Tuition to Ignition: A Car-Buying Guide for Your Student Son or Daughter

2014 Mazda3

With high schools and colleges about to return to session, you may be searching for a new vehicle for a student driver in your family. There are a number of affordable-yet-reliable cars for students on the market right now, but it can difficult to pinpoint which vehicle will satisfy your son and daughter while also keeping them safe and financially sound. To help you find the best option as summer fun transitions into scholastic focus, we’ve outlined some of the top vehicle qualities to look for, as well as five of our top recommended models for students.


It goes without saying, but if you’re already saving for your son or daughter’s college education, you probably don’t have much spare cash lying around to put toward a new-vehicle purchase. The good news is that with a marked improvement in vehicle quality in recent years, there aren’t any true lemons on the market anymore, and you can find a number of trusty rides priced at less than $18,000.

That said, it is important to look beyond the sticker price itself and consider the expenses you (or your son or daughter) will accrue after your purchase. Just as higher tuition doesn’t necessarily translate to higher earnings in the future, a lower-priced vehicle won’t necessarily equate to cost savings down the road. If you want all-around value for your student driver, a vehicle from Mazda is a safe bet, as the brand topped the 2014 5-Year Cost to Own Awards from Kelley Blue Book’s after the site looked at ownership costs like fuel, financing, insurance and depreciation.

Fuel Efficiency

Whether it is you or your offspring who will need to come up with the gas money, less time filling up at the pump means they’ll spend more time hitting the books. Everyone could use a little extra scratch, but your son or daughter will be particularly appreciative when they can afford that coffee or pizza during a late-night study session.

Though fuel efficiency has improved greatly across the entire auto industry in recent years, the EPA currently ranks Mazda and Honda as the No. 1 and No. 2 most fuel-efficient automakers, respectively. Of course, those figures will vary depending on what type of car you’re considering for your high school or college student.


Saving money is all well and good, but in reality, nothing is more valuable than the safety of your son and daughter. Today’s vehicles provide a lot more crash protection than the car you rode when you were in school, but there are still some cars that are more ahead of the curve than others.

Despite the low cost of ownership of its lineup, Honda currently has more models rated as a 2014 IIHS Top Safety Pick+ than any other auto brand, even safety stalwarts like Volvo and Subaru. Also, though they were once resigned to up-market models, several active-safety technologies are now becoming available in entry-level vehicles to help keep your son or daughter focused on the road.


It can be a scary moment to receive a call from your kid saying they’re stranded along the side of the highway after their car broke down. Not to mention, repair costs can add up to the point where you could have purchased a much more expensive model and still paid the same total cost of ownership.

While it can be difficult to choose which vehicle to trust with your money, there are research firms out there that conduct in-depth studies to determine the reliability of new models. A recent finding that surprised many folks, but not us, was that the highly affordable Hyundai lineup has fewer vehicle problems on average than all other mainstream auto brands. Looking at 2014-model-year vehicles, J.D. Power surveyed more than 86,000 owners and lessees before Hyundai rose to the top of its 2014 Initial Quality Study (IQS). In addition, three Hyundai vehicles topped their respective segments in this year’s IQS, including the Accent, Elantra and Genesis.


If you’re working a regular job, chances are your weekly driving habits are fairly predictable. That’s not the case for students, who are usually involved in several extracurricular activities, tend to change housing on a yearly basis and are free for road trips during their winter and spring breaks. That makes versatility an important purchase factor, even if your son or daughter needs a smaller ride for urban maneuverability and fuel efficiency.

We’ve been impressed with how many automakers have managed to increase the passenger and cargo space of their models while continuing to boost efficiency as they work to meet stricter EPA fuel-economy standards. Some recently redesigned models that have accomplished that feat are the 2014 Nissan Rogue, the 2014 Mazda3 and the 2015 Honda Fit.

Rosen’s Top Five Rides for High School and College Students

With all those practical factors in mind, as well as some other characteristics that young drivers will appreciate, like style and technology, we proudly present Rosen Motors’ top five recommended vehicles for your high school or college student.

