Finding a car to beat up and down to school as a student isn't always easy, but whatever it is, it needs to be affordable, cheap to run and insure, and, of course, not entirely embarrassing to drive.
2004 – 2008 Mazda3
1997 – 2005 Volkswagen Golf
1998 – 2005 GMC Jimmy
2002 – 2007 Toyota Corolla
2000 – 2012 Chevrolet Impala
1999 – 2004 Oldsmobile Alero
2001 – 2011 Honda Civic
2002 – 2007 Ford Focus
2001 – 2012 Nissan Altima
1997 – 2002 Saturn S-Series
Shortly after the discontinuation of its predecessor, the Protege5, in 2003, the Mazda3 established itself as an ideal commuter car for students and young drivers in general. The Mazda3, available as both a sedan and hatchback, is affordable, and mixes modern styling with driving pleasure, thanks to its brisk handling, peppy four-cylinder engines and manual transmissions. Reliability is generally positive, with good-condition examples hovering around $8,000, though be sure to check the rear wheel wells for rust, as it is a common issue with this model. Insurance is relatively cheap as well, and the car holds a good safety rating. Mazda also offers student discounts (for post-secondary-education students) on their new models, so be sure to look into that as well.
If you’re looking for a cool European hatchback, the Golf is a good choice, and a best-seller. This good-looking, fun-to-drive compact car can be had as either a coupe or four-door hatchback, and is available with both automatic and manual transmissions (the latter tend to outlive the automatics). Diesel versions (TDI) of the Golf tend to be more reliable than gas-powered ones as well, but are noticeably more pricey. While parts are available, repairs can get expensive quickly — check for any sensor issues with a mechanic prior to making a purchase.
The “Jimmy” was a pioneer of the small SUV trend and was, in fact, a Chevrolet Blazer underneath the GMC badge. The Jimmy’s reliability is questioned by some, though many owners have been satisfied with its overall quality, given a proper maintenance schedule. Jimmy models with the optional all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive (4×4) are the best choice, as they can be very handy in snowy conditions, especially if the commute involves a few back-country roads. These pocket-sized SUVs are still around for a bargain price — though be sure to check for usual signs of rust and any transmission issues.
A reliable A-to-B car doesn’t have to yell out ‘style’ or ‘fun’ — it just has to get you there, comfortably and safely. The Corolla has long typified this ideology, promising sufficient speed and handling to keep things interesting. Unlike other compact cars in its class, the Corolla is fairly comfortable, which makes it a fuel-efficient contender for long voyages. Insurance rates are relatively low for used Corolla models, particularly the ’02 and ’07 generation.
If you’re looking for a practical full-size sedan that is affordable and fairly cheap to run, the Impala is a pretty solid start. It’s also very capacious, thanks to its big interior and deep trunk space, which means ferrying large groups of people around can be done comfortably. Fuel economy on the Impala is average for its class, despite its size — and it can get to speed fairly quickly thanks to a wide variety of V6 engines. Retail value for the Impala (particularly ’00 to ’05 generation) is relatively low, which means fully-loaded models (leather seats, sunroof, fog lights, entertainment system, etc.) are a bargain. Rust and transmission issues are fairly common however, so be sure to have the car inspected beforehand. As one of Chevy’s best sellers, replacement parts are equally cheap and abundant, should something go wrong.
Not many remember the Oldsmobile Alero, despite the fact it was the company’s last-ever model before the brand was axed altogether by General Motors in 2004. Available as both a sedan and two-door coupe, the Alero is a comfortable, cheap-to-run cruiser, and though not quick by any means, its V6 engines are a good choice for power and reliability. Rust is a common problem, so perform a thorough inspection of the underside beforehand. As for maintenance and repairs, the Alero shares many of its components with other GM sedans, so replacement parts are cheap and easy to find.
For those looking for a reliable compact car, the Civic is always a good place to start. For one, it’s fun to drive, thanks to its responsive handling, smooth manual transmissions and high-revving four-cylinder engines. Civics aren’t exactly known for their extravagant styling, but have generally kept a good score on reliability and maintenance, which makes it a good choice for a starting driver. Unfortunately, the Civic does have a higher-than-average insurance rate, since older generations are prone to theft. Check with an auto insurance company to see which Civic year offers the lowest rate.
When it first arrived in North America as a sedan and hatchback, the Focus was an instant hit. It drove well, was affordable, and looked like it belonged in the right century — which, fortunately, hasn’t changed. Many good-condition Focus models can be had for well under $6,000, though it’s important to check for rust and sensor issues, as repairs can get expensive. Overall, however, insurance is fairly low, and the car can be had with an abundance of features, including leather, sunroof, CD/MP3 player, four-wheel discs and anti-lock brakes, as well as fog lights and other exterior effects.
The mid-sized Altima sedan grew much over the years, with 2001 being the biggest leap for Nissan. Spacious and comfortable, the Altima comes equipped with several airbags as well as anti-lock-brakes (ABS) and is available with leather upholstery and a sunroof. A four-cylinder engine came standard, though the more powerful and reliable V6 (standard on SE V6 trim) is the better choice. Prices for a good-condition one hovers around the $6,000 mark, though some can be found for much less than that.
The S-Series was one of Saturn’s (now-defunct) most popular cars, mainly known for their extensive use of plastic body panels and cheap maintenance. This meant rust around the fenders and wheel wells is fairly uncommon, a plus for a car of this age. The S-Series was also available as a coupe and as a wagon, though most are available as sedans. Amenities such as a CD player, sunroof, disc brakes and power windows are found in most models, and can be had with a choice of manual and automatic transmissions. Insurance rates vary, though they are generally cheap. Replacement parts can easily be found, as Saturns share much of their components with other GM vehicles.