If members of the Class of 2017 have somehow managed to minimize student loan and credit card debt, maybe a graduation car is in order.
But that's a big "maybe."
Students have every reason to be skeptical of lists full of cars that are supposedly great for graduates. Most lists are full of models deemed "inexpensive," but just consider what automakers are charging for cars. Kelley Blue Book put the average price of a vehicle at All of those prices are well below the $34,552 in April. That's up nearly 2% since the same time last year and ranges from an average of $16,283 for a subcompact car to more than $95,545 for a high-end luxury car.
"While new vehicle sales appear to be on the decline, most manufacturers are seeing higher retail transaction prices, with the industry average on new-car prices up for the month by nearly 2%," says Tim Fleming, analyst for Kelley Blue Book. "These increases appear to be primarily driven by the shift in demand toward SUVs, even with growing segments, such as subcompact SUVs and luxury compact SUVs, seeing year-over-year price declines. Kelley Blue Book anticipates average transaction prices will likely begin to decrease when the sales mix of SUVs eventually levels off."
It's going to require a fairly steep drop to make vehicles affordable for the average college graduate. Student loan and financial advice site Cappex reminds us that, last year, the average student loan debt for a graduate who just received a bachelor's degree was $37,172. That's up 6% from 2015, with debt carried by 70.1% of all graduates. That's also up from $12,759 two decades ago, when just 54% of all students graduated with debt.
Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York notes that total student loan debt reached $1.21 trillion by the end of 2016. That's up $78 billion from a year earlier and is the second largest pile of U.S. consumer debt behind mortgage debt (at $8.48 trillion, up $231 billion from a year ago). That debt makes it much harder for students to add to the nation's $1.16 trillion in auto loan debt (up $93 billion from a year earlier).
According to the FRBNY, more than one in ten (11.2%) student loans are past due. That's a worse delinquency rate than even that of credit card bills, of which 7.1% are past due. However, it's easier to pay off all of the above when you have a job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the current unemployment rate at 4.4%, that jumps to 8.2% for people ages 20 to 24 -- or roughly the age of most recent college graduates. Only 70.4% of people that age are an active part of the workforce, compared to nearly 81.7% of those between 25 and 54. All of that is actually an improvement on what older Millennials faced just after the recession.
As a result, the share of new cars being bought by Americans between 18 and 34 is down 30% in the last five years, according to auto pricing site Edmunds.com. A Pew Research Center study notes that people under 35 bought 12% fewer cars than they did in 2010. The Department of Transportation notes that just 28% of 16-year-olds had driver's licenses in 2010, with just 45% of 17-year-olds claiming the same. That's plummeted from 50% and 66% respectively in 1978. While the number of 16-year-olds with driver's licenses peaked at 1.72 million in 2009, it plummeted to 1.08 million by 2014.
Last year, the folks at car shopping site CarGurus.com surveyed college students who are about to graduate college within the next year and discovered exactly why they may be shying away from the experience. Roughly 57% of college students planned on paying for a car on their own, with 46% spending $15,000 or less. That likely means a used or Certified Pre-Owned car, which can be an issue all its own.
The folks at Manheim Consulting keep track of used vehicle prices and note that while they've come down from their peak in 2011, when automaker bankruptcies and a lack of leasing left used vehicles in short supply, they're still well higher than they were just before the recession began. Used vehicle sales are up 3.6% from a year ago, but even the prices at auction sales have risen 1.6% during that time. For example, taking $5,000 to auction back in 2003 could get you a car with 70,000 miles on it, on average. Go to auction with that same $5,000 today, however, and that car is likely to have more than 110,000 miles on it, according to Manheim.
With 71% of graduates with a job telling CarGurus they'll be driving to work, 67% of those getting a car plan to buy used. However, if you a grad with a little more cash to throw around or a generous relative offering to absorb some of the costs, KBB's sibling publication AutoTrader and CarGurus have suggested 17 vehicles that might fits the needs of the Class of 2017.