2015 Nissan Versa Note

2015 Nissan Versa Note

The Versa hatchback became the Versa Note for the 2014 model year after Nissan redesigned the entry-level subcompact to feature more style, space, fuel economy and technology. Priced starting at less than $15,000, the 2015 Nissan Versa Note comes with in-car technology that will please both parents and students alike. These features include standard Bluetooth connectivity, which allows drivers to safely keep their hands on the wheel when making phone calls, and an available first-in-class Around View Monitor, which displays a virtual 360-degree image of the vehicle to make quick work of parallel parking in the city.

Even with its smooth maneuverability and a fuel economy of up to 40 mpg on the highway, the Nissan Versa Note provides up to 38.3 cubic feet of cargo space with its rear seats folded and is available with a Divide-N-Hide Adjustable Floor, making moving day a simpler affair for students.

2014 Hyundai Accent

2014 Hyundai Accent

Available in sedan and hatchback form, the 2014 Hyundai Accent subcompact is priced slightly above the Versa Note, but it offers a bolder style with its available LED-accented projector headlamps, as well as a more responsive ride with its 138-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. Still, students can save extra money for books with the Accent’s 38-mpg highway rating.

When it comes to technology, buyers will have to opt for Bluetooth hands-free connectivity, but the Hyundai Accent offers standard USB and auxiliary inputs for playing road-trip-worthy tunes through a smartphone or mp3 player. As we mentioned earlier, the 2014 Accent topped its segment in the 2014 J.D. Power IQS, meaning the car will spend most of its time parked on campus — not in a repair shop.

2014 Kia Soul

2014 Kia Soul

For students who are going to school in or near the city, the Kia Soul subcompact really can’t be beat in the versatility department, offering up to 61.3 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat folded down. At the same time, the urban crossover’s sleek, angular styling will ensure that your son or daughter stands out from other students with bland econoboxes.

Following a redesign for the 2014 model year, the Soul provides a smoother and quieter ride than ever before while netting up to 30 mpg on the highway with its base 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. The vehicle’s chassis also incorporates more ultra-high-strength and high-strength steel than in past models, helping the 2014 Soul earn a 5-Star Safety Rating from the NHTSA. In addition to standard Bluetooth connectivity and USB/auxiliary inputs, the Soul is available with an eight-inch touchscreen that controls the optional UVO eServices infotainment system.

2015 Honda Fit

2015 Honda Fit

Starting at a little more than $16,000, the Honda Fit is the priciest of our suggested subcompacts for students, but the hatchback received some design magic for the 2015 model year that arguably makes it the most complete package. The redesigned 2015 Honda Fit boasts an additional 4.9 cubic feet of passenger volume and a 4.8-inch boost in rear legroom, yet it has cut its exterior length by 1.6 inches compared to its predecessor. Enhancing that space-efficient versatility is the rear Magic Seat, which folds in various directions to open up different cargo and passenger combinations.

With its new 130-horsepower 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine, the 2015 Honda Fit returns an impressive 41 mpg on the highway when outfitted with the optional continuously variable transmission (CVT). Meanwhile, Honda’s subcompact provides plenty of appeal for tech-savvy students, including standard features like Bluetooth connectivity and a multi-angle rearview camera, as well as the newly available next-generation HondaLink infotainment system.

While the 2015 Fit has yet to be crash-tested by the IIHS and NHTSA, Honda expects that it will achieve top safety ratings with the help of its new Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure.

2014 Mazda3

2014 Mazda3

Moving up to the compact class, the 2014 Mazda3 was an easy choice for our list. First, it appeals to a student’s sense of excitement with surprisingly aggressive styling and a highly responsive ride. And second, it gives parents peace of mind with its leading crash protection and excellent fuel efficiency.

Mazda’s fresh KODO design language is shown prominently through the new Mazda3’s swept-back headlights, pentagonal grille and swooping style lines. Under the hood, the car’s standard 2.0-liter SKYACTIV-G four-cylinder engine produces 155 horsepower while achieving up to 41 mpg on the highway in sedan models and up to 40 mpg on the highway in hatchback models.

As much as Mazda’s new lightweight SKYACTIV technologies have improved fuel economy, they’ve had an equally positive impact on safety, enabling the 2014 Mazda3 to earn a Top Safety Pick+ designation from the IIHS thanks to the use of more high-tensile steel in the car’s SKYACTIV-Body. And, lest we forget, the new Mazda3 comes standard with Bluetooth connectivity, push-button start and USB and auxiliary inputs.

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