It seems like everyone I know has a kid graduating from college, and their parents are thinking about ways to provide them transportation. If you follow everyone else’s advice, though, you’re into a car for $25k or more. That’s nuts. You can buy a safe, cool, reliable used car for your recent college grad for less than $15,000.
We’re choosing vehicles on a number of different factors for this list: Price, safety, reliability, vehicle mileage, fuel economy, vehicle type and cool factor. There’s no magic bullet; some of these cars are going to be clear winners on some factors, and clear losers on others.
Your recent graduate’s needs may be different than the kid down the street. Art students might be looking for a car that can swallow a large canvas, while some graduates are just looking for a little top-down fun before they succumb to a lifetime of driving dull sedans.
To allow for different needs, we’re looking for examples of vehicles that fall into a number of vehicle classes: fuel-sipping subcompacts, commuting compacts, utility-player CUVs, mountain-reaching SUVs, and moving-day pickups. We’ll even try to recommend a minivan.
Sorry, grads, no supercars on this list. Get a job and buy your own.
Our price threshold is $15,000. That’s not to say that every single example of these used cars is going to fall under the $15,000 limit, but it shouldn’t be hard to locate a good range of cars under that cap.
Ride a motorcycle or – like this presumptive college graduate – jump off a roof onto a folding table, and the difference between 2016’s safety equipment and 2012’s is a moot point.
But you want to be confident that you’re sending your recent graduate out into the driving world with a car that’s safe.
Crash ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) safety ratings don’t tell the whole story. Their Top Safety Pick+ ratings only apply to cars that have advanced safety equipment that’s only been available on most cars for the last few years. Unless you’re ready to spend $16,495 for the Scion iA — the cheapest car available with a TSP+ rating from the IIHS — you’ll be looking at used cars that simply won’t achieve that rating. That doesn’t mean they aren’t safe, though.
There are other way to measure safety, and one of those is a particular model’s overall death rate. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System reports this data. The most recent data available comes from the 2011 model year, which is perfect for parents and loved ones interested in purchasing a used car for their recent graduate. We’re looking for cars that have a death rate significantly lower than the 28 deaths per million average.
To evaluate safety, we found NHTSA’s FARS overall death rate, the IIHS safety rating for at least one year in that model’s run, and NHTSA’s star crash rating.
The wild card in used car buying is overall reliability. We don’t want to recommend cars that are unreliable, so we’ll be taking a look at the databases from our friends at CarComplaints.com, and scoping out the cars that have fewer overall complaints than the average (visit their site to see the complete breakdown of complaints year-t0-year).
For $15k, we’re recommending cars that all have under 75,000 miles, but you should also look for a complete set of service records, including a timing belt replacement where required.
If you’re going to be buying the car, you don’t want to be paying for gas, too. Unless you want your graduate hitting you up for the Mobil card every few weeks, we’re shooting for better than 32 mpg on the highway, but that’s not feasible in some vehicle types.
No recent graduate wants to be rolling around town in a beige Camry with roll-up windows and a cassette player. Come on, Mom and Dad, step up your game.
With those requirements in mind, here’s what we came up with:
Price: $12,990 to $14,995
Safety: Overall Death Rate – 16, IIHS Top Safety Pick (2011), NHTSA Five-Star Crash Rating (2011)
Reliability: Fewer than 32 complaints per year since 2011
Fuel Economy: 51 mpg Highway
Cool Factor: Birkenstock-Approved
If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool muscle car fan, the Toyota Prius is the lamest vehicle ever built. But if you’re graduating from a college in Vermont with a degree in Glassblowing or any of the other Liberal Arts, the Prius will likely prompt a nod of approval from your kid’s Patchouli-wearing, beardo friends.
It’s also profoundly safe, with an overall death rate significantly lower than the average (the lowest in this class of cars, actually), a Top Safety Pick rating from the IIHS, and an overall five-star crash rating from NHTSA. With a highway fuel economy estimate of 51 miles per gallon on the highway, you may never be asked for money again.
