2010 Mazdaspeed3 – $9,396
Not everyone likes the facelifted look of Mazda's hot hatchback that appeared in 2010, but it's thought to be a bit more reliable than the 2007-2009 models, which are still quite reliable by the way. It has five-door practicality with a surprising amount of space to help haul goods for the annual move between dorms or apartments. It can pull 25 highway mpg, it's not crazy expensive to maintain, and the 263-horsepower turbo four with a limited-slip front differential makes the MS3 an absolute blast to drive.
The only downer might be insurance costs since this is the performance model, but the standard Mazda3 is always a viable option if that's the case. The best part is KBB's private party value of just $8,384 with 100,000 miles on the clock, or lop another 30,000 rounds off the odometer for a $10,000 price tag. That will get you a proper hot hatchback that should last all the way through grad school.
– Christopher Smith
2011 Subaru Impreza Wagon – $8,105
Having a car after graduating is less about the car and more about what the car enables you to do. So it's hard to argue with the utility of being able to carry lots of stuff to and from your apartment, and an Impreza Wagon also lets you load up friends and their belongings for impromptu grocery-store runs, camping trips, or whatever other ways you want to have fun. All-wheel drive will help get through any weather, critical for getting home for Thanksgiving during a snowstorm. And the Impreza's 2.5-liter flat-four engine is reasonably fuel efficient, returning up to 27 mpg highway if you get the manual transmission. No, it's not the most thrilling $10,000 car you could take with you to campus. But the Impreza Wagon will let you do all the fun things you want to without breaking the bank and while keeping you safe.
– Jake Holmes
2014 Kia Soul - $7,881
College grads on a budget can’t do better than the 2014 Kia Soul. It’s a practical little bugger with a boxy shape that can easily haul a month’s worth of laundry back to Mom and Dad’s. It’s also new enough and fresh from a redesign so you get modern technology like Bluetooth audio and some USB ports. And it's fuel efficient, safe as all get-out, and full of personality (including light up speakers that pulse to whatever you kids call music these days).
– John Neff
2014 Honda CR-Z – $8,657
Some may argue that the CR-Z is neither a great sports car, nor a great hybrid, but for less than $10,000, it remains a solid used option nonetheless. The CR-Z is fun, affordable, and returns as much as 38 miles per gallon on the highway, and 31 city. Out of the box you get a lovely short-throw, six-speed manual shifter, a 130-horsepower 1.5-liter hybrid engine, and standard features like Bluetooth, automatic climate control, and a rearview camera. KBB gives it a valuation of $8,657 in very good condition with 100,000 miles on the odometer.
– Jeff Perez
2010 Honda Element – $8,454
Talk about a great do-everything car. The Element has a ton of room inside for people and 30-packs of beer, snow belt grads will appreciate the high ground clearance and all-wheel drive, and it has the proven reliability of a Honda. Plus, it’s got an easily washable floor – just hose it down when things get a little crazy after the graduation party.
– Steven J. Ewing
2012 Volvo C30 – $8,578
The C30 has a lot going for it if you’re a college grad. Its hatchback form is flexible (and a popular selection on this list, I see), the T5 turbocharged five-cylinder makes a lively 227 horsepower, and because it’s a Volvo, it’s plenty safe. The young scholar will want to keep every penny left over from that $10,000 budget, of course, as servicing is likely to be a bit steeper than you’ll find with the Japanese and Korean cars on this list. But can you really put a price on individuality, or the awesomeness of that rear window… I think not?
– Seyth Miersma
2009 Subaru Forester XT – $8,473
What I remember about being a college grad is that no car ever had quite enough room – whether you were hauling a decrepit couch from one apartment to another or loading the trunk full of dirty laundry to take home to wash for free. The Forester XT offers a great compromise between cargo space, utility, and performance. With 224 horsepower from a 2.5-liter turbocharged engine, a driver essentially gets a more practical version of the WRX. Plus, if you and some buddies go out to a party in the woods, then the Subie's all-wheel drive should make short work of the slick ground. According to KBB, a 2009 Forester XT with 90,000 miles and in Very Good condition should cost $8,473 from a private party seller. IIHS gave the model a Top Safety Pick award for Good scores in the four tests at the time.
– Chris Bruce
2009 Pontiac Vibe - $5,470
The Pontiac Vibe is one of the cheapest offerings on this list. You may scoff at the idea of owning an outdated Pontiac, but this one has a secret under its sheet metal – it's actually a Toyota Matrix. That means the Vibe has higher than average reliability even it if has lower than average looks. The hatchback design gives it versatility while the fuel-efficient engine will save money for that summer trip after you graduate college.
– Anthony Alaniz
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