2017 Buick Encore
Starting price: $22,990
Buick is really big on providing just enough luxury at a sub-premium price. The Encore is nearly a foot shorter than the Honda CR-V, but you can fold both the rear seats and front passenger seat flat for hauling cargo in its 48 cubic feet of space.
Did Buick leave room for some perks? Absolutely. The Encore's list of features includes available 4G LTE Wi-Fi, available dual climate control, power moon roof, rain sensing wipers, heated side mirrors, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, a rearview camera, split-folding rear seats, OnStar telematics and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player, satellite radio, a USB/iPod interface, an auxiliary audio jack and Buick's IntelliLink control interface with a 7-inch touchscreen and integrated smartphone apps. Granted, it's a lot of additional costs for a car that built its reputation on affordable luxury, but considering the cost of cars on the rest of this list, it might be worth it just for the efficiency.
2017 Chevrolet Trax
Starting price: $21,000
Meet the downmarket Buick Encore.
It looked like the Chevy Sonic subcompact when it debuted, but just received a superficial overhaul this year that passed Corvette-inspired design cues from the Malibu and Volt down to this ugly little crossover. The facelift includes new halogen projector headlamps, LED daytime running lights, dual taillamps and a new grille design. The interior, meanwhile, gets new dashboard and center instrument panel, which is part of a grand effort to sell the Trax with more than just its fuel-sipping 1.4-liter engine.
The OnStar communication system comes standard and turns the Trax into a rolling 4G hotspot, while the Chevrolet MyLink gives drivers access to a host of apps via a 7-inch touchscreen. Combined with Apple's Siri Eyes Free voice texting, Apple Carplay, Google AndroidAudio, an OnStar remote link app for your smartphone, forward collision alert, lane departure warning, rear camera, rear park assist, rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot assist and 48.4 cubic feet of storage with the seats down, all of the above makes the Trax the efficient urban wagon Chevy's been dreaming of. Just know that if you decide to go with the all-wheel-drive version, that mileage drops from a combined 29 mpg to less than 25 mpg.
2017 Honda Fit
Starting price: $15,890
One of the subcompacts that started the class's renaissance, the colorful and convenient Fit got a complete revamp that makes it an incredibly worthy tailgate vehicle despite its size. Its cargo space with the seats down is a whopping 53 cubic feet, with seats so modular that the from passenger seat folds back to serve as a footrest for a passenger in the back who wants to sleep for this leg of the trip. Blind-spot cameras, a multi-angle rearview camera, touchscreen audio system, Bluetooth connectivity, an app suite, leather-trimmed and heated seats, a moonroof and satellite navigation all make for a pleasant, comfortable ride for both driver and passenger. Oh, and a combined 37 miles per gallon make it a frugal fuel sipper for recent grads.
2017 Nissan Versa Note
It's the hatchback form of the Versa: The most generic subcompact car on the market.
It has traction control, ABS brakes, airbags and a whole lot of other safety features that are fairly standard by now. Its 109-horsepower engine is tiny, its NissanConnect tech offerings are extra and its chrome accents, trip computer, outdoor temperature gauge, four speakers and 60/40 folding rear seats are listed as key amenities. What would draw someone to this car beyond price? Well, the automatic does get combined mileage of more than 35 miles per gallon. Oh, and the hatch gives it 38.3 cubic feet of total cargo space.
Starting price: $17,845
The Mazda3 contains a striking amount of power in an extremely small space. A 2-liter engine gives this little hatch 155 horsepower, which basically dusts most vehicles in its class while still putting up nearly 36 miles per gallon of fuel efficiency. Meanwhile, even this vehicle's lesser trims come with standard Bluetooth, six-speaker audio and the Mazda Connect system with 7-inch full color touchscreen, multi-function Commander control, voice command, HD Radio, Pandora, auto text and voice reply and E911 emergency notification. The 12 cubic feet of trunk space isn't great, but it expands to 47.1 if you need it and works out just fine if you travel light.