Not every Prius is created equal, according to CarComplaints.com’s database. Cars from 2010 in particular had excessive oil consumption issues, and cars from 2007 and 2008 had headlight problems that weren’t costly to fix, but they were nonetheless annoying. Cars from the 2011 model year and newer have significantly fewer complaints.
Price: $11,750 to $15,500
Safety: Overall Death Rate – N/A, IIHS Top Safety Pick (2013), NHTSA Four-Star Crash Rating (2013)
Reliability: Fewer than 29 complaints per year since 2013
Fuel Economy: Up to 40 mpg highway
Cool Factor: SCCA Contender
There are safer cars than the Mazda3. The Honda Civic, for example, earns a five-star crash rating from NHTSA and a Top Safety Pick+ rating from the IIHS. The Mazda3 loses a better crash rating from the government because it only earns three stars in side collisions, but it scores a solid five stars in frontal crash tests.
The Mazda3 rocks for three reasons: (1) It provides a much more engaging driving experience than any other car in its class, (2) you can choose either a sedan or a five-door hatch if your grad needs the extra cargo room and (3) you can choose to favor fuel economy and sportiness depending on which trim you choose.
Contrary to conventional fuel mileage curves, the higher trim level of Mazda3 you purchase, the better fuel economy you’ll achieve. The lower s and SV trims only get 29 mpg on the highway. A Mazda3 i Sport, Touring or Grand Touring trim with the SkyActiv powertrain delivers up to 40, depending which body style you choose.
CarComplaints.com lists very few complaints for 2013 or newer Mazda3s, and those complaints are heavily weighted towards prematurely failing clutches. Chances are pretty good that your graduate can’t drive a manual transmission anyway, so it’s a moot point.
Price: $11,750 to $15,500
Safety: Overall Death Rate – N/A, IIHS Top Safety Pick (2015), NHTSA Five-Star Crash Rating (2015)
Reliability: Fewer than 12 complaints per year since 2014
Fuel Economy: 31 mpg highway
Cool Factor: Rolling Dorm Room
The Kia Soul often gets overlooked in the compact crossover market because it’s only available in front-wheel drive. Don’t let that stop you. You can pick up a set of Dunlop Winter Maxx tires mounted on steel 15-inch wheels, mounted and balanced and equipped with TPMS sensors for less than $850 at Tire Rack and the Soul will out-perform a lot of all-wheel drive vehicles equipped with all-season tires.
The Soul was redesigned for the 2014 model year, and there are plenty around for less than $15k, even in the higher trim levels, and with an automatic or a stick. They earned a Top Safety Pick rating from the IIHS for 2015, along with a NHTSA Five-Star crash rating.
In the second generation that debuted in 2014, the Soul got quieter and more pleasant to drive overall, thanks to size increases in almost every dimension, and a much greater use of high-strength steel. Fold the seats down and you could probably use it for a temporary apartment if need be.
Complaints in the CarComplaints.com database are very low, with only a handful per year since the redesign.
Price: $11,000 to $15,500
Safety: Overall Death Rate – 12, IIHS Top Safety Pick (2014), NHTSA Five-Star Crash Rating (2015)
Reliability: Fewer than 49 complaints per year since 2012
Fuel Economy: 25 mpg highway
Cool Factor: Is Any Midsize SUV Cool?
The two go-to vehicles in this crowded class are the Toyota RAV4 and the Honda CR-V, and both of them are excellent choices. The problem is the prices they command on the used market. The Hyundai Santa Fe delivers everything that those two vehicles can, at a lower price, with significantly lower vehicle mileage. A comparable Honda CR-V at a similar price would have 65,000 to 85,000 miles, versus the Santa Fe, which generally comes closer to 60,000.
In general, vehicles in this class typically have a lower overall death rate than the average, and the Santa Fe is no exception. It earned a Top Safety Pick rating from IIHS as late as 2014, and has consistently delivered a Five-Star crash rating from the IIHS.
