Reader Mail: Student Driver Needs Cheap Used Car that Isn’t Lame

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Reader Mail: Student Driver Needs Cheap Used Car that Isn’t Lame

Welcome to a new feature where AutoGuide.com answers reader questions about which cars they should buy. If you are in need of car advice, email jlai@autoguide.com with your question.

The other day, we received this note from Student Driver, asking for recommendations on a good ride that’s easy on the budget for an out-of-town student, and one that isn’t lame or boring.

“I’m a student (read low on funds) and I just started post-secondary school 250 miles away from home. I need a cheap car to get me around campus and back home every other weekend. Most importantly, I don’t want a lame/boring car. I would love a new car, but my budget only allows me to get a used car. What should I do?” – Student Driver


Dear Student Driver:

Thanks for the note! Sounds like you’ve got a long haul between home and classes, and we understand your need for a cheap ride to make regular trips home, but that you don’t want a lame or boring car. Who does?

Your predicament is a common one for many younger enthusiast drivers who have formed some sort of taste for what they want to drive. See, many drivers, and even more students, care little about their ride. They want to turn the key, have it work when needed. You’re different. You want a certain type of car that matches your tastes. Something a little more fun and exciting. Something that will stir a sense of pride of ownership, and all while keeping up-front and running costs to a minimum.

Thing is, you’re also low on funds. Can we suggest keeping expectations in check? Operating a car when you’re a student is hard on the bank account. This is a fact of life. You’re young, so insurance is expensive. You’re in school, so you’re not making a lot of money. Gas isn’t cheap. Your car will need maintenance and repairs, which will chew up your budget, too. Depending on where you live, you’ll probably need winter tires, too, and those are also pricey.

Still, we’ve come up with a few recommendations for you in terms of selecting a ride, as well as some general tips to help stay on top of your budget in the process. You didn’t mention a budget cut-off, so we’ve arbitrarily selected $10,000 — though many of our advised models can be found for much less than that.

2011_toyota_matrix

For rides, you’ll likely want something that’s four-cylinder powered, but a little on the exciting side. Have you considered a Honda Civic Si? They’re reliable, quick, fun, and connect well with enthusiast drivers. You can get a four-door model, too, if you need the extra seating space. The Subaru Impreza is another worthy option: it has all-wheel drive, you can get a manual transmission, and it’s a model enjoyed by many enthusiasts like yourself, too. There’s even a hatchback model available, which is handy for moving.

A Toyota Matrix XRS is similar: it’s front-wheel drive only, but it has a sporty engine, a flexible hatchback body, and should prove cheap to run. Finally, the Kia Forte Koup packs plenty of style and feature content into a great-looking two-door at a highly reasonable price in the used market.

A few notes for you to consider, though, before deciding. First? Insurance. This will tend to be pricier on two-door models, like the Forte Koup, or two-door versions of the Civic Si. If you’re considering vehicles outside of our recommended list, note that turbocharged models will typically be considerably more expensive to insure, too. On that note, while shopping for insurance, be sure to get many, many quotes, possibly using a website that allows users to pull quotes from numerous insurance providers. Insurance costs can vary widely, so be sure to shop around.

Next? Running costs. The Impreza’s AWD system requires periodic maintenance in the form of fluid changes, which will add slightly to these. The Civic Si should be run on premium gas, which is more expensive, too.

2012-subaru-impreza-sedan

Finally, a few tips to help you out, with any model you wind up deciding on.

First, when purchasing, remember that a safety or certification is in no way a guarantee or warranty that the vehicle you buy is in good shape, free of problems, or not in need of work or attention. It simply indicates that the vehicle met a certain minimal mechanical standard on the day it was inspected. A safety certification can typically be taken as a guarantee that the vehicle won’t fall apart as it goes down the road, and little more. In some locales, you don’t even need to have an engine in a car to certify it. A certification doesn’t mean your used car isn’t leaking oil, rusting badly beneath, or about to blow its transmission.

This leads to our second tip, and read this twice: take the car to a mechanic before you agree to buy it. Have the seller meet you at a service center, or see if they’ll let you take it there yourself. A pre-purchase inspection takes about an hour, and typically costs somewhere around $75. Factor this into your budget: it’s important, since it can reveal thousands of dollars worth of potential issues waiting to turn your wallet inside out.

  • smartacus

    just avoid getting a 550i Gran Turismo.
    you can option up one of those to $101,500 and still be missing rear/side power sunshades

  • Jeff T

    Nice little unique suggestion with the Matrix XRS.