Most of us have fond memories of our first cars. More likely than not that car was less than glamorous. In a lot of cases our first vehicle may have been a piece of junk, albeit an inexpensive piece of junk. It may have been second hand, rusty, and the doors may not have closed properly. But regardless of how cool or stylish our first car was, we still loved owning it and got many hours of enjoyment out of driving it. Really, there’s no car like the first one we own. So, as young people everywhere contemplate buying their very first car, we take a look at the 10 best first cars for students or young professionals embarking on their career and for whom money is tight.
10. Volvo S60
There’s a reason why Volvos have earned a reputation as the car driven by old hippies: they last for friggin’ ever. Volvos are one of the safest and most reliable cars on the road, making them ideal for teenagers and young adults. We especially like the S60, with the models made in the 2000s — particularly between 2004-2007 — being especially great choices. And while a new Volvo will set you back quite a bit of money, an older model with 80,000 plus miles on it can be had for under $5,000. A good rule of thumb is to look for a Volvo that is 8 to 10 years old. We know that age might turn some people off, but trust us, a 10-year-old Volvo is usually safer and more reliable than newer models from most other manufacturers. Many models are available in a turbocharged version too!
9. Volkswagen Jetta TDI
Known as the “people’s car” in its native Germany, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI is another car that has a long shelf life. The turbo diesel version of the Jetta is very reliable and will run pretty much forever, and is also great on fuel economy. Look for a Jetta built between 2000 and 2010. With that kind of age, you can likely pick one up for under $5,000, depending on the mileage. Many Jetta TDIs are currently being sold online for less than $4,000. For a sportier, more compact Volkswagen, you might also want to look at an older model Golf. Those cars have also proven to be resilient and long lasting, and the Jetta and Golf have consistently high safety ratings.
8. Ford Focus
It’s not the sexiest car on the block, but the Ford Focus is reliable, safe, and is actually pretty fun to drive. To its credit, Ford has outfitted even its basic model Focus with plenty of bells and whistles that are likely to be appealing to younger drivers, including GPS and satellite radio. The hatchback version of the Focus may be appealing given its pep and torque. We recommend purchasing a 2002-2004 model Focus, which can be found for as little as $3,500 in some markets. Keep in mind that Ford has dramatically upped its game in terms of safety and durability since the late 1990s. The Ford vehicles on the road today are not your grandfather’s Ford; they are much safer and more reliable than Ford models of the past.
7. BMW 3 Series
A blast from the past here with the vintage BMW 3 Series. Manufactured in the 1980s, the 3 is a classic car with some old school charm. They’re like a John Hughes movie (Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink) that you never get tired of spending time with. Many Beemer aficionados consider the 3-Series to be the ultimate BMW. Most 3s have rear wheel drive and a manual transmission, making them an authentic driving experience. Many driving schools actually recommend learning to drive on a BMW 3. And while most BMW 3 Series are more than 30 years old, they don’t look dated and keep going like the energizer bunny. For less than $5,000, how can you go wrong? The only real issue may be safety, as these vehicles predate airbags, so that’s something to bear in mind if you’re in the market for one of these rides.
6. Mercedes-Benz Diesel
Naturally you can’t have a classic BMW on this list without also including a vintage Mercedes-Benz. For our money, we like the Mercedes-Benz Diesel, which, like the BMW 3 Series, was made in the 1980s and early 1990s. More tank than car, the Mercedes Diesel truly is a workhorse vehicle. Many of these vehicles are still on American roads with more than 300,000 miles on their odometers. Especially impressive is the engine in these cars, which have a reputation for never breaking down. Even if other parts start to go on this car, the repairs should not cost more than $1,000. That’s a good deal when you consider the age of these vehicles and that you can buy one for as little as $2,500. And although the appearance of this car may seem a little boxy, at the end of the day, it’s still a Mercedes.
5. Hyundai Sonata
Probably the least cool car on this list is the Hyundai Sonata, what with its “old man car” aesthetic and all. Despite the appearance, the Sonata earns a spot here for its durability and safety. While this car does not offer sex appeal or fun handling, it is excellent in terms of overall quality, to the point where these vehicles seem to be categorically rust proof. We recommend models made between 2006 and 2010; not too old, but old enough to be purchased for around $4,000. The car won’t come with a warranty but it likely won’t matter, as, like most cars on this list, Sonatas have a reputation for almost never needing to be serviced in a garage. Take care of this car and you can expect years of hassle-free driving.
4. Subaru Impreza
This is the fun-to-drive car on the list. An older model Subaru Impreza (2005-2007) provides a lot of enjoyment thanks to its all-wheel drive action, while still being affordable at under $5,000, $6,000 tops. The 2.5 RS model of the Impreza is really good for northern climates and snow. The 2.5 liter flat four engine makes the car drive as stubbornly as an old tractor, and the all-wheel drive is perfect for driving on snow and in icy conditions. And, if you think the young driver in your house can handle it, there’s always the Subaru Impreza Turbo WRX model, which is just a total blast to drive. Doughnuts in the parking lot, anyone?
3. Mazda 3
For a smaller, peppier car that is still extremely safe and will not cost a lot in terms of repairs, it is hard to beat the Mazda 3. This car is known for its fun handling and solid engine dynamics, leading many people to enjoy driving this tiny tiger of a car. A model built between 2004 and 2009 can easily be had for less than $5,000, with excellent safety ratings and crash test performances. This is a perfect first car for young drivers who want some of the thrill of driving, and whose parents want peace of mind knowing that their baby is safe behind the wheel. Mazda’s quality is top notch and more of these cars are staying on the road longer. It is not uncommon today to find a Mazda 3 from the mid-1990s still chugging along safely.
2. Toyota Prius
Teens and twentysomethings (read: urban hipsters) have always been the target market for Toyota with the Prius. It’s hard to believe that the Prius has been with us since 2004. However, we recommend purchasing a newer model of this gas/electric hybrid vehicle – one that was built after 2010. This is because the batteries in older versions of the Prius tend to break down and die, resulting in an expensive repair for owners. A 2010 Prius, depending on the mileage, can be bought for around $5,000. You might pay a little more for a model made after 2012, but you can recoup that cost with all the money you’ll save on fuel. Not having to gas up as much at the pump is one of the many advantages of owning a Toyota Prius. It’s definitely a car worth considering for a first time vehicle owner.
1. Honda Civic
The Honda Civic is a popular vehicle with young people, and not just because they like to trick them out with custom rims, fenders, and stereo systems. No, the Honda Civic is one of the most popular and widely driven cars in the world (notably with people under the age of 30) because of two factors – its price and dependability. Most Civics will go more than 200,000 miles before needing a repair of any kind, with many Honda Civics manufactured in the late 1980s or early 1990s still on the streets to this day.
With so much longevity, there is a robust after market to support this safe and trustworthy car. We urge people to consider a Civic built between 2005 and 2010. Those models can easily be bought for under $5,000 and they are not so old that they will cause their owner problems. You can expect years of worry free driving with a Civic that is 5 to 10 years old, or even older. This is a car that you can count on. Additionally, the hatchback version is really fun and may be appealing to first time car owners, so check it out.