How to Choose Your Kid’s College Car

NEW YORK (TheStreet) — Kelley Blue Book, the car-data firm, has just published its list of 10 best new cars for Junior or Sis to take to college. It’s a perfectly sound list – if a new car is in your budget. But what if you’d prefer a used one? What would be the key criteria?

Kelley does limit its list to new vehicles that start at under $20,000, such as the top-of-the-list 2015 Honda Fit, starting at $15,994. But that’s a lot for a family stretching to meet the soaring costs of college. Would parents want to raid their retirement savings for a new car on top of the college expenses? Would they feel OK about taking out a car loan on top of all that student debt?

In addition to “practicality and affordability,” Kelley counts “style, features and personality.” But those criteria are luxuries. And if practicality is the top concern, a used vehicle would probably be a better deal. A vehicle five or 10 years old will likely sell for less than half of the cost of a comparable new car, maybe a third or less.

But that doesn’t mean any cheap used car would do.

For a car to be used by a young driver, safety should probably be a top concern. The vehicle should have airbags, antilock brakes, good visibility, sound tires and a body sturdy enough to provide lots of protection. That rules out many small cars.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety lists electronic stability control among its top criteria for cars meant for teens, and it urges buyers to check that fixes have been made to a vehicle subject to recall. A car for a young driver should have earned four or five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the institute says.

If the car is for practical purposes such as getting from home to college or driving to a part-time job, it doesn’t need much pizazz. In fact, many parents prefer a ho-hum vehicle less likely to attract a carload of distracting friends.

High mileage need not be a turn-off, unless the student will live at home and have a long commute. A student living on campus and buckling down to studies may leave the car parked most days, so the mileage won’t build up very fast. And many vehicles with more than 100,000 miles, or even 150,000, are quite dependable.

While good gas mileage is appealing and environmentally responsible, it too may not be that important for a student who will use the car mainly to drive between home and school only a few times a year.

But low insurance costs do indeed matter. A sporty car with a big engine is sure to cost far more than a humdrum family sedan. 

If the used-car option appeals to you, IIHS has a list of used vehicles it deems suitable for young drivers, with safety the top criteria.

Among the least expensive are the Volkswagen Jetta from 2009 and later, $8,200; the Volvo XC90 from 2005 and later, $7,300; the Honda Element from 2007 and later, $8,900; and the Subaru Tribeca from 2006 and later, $8,500.

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