’s value has aged well for the buyer. Even relatively new models (2012-2014) of this early-stage electric car can be found for under $13,500, and owners of the Leaf have the added benefit of not having to worry about (i.e. pay for) gasoline at all. Now, the range on the Leaf isn’t huge (just 75 miles on a single charge) when compared to some of the higher-profile EVs out there. But until the day you can get a $12,000 Tesla, the Leaf is the best electric-car value you can find.
What car would you recommend for a recent grad?
–John Harrington, Matt Smith, and Steve Halloran
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