2017 Jeep Renegade
Starting price: $17,995
It's basically the Jeep version of the Fiat 500X. And, yes, it looks a whole lot like the Jeep Patriot that Fiat killed off. However, it has better mileage than that dead car walking and is a far more sturdy off-road vehicle than the Patriot could dream to be.
But it's what Jeep needs: a small SUV that can corner like the Nissan Juke and Mini Countryman, but be as useful as the Subaru Crosstrek and Kia Sportage. It's tiny, but it's agile and actually gets more than 30 miles per gallon on the highway as a 4x4 -- which is unheard of in the U.S.
2017 Fiat 500
Starting price: $14,995
The cinquecento may be a tiny car, but it's now Dodge's Italian cousin and has a whole lot of brawn to live up to. The 500 measures a scant 144 inches long and 64 inches wide, gives parallel parkers a 30.6-inch turning radius for squeezing into tight spots and finds room for 9.5 cubic feet of trunk space The retractable, pool-cover-style sunroof, power outlets, five cup holders, cruise control, power windows and 40 miles-per-gallon highway mileage (and 35.5 mpg overall) are a whole lot cooler to the post-bailout buyer base than gas-guzzling reincarnations of Dodge Charger and Challenger.
2017 Toyota Camry
Starting price: $23,070
There is no car in that's more popular on U.S. lots.
Georgetown, Ky., has been cranking out Toyotas since 1988 and uses the same platform to produce the Camry and its slightly more spacious and swank Avalon sibling. The Camry has put some serious mileage between itself and its troubled, recall-plagued past and remains the most popular car in the U.S. Its sales trail only the Ford F-150 Chevy Silverado and exceed those of the Dodge Ram.
In 2015, it was the best-selling non-pickup vehicle in the U.S. Is it the combined 30 miles per gallon? The pindrop-quiet interior? The Bluetooth connection or the Entune App Suite entertainment and information center? Or is it just the fact that it's reliable enough to buy and forget about. Camry owners take a whole lot of trips in their vehicles, but few of them are to the repair shop. It's the reason this car fares so well in Toyota's certified pre-owned program. The current-generation Camry debuted for the 2012 model year, and the nationwide average price for a CPO 2013 Camry on Autotrader is just $19,188.
2017 Ford Fusion
Starting price: $22,610
No, it isn't the "Ford Camry." Sure it has the available hybrid like the Camry and is similarly utilitarian. But it's designed to look like a more frugal Aston Martin and handle like one as well. It's a practical midsize sedan that looks more sporty than it should, which is likely its greatest appeal to graduates who don't want to look as if they're driving something out of a city's municipal fleet. The current average Autotrader price for a CPO 2014 Fusion knocks about $5,000 off the cost of buying new, but still comes in at $19,712.
2017 Lexus IS
Starting price: $37,825
Yes, that's well over the average price of a U.S. vehicle and likely way out of range for the average college graduate, but hear us out. Yes, the paddle-shift transmission, drive modes, 10.3-inch multimedia display, touch-based climate controls and Lexus Enform entertainment system all come at a price, but what if you stripped some of that out? That was the thinking behind the Lexus IS 250 just after the recession. With a relatively small engine and relatively few perks, the IS 250 was a bit overpriced for its time, but sells for Toyota Camry prices now. A CPO 2012 IS 250 on Autotrader is $27,690, which gives you a luxury car for the price of a more-premium Camry trim.
2017 Honda Civic
Starting price: $18,740
The Civic routinely ranks among the Top 10 cars in the country in sales: its mileage (36.5 miles per gallon combined, including 42 on the highway) and a lovely little facelift for 2016 that includes rain-sensing wipers, a capless fuel tank, heated seats and steering wheel controls make quite a difference.
It's a bit snug for more than two, but the Civic's mileage will make it easy to grow into once gas prices rise again. It seats five with a surprising amount of space left over, is coated in airbags and has a new 7-inch touchscreen display that shows fuel efficiency, music info and photos -- as well as Apple Play and Android Auto capability. The utilitarian small sedan also tends to hold up well over the years, making it a gem for used car buyers who aren't just waiting for a larger, far less efficient vehicle to get less expensive.
