It doesn’t take an economics major to find a great car for college—but it does take a little research. The most important things for a college car are reliability, fuel economy, safety, and of course, price. Lucky for you, TheCarConnection.com’s editors not only went to college—the eight-year plan, in some cases—they’ve also studied every 2008 model available for sale in the United States, from crash-test scores to gas mileage.
Of all the cars driven and researched by TheCarConnection.com’s editors, these eight stand out for their basic formula of goodness. Each gets at least 25 mpg on the highway and has a base price of less than $15,000, along with a long list of standard safety gear and good crash-test scores. Some are sedans; some are cargo-friendly wagons; and we’ve even chosen a couple of coupes for the style-conscious. In alphabetical order, they are:
Restyled for the 2008 model year, and updated for 2009, the Ford Focus is a roomy entry-level car—and a music lover’s dream thanks to its SYNC system. A two-door coupe and four-door sedan share a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 140 horsepower and a choice of a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. Inside there’s good room for four, and the interior also features SYNC, a voice-activated, hands-free communications and entertainment interface that links the car to all manner of phones, PDAs, MP3 players, and portable storage devices. The Focus scores five stars in frontal impacts and has six standard airbags, but make sure to order the optional anti-lock brakes.
2008 Honda Fit
The 2008 Honda Fit is a subcompact five-door hatchback with entertaining road manners and frugal fuel economy. Its 109-horsepower engine won’t be the stuff of NASCAR miracles, but it works very well with either five-speed manual or automatic transmissions. The Fit gets 34 mpg on the highway and 28 in the city, and does it with Honda’s trademark light touch in its controls and a roomy interior with a folding “Magic Seat” that opens a cargo area big enough for a standard-sized bicycle. Side curtain airbags, front-seat side-impact bags, and anti-lock brakes are standard, and it gets top five-star scores in the federal government’s frontal and side tests (though rear-seat passengers only have three-star side-impact protection).
2008 Hyundai Elantra
The 2008 Hyundai Elantra is the South Korean brand’s compact sedan and a recent winner of a compact-car comparison from Consumer Reports. Power comes from a 138-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and goes through either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy is as good as 25/33 mpg. It’s a good-looking vehicle, with enough room for adults in back and a good-quality interior outfitted with power windows, power heated rearview mirrors, power door locks, remote keyless entry, and a tilt steering wheel. Options include a Bluetooth hands-free system, leather, a power sunroof, and a 220-watt premium audio system with an iPod jack. The Elantra gets top front-impact scores and four-star side-impact ratings, and comes with anti-lock brakes and six airbags.
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer
The Lancer is Mitsubishi’s smallest sedan and lowest-priced car in the U.S. lineup. It uses a 152-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, paired with either a very precise-shifting five-speed manual or a "gearless" CVT automatic. The nicely detailed look is matched by a comfortable cabin. Base versions have power windows and a CD sound system, but upscale versions can be outfitted with Bluetooth, automatic climate control, a 650-watt Rockford-Fosgate sound system, and a navigation system that includes a 30GB hard-drive music server. Four- and five-star crash test ratings are backed up by front, side, and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes are standard on ES and GTS Lancers, but stability control is not available on any version.
2009 Pontiac Vibe
The five-door Vibe returns with a new body style for 2009, a pair of engines and all-wheel drive as an option. Buyers can pick from a 158-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder or stick with the base 1.8-liter four, making 132 horsepower. Both engines can be teamed to a manual or automatic transmission. Fuel efficiency is good, especially with the 1.8-liter engine, which returns ratings as high as 26 mpg city, 32 mpg highway with the manual transmission. The smoother look outside is met with a roomy interior and high-quality feel inside; the rear seats fold flat to expand the cargo area. A 320-watt Monsoon sound system is among the options. All Vibes include front side airbags, side-curtain bags, anti-lock brakes, and electronic stability control. The Vibe gets five stars for side impacts for front-seat occupants and four stars in back; front impact tests aren’t in yet.
2008 Saturn Astra
The new 2008 Astra is a European-bred car from GM’s Saturn brand. It comes in two flavors: two-door hatchback and four-door hatchback. It gets its power from a 1.8-liter four-cylinder that spins out 138 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque. The sweet-revving four-cylinder teams well with a five-speed manual that offers a light-touch clutch; there’s a four-speed automatic offered as well. The Astra's ride feels Euro-tuned, with electronic power steering and strong brakes. The Astra has features not often found at this price point, like steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and express-up power windows. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn’t yet tested the Astra but it comes with six standard airbags, anti-lock brakes, and GM’s OnStar system.
2008 Scion xB
The 2008 Scion xB is the second generation of the popular four-door hatchback sold by Toyota’s youth-oriented brand. The 2008 Scion xB is outfitted with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder with 158 horsepower, mated to either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. Fuel economy is 22/28 mpg. There’s room for four or cargo room to move most of a dorm room in one trip (minus the flat-screen TV and MicroFridge). Anti-lock brakes, side and curtain airbags, and stability control are standard equipment. The 2008 Scion xB gets four stars for front impact protection and five stars for side impacts.
2008 Suzuki SX4
The SX4 is a small crossover vehicle with a wagon body, an upscale interior, and plenty of driving fun. Its 2.0-liter four spins out 143 horsepower in a happy, smooth patter; a sweet-shifting five-speed manual is standard, and a four-speed automatic is available. The government rates the SX4 at 21/28 mpg with the manual transmission. Though it might not look like much from the outside, the SX4 has a sharp interior with a high-quality look and features like a CD player with MP3 capability; iPod integration and Bluetooth are available. Six airbags are standard, as are anti-lock brakes and a seven-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. The NHTSA rates the SX4 with four stars for most crash and rollover tests, save for five-star driver-side impact protection.