Honda  /  AP
The 2004 Honda Civic EX Coupe is one of's picks as a smart car for college kids.
updated 8/30/2004 2:29:00 PM ET 2004-08-30T18:29:00

As college-aged kids start making their way to campus, offers a guide to the most reliable, safe, stylish, practical car deals on the market.

This is a list that assumes ideal conditions and that you and your family aren't hurting financially. Many college students can't dream of owning anything more exciting than a 10-year-old Ford Taurus, but upscale men and women of style can find a new car which will be more exciting.

Because parents rightfully worry about the safety of cars driven by their children, who are still new to driving, we made safety as big a consideration as any in forming this list. The main source for our information on this subject was the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the part of the U.S. Department of Transportation that sets and enforces safety performance standards for motor vehicles.

The differences between good and bad NHTSA crash-test ratings are significant. A five-star frontal crash rating, the highest, indicates that a belted person's chance of serious injury in a head-on collision between two vehicles, each moving at 35 mph, is 10 percent or less. A one-star frontal crash rating, the lowest, means a chance of serious injury — one that requires immediate hospitalization and may be life-threatening — is 46 percent or greater. (A five-star side-crash rating means 5 percent or less chance of serious injury; one star means 26 percent or greater. A five-star rollover resistance rating means a risk of rollover is less than 10 percent in a single-vehicle crash; one star means a risk of over 40 percent. See the NHTSA Web site for more details on their methodology.)

All of the coupes and sedans on our list also had crash-test performances that earned their cars the designation of "Best Pick" from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a nonprofit research and communications organization funded by auto insurers.

Different vehicle types generate different levels of insurance rates. Sports cars, for example, cost most to protect than hatchbacks because they tend to be driven more aggressively. Men cost more to insure than women. Newer cars, also, are generally more expensive to insure as well. So, parents, make sure you comparison shop insurance as much as you do cars.

For new coupes and sedans, we did not consider any vehicle that did not have a NHTSA rollover resistance rating (with the exception of the Volvo S40, which has not yet been tested). We did consider pickup trucks and SUVs without rollover ratings, as NHTSA has only rated a few '04 pickups and SUVs for rollovers, but only two sport-utilities made our list. While light trucks may still be popular among younger buyers, they aren't as cheap as cars, and an individual pickup or SUV will tend to perform well in the NHTSA's or IIHS's crash tests — but not in both.

Having demanding safety standards complicated our list, which ended up being about the inexpensive new cars that have the highest amount of safety, value and features. Used cars are a separate business and would need their own discussion — but just to give you an idea of what is out there, we included a used Lexus IS300, a more upscale choice that is a good used-car deal. The same model can be a better deal as a used car than a new, and if you have ever wondered how teenagers in your city are driving BMWs and Infinitis, the answer is often that they bought them used.

Buying a new car is still an interesting gambit. If you can afford a $13,000 Honda Civic, you can get a car that has a sterling reputation. Many customers find leasing deals on new cars rewarding because they often make for monthly payments that compare to those of buying, but with much better options packages. You might find that leasing deals help a new car like the Civic, for example, or the even more plush Honda Accord, fortify your kids in safe, relatively luxurious accommodations for reasonable payments. You might also find your kids are interested buying the sort of inexpensive sports cars that are targeted at them, like Mitsubishi Motor's Lancer Evolution sedan. Many American teenagers in the tuner subculture — the group of kids that customize and soup up new and used inexpensive Japanese vehicles — live with their parents and spend most of their money on their cars.

All of the cars you're about to see are indeed safe, inexpensive and — perhaps the hardest characteristic to find — typical of the sort of innocuous good looks that tend to appease college kids. The Honda Civic and Volkswagen's Jetta already have reputations for strong youth appeal. With three vehicles on this list, Honda shows how it is snapping up the sort of budget-minded, safety-conscious customer who may have been priced out of owning a Volvo. We're also happy to include a vehicle like the Impreza wagon from General Motors' Subaru affiliate. The Impreza might not come to mind immediately during a search like this, so you will have to tell us what you think of it.

© 2012


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