2017 Kia Soul
Starting price: $16,100
This wasn't such a great family car in its early years, when it basically looked like every other boxy neo surf wagon on the street. That's why why Kia gave the Soul a character-altering overhaul this year that made it look like a wagon, dropped horsepower down from 138 to 130 and modestly improved mileage (27.5 mpg combined). It still has more than 60 cubic inches of total cargo space, but don't let the subcompact price fool you. With high output headlights, LED taillights, heated and ventilated seats, pushbutton starter and the 8-inch touchscreen UVO information and entertainment system, the Soul offers lots of perks at relatively low cost.
2017 Toyota Yaris iA
Starting price: $15,950
So, this is awkward.
Toyota wanted to kill off its youth-oriented Scion brand after no actual youth bought into it, but it already had a subcompact sitting where the Scion iA would fit into the lineup. So what do you do? Basically tack that "iA" onto the sedan version of the Yaris and run with it.
The iA is about $700 more than the Yaris hatcback, but it also gets 34.5 mpg to the hatch's 33. It comes with Bluetooth and a 7-inch touchscreen standard and doesn't charge extra for its low-speed pre-collision system, stability control, traction control, braking assistance or break override system. It may look like an econobox from the outside, but your getting a lot more from it than you will from many vehicles in its class.
2017 Subaru Crosstrek
Starting price: $21,695
This mini-crossover is a throwback to the Subaru Outback's earliest days as a wagon, but with 40 inches of driver headroom, the 43 inches of legroom and combined 52 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats down. The standard multi-function display, Starlink touchscreen communications and entertainment package and rearview camera are all fine perks for Subaru's smallest crossover. The 8.7 inches of ground clearance and those roof rails may have a road trip written all over them, but it's the standard all-wheel drive that sells this vehicle in rainy, frosty northern climates.
2017 Hyundai Sonata
Starting price: $21,600
It's a sedan, but boy is it spacious. There's 106.1 cubic feet of cabin space, 35.6 inches or rear leg room and the back seat bench can sit three adults comfortably. Throw in the Blue Link telematics system, backup camera, touchscreen audio, steering wheel mounted controls, Bluetooth and optional dual-zone automatic climate control, and you're getting a loaded road-trip vehicle for less than $25,000. It also lands you a hands-free "smart" trunk opener fob that automatically unlocks the trunk if the person with the key stands behind the car for more than 3 seconds, which is wonderful for grocery or laundry runs. However, Honda's certified-pre-owned program 5 years or 60,000 miles of bumper-to-bumper coverage and 10 years or 100,000 miles of powertrain protection. It also knocks the average price of a Sonata down to $16,600 on average, according to Autotrader.
2014 Nissan Leaf
Starting price: $10,500 to $13,500
This model came a year after Nissan dropped the Leaf's price by $6,000, but the reason for the discount then is similar to the reason CarGurus lists it at this price now. The lack of supercharger dates this vehicle a bit, but for folks lacking a long commute and living in places like the West Coast towns along Interstate 5's electric corridor or along I-95 in the Northeast Corridor with loads of access to chargers, it's a dream.
A bevy of audio, navigation and app support features - including maps of nearby charging stations -- are still fine perks The LEAF rides quited, and with a range of 73 miles and mileage equivalent to 99 mpg, the Leaf is still one of the best used EV options available for the money, even if advancing EV technology has passed this model by.
2010-2011 Toyota Prius
Starting price: $12,000
Before the Prius v wagon, the Prius c compact, or the Prius Prime, there was this simple vehicle with its info screen, its utilitarian body and its 50 miles per gallon. Yes, the Prius was a huge deal in the pre-EV days, but that 50 miles per gallon is still fairly impressive in the modern market. In fact, save for the Leaf, none of the other vehicles on this list even comes close to that kind of efficiency. At that CarGuru's price, a used model is a great deal.