Best Used Cars for College and High School Graduates

Consider older used cars for graduates just getting on their feet

If your kid hasn’t beaten you up yet for a car while in high school or college, here are the best used cars for high school graduates as they prepare for college or college graduates as they prepare for the real world. Don’t feel guilty about not buying them a new car. It’s totally unnecessary for young people just starting out to drive a new car. Plus with college expenses you’ve probably bought them the equivalent of a new car. Regardless of what you select, make sure it’s thoroughly inspected by a trained mechanic. Also, most cars recommended do not qualify for manufacturers’ certified pre-owned programs.

HS Grads Going To Far Flung Colleges

2007 Honda Fit. Photo © Honda

Does your child have a long drive to school and little financial aid? A 2007 Honda Fit is the perfect used car. It has great fuel economy at 28 mpg city and 35 mpg highway with the 5-speed manual transmission. The interior space is simply amazing for such a small car. The Fit also has an abundance of safety and technology features as standard equipment like six standard airbags and anti-lock brakes. Dealer prices start at $5,500.

HS Grads Studying at Local Colleges

2007 Suzuki SX4. Photo courtesy of Suzuki

The most important thing when you are commuting to college is getting to college. You don’t need a lot of storage space because you’re not setting up and breaking down a dorm room. What you do need is a good, reliable car that can get you through most conditions. The 2007 Suzuki SX4 fits the bill perfectly. It comes with all-wheel drive standard, which you are not going to find on a car in the compact class. The AWD system operates in three modes via a switch mounted by the shifter – 2WD mode for maximum fuel economy on dry pavement; AWD Auto mode, which controls the drive power distribution ratio to the rear wheels from 0-50 percent, depending on available traction; and AWD Lock mode designed to facilitate traction in case of snow or mud. The EPA rates it at 24-mpg city and 30 mpg highway. A 2007 model with automatic starts at around $4,900. Consumer Reports give this car good marks for reliability.

HS Grads Going to Trade School

2002 Chevrolet Express Cargo Van. Photo © Chevrolet

In a couple of years, they will probably be buying you cars with the demand so high for skilled tradespeople. In the meantime, a nice utility van like the 2005 Chevrolet Express Cargo 1500 could do the trick. Cargo vans are not my specialty, but does select it as an Editors Wanted for 2002. The 2005 model gets good marks from Consumer Reports. It has a lot of functionality and should serve any trade student until they get a company van (or at least finish their apprenticeships). Dealer retail starts at $4000 for the 2005 model. Got a younger student thinking about trade school? Wait for the used Ford Transit Connects to hit the market.

HS Grads Entering the Military

2005 GMC Sierra. Photo © GMC

Well, they are not going to need a car for the first few months, are they? But when they are finished with basic get them a good pickup like the 2005 GMC Sierra 1500 short bed with a standard cab. It will be good for moving from base to base. Dealer retail is $7,400. The secret here, though, is to buy the truck after your child is in the military. Then, have him or her apply for a military-rate loan through Bank of America (for example). You can make the payments and save money with an interest rate that is typically 1% lower. The overall terms are a lot friendlier for people with little or no credit.

HS Grads with No Sense of Purpose

2003 Ford Expedition. Photo © Ford

OK, we all were either like this at one point or have had kids who were or are. The surest way to turn them into hard-working souls is to buy them a big SUV like the 2005 Ford Expedition. You buy the vehicle but they pay for the gas. With fuel economy of 13 mpg city and 18 mpg highway, they will become masters at planning and learning the value of a buck. If they do not, you can always kick them out and tell them to sleep in the back. Dealer retail is $5,900.

College Grads Moving Home with No Loans

2005 Ford Mustang Convertible. Photo courtesy of Ford

Ideally for college grads with no loans, you would not buy them a car because they can afford to finance. Lacking that, if the grad has a good job now is the time to splurge on something a little reckless. A 2005 Ford Mustang convertible is slightly reckless because it is a convertible. Plus, convertibles are not the most practical cars (even with fuel economy of 17-city and 23-highway), but that is not a big deal if you are young and carefree. Dealer retail is $5,459.

College Grads Moving Home with Loans

A 2004 Ford Focus is a good value for a recent college graduate. Photo © Ford

I’m a big fan of the 2005 Ford Focus coupe as good basic transportation. It has a great price at $4,424 that isn’t going to break the bank. The 2005 has a strong recommendation from Consumer Reports for reliability. Your grad will love this car for its affordability and sportiness. Buy it quick before gas prices get really high.

College Grads Moving Into a City

2004 Toyota Corolla. Photo © Toyota

Buy an urban grad something small that is not showing up on any Top 10 list of most stolen used cars. Those tend to be older vehicles with security systems that are easy to beat. A 2006 Toyota Corolla sedan is easy to park, surprisingly comfortable to drive, economical to own, and not on most car thieves' radar. Just remind your graduate not to leave a portable navigation system visible and to remove the stereo. Dealer retail starts about $7,075 (splurge a little and get the LE trim with power windows and locks). Don't worry. This model was not part of the massive Toyota recall of 2010.

College Grads Going To Grad School

2002 Dodge Neon. Photo © Dodge

Grad students do not tend to be rolling in the dough. So, they need something reliable and easy to maintain. Here is my personal recommendation (because I own a 2002 model): a 2005 Dodge Neon. It is not exciting to drive, but it is dependable (Consumer Reports gives it average reliability scores) and gets good fuel economy at 25 mpg city and 32 mpg highway. Dealer price is $3,105 for the SE model. Get a good pre-purchase inspection to make sure it wasn’t souped up as a boy toy racer at some point in its life. A big spoiler on the rear should make your nervous.

College Grads Out on Their Own

2005 Honda Civic. Photo © Honda

They do not want any headaches. Give them something reliable to own like a 2007 Honda Civic sedan. Dealer retail is $6,277, but it’s a car that should last at least another five years with the right maintenance. It’s a practical car (rated 25 city and 36 highway by the EPA) with the space to get things moved, plus it can seat 4 adults comfortably.

Be Thorough

As always, do your research and have a pre-purchase inspection done on these older used cars. They are good overall but individual models may have their quirks.
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Your Citation
Griffin, Keith. "Best Used Cars for College and High School Graduates." ThoughtCo, Aug. 23, 2016, Griffin, Keith. (2016, August 23). Best Used Cars for College and High School Graduates. Retrieved from Griffin, Keith. "Best Used Cars for College and High School Graduates." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 18, 2017).