IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Best cars for college students's annual guide to the most affordable and safe cars for college students.
2005 Honda Civic EX Coupe.Honda / Wieck
/ Source: Forbes

When you're in your dank dorm room, ordering pizza for the third time in a week, does it ever strike you that getting off campus might be nice?

Even if it's just to take a drive to get takeout instead of delivery, freedom from the quad can be a most liberating — and even invigorating — experience for college students. If you have a car in college, you can not only get away from school, but you can get far away — with road trips or just cruising around.

And on some large campuses in cities without good public transportation — for example, Detroit's Wayne State University — a car is almost mandatory if you want to juggle classes, a job or two and social activities, without always running late — or simply running.

This is why each year, presents its list of cars that make for good university transportation. The list is for college students and their parents — who often have a hand in vehicular purchases, particularly if it is a new car — and it focuses on cars that are safe and cheap. In the slide show that follows, you will see automobiles that normally don't belong in these pages, such as the Hyundai Elantra sedan, because we place a premium on style and luxury, and usually not on affordability.

However, cheap cars are the name of the game when it comes to shopping for your college student--that and safety. We believe that concern for your kid's safety should be at the forefront of your comparison shopping — so much so that we have made pricing and crash-test results the only criteria for this list. Really, doesn't a typical buying consideration, such a gas mileage, seem a bit petty next to protecting your teenager's life?

Of course, we realize that few parents are able to — or would want to — spend lots of money on cars for their kids. Therefore, in forming this list we only evaluated 2005 model cars, pickups and sport utility vehicles, with base prices under $20,000 (we did not consider including minivans on the list; please, don't make your kid own such a vehicle just yet). We made one exception to the under-$20,000 rule and included an Audi A4 sedan, just to show the kind of upmarket offering some wealthier buyers are seeking; the A4 is safe without being unreasonably expensive and has better crash test scores than the BMW 3 Series.

Last year when we published this feature and our annual feature on smart cars for teenagers, we received comments from readers on the order of, "Who can afford to buy their kids new cars?" While we understand this concern, the aim of this section's editors is to provide readers with information about the newest vehicles on the market. Because we want to run this particular feature each year, we need to focus only on new cars in order to make the piece newsworthy.

However, even if used cars would require their own discussion, we should point out that the same model is ordinarily a better deal as a used car than a new one, and if you have ever wondered how teenagers are driving Infinitis from Nissan Motor and BMWs, the answer is often that they bought them used.

Price of insurance
Another key variable that plays a role in the cost of buying your kid wheels is the price of insurance. Different vehicle types generate different levels of insurance rates. Sports cars, for example, cost more to protect than hatchbacks because they tend to be driven more aggressively. Boys cost more to insure than girls. Newer cars are also generally more expensive to insure. So, parents, make sure you comparison shop insurance as much as you do cars.

Another financial tip is to consider leasing instead of buying. Many customers find leasing deals on new cars rewarding because they often make for monthly payments that compare with those of buying, but with much better option packages. You might find that leasing deals help a new car, like the Civic by Honda Motor, for example, or the even-plusher Honda Accord, fortify your kids in safe, relatively luxurious accommodations for reasonable payments.

But in our book, your main concern should be safety. For our data on safety, we consulted crash tests from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation that develops and administers vehicular safety regulations.

While NHTSA has not crash tested every car on the market, it has tested enough cars to give us a list of ten safe vehicles for college students. On NHTSA's five-star scale, a one-star difference means a great deal. In the frontal tests, NHTSA crashes vehicles into a fixed barrier at 35 mph. A five-star rating in this test means that, in such a crash, the chance of an injury that requires immediate hospitalization and may be life-threatening is 10 percent or less. A four-star rating means the chance of such an injury is 11 percent to 20 percent, while a one-star rating — the lowest — means a 46 percent or greater chance of such an injury.

In NHTSA's side-impact crash tests, a 3,015-pound barrier crashes at 38.5 mph into a standing vehicle. A five-star rating in this test means that in such a crash, the chance of a serious injury is 5 percent or less.A four-star rating means the chance of such an injury is 6 percent to 10 percent, while a one-star rating — the lowest — means a 26 percent or greater chance of such an injury. Usually, a vehicle with side airbags will have better crash-test results than the same model minus the side bags. If two sets of ratings were available — one for, say, a Civic with side bags and one without — we considered the superior set of ratings.

To be included in the slide show that follows, a vehicle must have two frontal crash-test ratings and two side crash-test ratings, and it must have four- and five-star ratings across the board. In order to keep the list to a reasonable length, we had to accept some vehicles with two five-star ratings while cutting others. Price was a mitigating factor in such exclusions.