College can be one of the best times of your life: learning about something you love (hopefully), finding love, hanging out with friends, and all with somewhat less responsibility hanging over your head than you’ll have once kids and a mortgage enter the picture. So why not have a ride that’s fun to drive and safe enough to make sure you survive all of the drunken weekends—whether yours or someone else’s?
This list of cars is compiled from data and testing done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (for the safety part), but filtered through years of experience at Instamotor (to know which are coolest). Basically, we picked the coolest cars on the list of those known to be safe. Oh, and the IIHS’ list also takes affordability into account, so you’ll find a typical used-car price alongside each to help guide your search.
As the physics majors out there will understand, you won’t find any small cars on this list; they just aren’t as safe as the larger, heavier cars. Also, very few pickups meet the criteria of safe and affordable, while crossovers and midsize SUVs are plentiful.
Another note from the IIHS: avoid high-horsepower cars. Teens, even those headed for or in college, often find it hard to resist the temptation to speed that more powerful cars represent, so look for base engines—and hey, you’ll save some gas along the way, too.
The final tip from the IIHS for those looking to buy an affordable used car for college: electronic stability control. Fortunately, this has been government-mandated since 2012, and widely available for several years before that.
The end result is that this list of IIHS “best choices” picks all scored at least 4 or 5 stars under the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) testing; vehicles rated by the IIHS scored “good” in all test categories.
We’ve separated the choices into categories, so that you can hop straight to the type of vehicle you’re most interested in. And of course, you can always go see the full list at the IIHS website.
As a college student, few cars reach the practicality of a pickup truck. However, it's hard to come to grips with finding one that's affordable, gets decent mileage, and has a decent towing ability. The Honda Ridgeline, fortunately, hits all three of those requirements. It's got a 3.5-liter V6 engine that makes 247 horsepower, can tow up to 5,000 pounds, gets up to 20 MPG and is highly rated by IIHS as one of the recommended trucks for teen drivers.
For those who don't want a car as big as a truck but almost reaches the same utility level, a mid-size SUV is great. The Mazda CX-7 is affordable and can seat a good amount of friends and cargo for comfortable road trips. Mazdas are generally nimble and responsive creatures and the CX-7 compliments that with a 244 horsepower 2.3-liter inline-four that can get up to 24 MPG. It's also got AWD, so when you decide to tackle some mountain passes rest assured you're in good hands.
Academics that just need to get away with their significant other, or perhaps a dog, probably are looking more for a smaller SUV that can comfortably seat two, perhaps three people including the driver, and enough space to cram a picnic or camping gear in the trunk. The RAV4 is perfect for just such an occasion. Depending on which model you end up getting, you can get a RAV4 with almost 270 horsepower out of a 3.5-liter V6 and still get almost 30 MPG.
No, we didn't forget that we had said this was a list of "cool cars" when we added the Honda Odyssey. Say what you want about minivans, but we ask you to just drive one before you write them off. You'll find all the utility and handling of a well-balanced truck, combined with the comfort of a mid-level sedan. The Honda Odyssey can move, with 240 horsepower out of its 3.5-liter V6 engine and can even push 25 MPG. Especially if you're one of those college students that has their priorities straight, you can even fit a couple of motorcycles into one (with some minor modifications). Is there a more perfect vehicle?
The closest you'll get to a performance sedan on this list is the Audi A6. It successfully combines performance with luxury, affordability, and style. Plus it looks expensive. This generation A6 has a 3.2-liter V6 that produces 255 horsepower, is front wheel drive and can get up to 27 MPG. Audis tend to have smooth acceleration with buttery gear shifting, responsive handling, and good visibility. Since it is an Audi though, you'd do well to pay more attention to maintenance intervals.
The most interesting car on this list, the Saab 9-5 is a choice for enthusiasts. There are other midsize cars out there for this price range, but the Saab is definitely going to be a good conversation starter. It's got a powerful, 260 HP turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-four and sporty handling, so it'll be a lot of fun to toss around the corners if you get bored. They might be hard to find, and possibly harder to get parts for, but it's certainly a solid choice for college students looking for a fun mountain weekend drive or hauling friends around in between classes.
automotive freelance journalist