As a college student, between a busy class-ridden schedule, keeping relationships, saving money and eating something more substantial than Top Ramen, a car is the least important thing on your mind. That’s why when your car shopping you need something cheap, reliable, doesn’t require maintenance, easy to fix, and is small enough to fit in a parking space the size of a brick. Combining all of these characteristics can be a challenge, but thankfully isn’t impossible. The key is to not avoid cars that break because that’s impossible. The idea here is to find a car that is cheap and easy to fix. That means cheap parts and large engine bays (relatively).
In general, as a college student, you should be looking at manual transmission cars. The reason is they are less complicated than automatic transmissions and are completely mechanical so they are more durable. Learning how to properly shift, and keeping gear oil changes on your radar, will mitigate the amount of maintenance you’ll need to do. Changing a clutch on a manual is cheaper than fixing an automatic transmission. Especially if you’re looking at Hondas, which are known to have faulty transmissions. A manual Honda is less likely to have a broken transmission than an automatic.
Toyotas require the least amount of maintenance of any other car manufacturer. They last for hundreds of miles, are cheap to fix, don’t require a lot of maintenance as a whole, and you can get them for fairly cheap as long as you can find an old one with enough miles. If you follow our advice and stick to manual transmissions, Toyotas are a relatively safe bet as among Hondas and Nissans, they are the most reliable Japanese manufacturer when it comes to manual transmissions. Hondas tend to break as we’ve said, and Nissan's grind gears not long into their lives. The reason we recommend 1990s Toyotas is because they will be cheaper. For the college student who’s looking for a cheap, reliable car on the larger side, the Toyota 4Runner from the 1990s is a good bet. They don’t do too badly in the mud either.
A lot of people might say the Ford Rangers were terrible for various reasons, but one thing is for certain. You can ignore maintenance on this car all you want. You can give it a beating, even launch it into the Grand Canyon, but guaranteed it will laugh at you all the way to the bottom. The V6 is robust, the engine bay is on the larger side, the car is easy to work on, it’s got a strong body, can haul a great many things, and you can get one with rear seats which albeit are a bit cramped but how much can you really expect from a truck’s rear seats.
Prizms sometimes (or used to) get a bad rep, but what some naysayers don’t realize is the Prizm is the result of a joint venture between Toyota and Chevrolet. Way back in the mid-80s Toyota and Chevrolet joined forces at Fremont California’s own NUMMI plant to gain Japanese quality and for Toyota to get some North American exposure, and out of this (among other vehicles) came the Geo Prizm. Because of this, the Prizm can be classified as a Corolla in disguise. There were three generations of Prizm available, and the first two were heavy, slow, and had valve train issues. The stars aligned with the Prizm’s third generation, as all of the previous model's problems, were addressed and fixed. The third generation received a timing chain, an aluminum engine, and a handling package from 1999 until production was ceased in 2001. They even had variable valve timing. The best part is, because of its badging (which switched from Geo to Chevrolet in 1997) not being Toyota, you can find a Prizm for dirt cheap, less than $2,000 for a pristine car.
Really any car that is easy to work on and has cheap, readily available parts is the right choice for a college student. Reliability is good too of course, but it’s not a dependable medium. Your best bet is to find a cheap car that you can fix in your driveway.
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