5 Best Back-to-School Cars to Buy in 2013

BOSTON ( MainStreet) -- Another academic year has begun, and if you (or your child) need a good set of wheels for college or high school, here's a look at Kelley Blue Book's five top picks for Best 2013 Back-to-School Cars.

KBB editors compiled the list by looking at all available 2013 and '14 models starting at $20,000 or less, then choosing the cars they believe offer the best combinations of style, safety and other qualities key to young drivers.

"These models are all affordable and have good fuel economy -- and they have good cabin technology, which is that's obviously important to the younger generation," KBB Managing Editor Jason Allan says. "We also know that young people want to drive something that looks cool, or at least semi-cool."

Allan says most cars at the top of KBB's list have hatchback versions available, "which means you can pretty much move an entire dorm room in what are otherwise small cars."

He adds that all of KBB's top picks have some trim lines that offer 40 miles per gallon or more on the highway, making them great choices for students with little gas money.

Click below to check out KBB's choices for the best back-to-school vehicles available among 2013 models or those 2014s already on dealers' lots. All dollar figures refer to the manufacturer's suggested retail prices for each car's base version.

Fifth-best back-to-school car: 2013 Honda Civic
Base price:
$17,965

Honda ( HMC) gave its flagship Civic an unusually extensive update for 2013 after critics and consumers panned a 2012 complete redesign, and Allan says young drivers will love the revamped model's added technology.

For instance, the 2013 Civic comes standard with Pandora ( P) radio and voice-activated text messaging, which many rivals offer only as options.

The base Civic coupe also comes standard with manual transmission and a 140-horsepower four-cylinder engine that combine to produce a good 28 mpg/city and 36 mpg/highway (optional automatic transmission adds 3 mpg to highway mileage).

There's also a $19,745 Civic HF sedan that gets 29 mpg/city and 41 mpg/highway and a $24,360 Hybrid Civic sedan that offers 44 mpg/city and 44 mpg/highway.

Whichever version you choose, Allan says the Civic's long-standing reputation for reliability will serve any college kid well. "The last thing you want to deal with when you're away to school is car trouble," he says.

Fourth-best back-to-school car: 2013 Mazda Mazda3
Base price:
$16,700 ($16,945 for a 2014)

KBB editors give a big thumbs up to both the 2013 Mazda3 and a redesigned 2014 version that's hitting Mazda dealers' showrooms now.

"Whether you get a 2013 or a 2014, the Mazda3 is really a standout in the under-$20,000 category," Allan says. "We really like its looks -- and more importantly, it's just so much fun to drive."

The base 2013 Mazda3 hatchback comes standard with manual transmission and a 148-horsepower four-cylinder engine that team up to produce 25 mpg/city and 33 mpg/highway. (An automatic-transmission base Mazda3 gets 1 mpg worse efficiency in the city.)

If you choose a 2014, the base hatchback comes standard with manual transmission and a 155-horsepower engine that produce 29 mpg/city and 40 mpg/highway. But unlike the 2013, the base 2014's optional automatic transmission adds rather than subtracts 1 mpg to city-driving efficiency.

Third-best back-to-school car: 2014 Chevrolet Sonic
Base price:
$14,170

The Sonic is one of the lowest-priced cars on KBB's top-five list, but Allan says it's still "a surprisingly good, fun little car. It starts at under $15,000, yet it drives really well."

Available from General Motors ( GM) as a sedan or hatchback, the Chevy combines an impressive amount of interior space with good road performance.

The base model's manual transmission and 138-horsepower four-cylinder engine get a solid 26 mpg/city and 35 mpg/highway (an optional automatic transmission lowers city-driving efficiency by 1 mpg).

There's also an available 138-horsepower turbocharged engine that boosts fuel economy to 29 mpg/city and 40 mpg/highway with a manual transmission or 27 mpg/city and 37 mpg/highway with an automatic.

Standard electronics include Bluetooth phone connectivity and General Motors' OnStar emergency-contact system. Higher trim lines also offer satellite radio, smart-phone and iPod connectivity and Chevrolet's MyLink touchscreen stereo system.

Second-best back-to-school car: 2014 Ford Focus
Base price:
$16,310

Available from Ford ( F) as a sedan or hatchback, the Focus combines high-quality interior finishes with good cabin space and lots of available high-tech equipment.

"The Ford Focus is really fun car to drive, and it's stylish inside and out," Allan says.

Perhaps the car's most unique feature is its optional Active Park Assist system. Available on the top-of-the-line Focus Titanium, Active Park Assist uses ultrasonic sensors to control steering and help you parallel park perfectly (you still control the gas, brakes and transmission).

Higher Focus trim lines also come offer Bluetooth phone connectivity, satellite radio and the Ford Sync voice-activated-command system as standard or optional equipment.

Under the hood, the base Focus comes standard with manual transmission and a 160-horsepower four-cylinder engine that produce 26 mpg/city and 36 mpg/highway. Optional automatic transmission will boost that to 27 mpg/city and 38 mpg/highway.

Best back-to-school car: 2014 Nissan Versa Note
Base price:
$13,990

The Versa Note hatchback is one of the least-expensive 2014s on the market, but Nissan ( NSANY) still manages to offer a complete redesign and lots of interior space relative to its small exterior dimensions.

"We like the Verna Note's look, and it's very practical inside -- surprisingly roomy with a great tech set," Allan says.

Although the base Versa Note comes standard with few electronic devices, higher trim lines offer satellite and Pandora radio, Bluetooth and iPod connectivity and more.

Allan says KBB editors particularly like the 360-degree parking camera that's available on top-of-the-line Versa Notes. "It's one of our favorite technologies," he says.

On the road, the base Versa Note's standard manual transmission and a 109-horsepower four-cylinder engine offer 27 mpg/city and 36 mpg/highway fuel economy. Higher trim lines come standard with a continuously variable automatic transmission that boosts fuel efficiency to 31 mpg/city and 40 mpg/highway.

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