Any of the vehicles in this class are going to be limited in their ability to deliver exceptional fuel economy. An estimate of 25 mpg on the highway is on par with the class.
Earlier Santa Fe models had issues with peeling paint, but the complaints filed with CarComplaints.com have diminished since the full redesign in 2012.
Unlike many vehicles in this class, you can select either a five-seat or a seven-seat version, but the seven-seat version is typically going to be more expensive than the five-seater. In terms of coolness, anything in this class (0ther than the Jeep Wrangler) is like driving your mom’s car, but if it’s safety you’re after, they’re hard to beat.
Price: $11,994 to $15,500
Safety: Overall Death Rate – 8, IIHS Top Safety Pick (2013)
Reliability: Fewer than 14 complaints per year since 2012
Fuel Economy: 31 mpg Highway
Cool Factor: Out of its weight class
Mention the Volkswagen CC and most people will need to be reminded it existed in the first place. They’ve never sold particularly well, in that yawning gap between the more popular Passat and the one-time luxury-class W12-powered Phaeton.
The CC was rated an IIHS Top Safety Pick in 2013, but oddly, it doesn’t appear to ever have been crash tested by NHTSA, with “Not Rated” rankings from 2012 forward. However, its overall death rate when it was last reported was a low eight per million miles traveled, which may say more about the average CC driver than its ability to withstand a crash.
The CC is a whole lot cooler than just about any car in this class, and it really edges into the entry-luxury class. Yet, there will still be plenty of cars around for under $15,000 with fewer miles showing on the odometer than a CC priced like that would.
CarComplaints registered no more than 14 complaints per year since 2012, which again may say more about its low sales volume than its overall reliability, but even in its worst year — 2010 — the bulk of those complaints were due to a check engine light.
An odd choice, to be sure, but one worth investigating for the money.
Price: $10,000 to $15,000
Safety: Overall Death Rate – N/A, IIHS – Top Safety Pick (2013), NHTSA N/A
Reliability: Fewer than 10 complaints per year since 2005
Fuel Economy: 33 mpg Highway
Cool Factor: Practical and Fun
The Volkswagen GTI has a lot going for it, and both high school and college graduates will appreciate its fun driving characteristics and its practicality. Yes, it’s a hoot to drive on the back roads, but you can also stuff a chest of drawers into the cargo area if you need to.
NHTSA never rated the sixth-generation A6 Golf in a full crash test, but the IIHS gave it Top Safety Pick marks every year between 2011 and 2013, which is the sweet spot of the cars we’re recommending.
Surprisingly few complaints arose not just for GTIs, but for Golfs in general in CarComplaints.com’s database.
Price: $7,995 to $15,000
Safety: Overall Death Rate – N/A, IIHS N/A, NHTSA N/A
Reliability: Fewer than 7 complaints per year since 2005
Fuel Economy: 28 mpg Highway
Cool Factor: As cool as it gets
No big surprise here, the Mazda MX-5 Miata is a terrific little car. In terms of safety, its volume is low enough that it hasn’t been crash tested by NHTSA or the IIHS, and death rates for the third generation car were never reported. You won’t find the latest generation Miata for less than $15k, but despite the complaints about it being too big and too heavy, the NC (third-generation) Miata is still a blast to drive.
Its reliability is almost literally off the charts. In the years between 2005 and 2015 when the NC Miata was in production, CarComplaints.com never reported more than seven complaints for any model year, and there were two years where complaints were never recorded at all. Those complaints that did arise were things like air conditioning compressor failure (hey, the roof goes down), and a rear strut that required replacement.
On the bad side, the Miata only delivers 28 mpg, which is low for a car that can only carry two people and two days’ worth of luggage, but it’s the most fun low-mileage car you’re get to drive.
Show up after graduation with one of these, and you’re the cool parent of all time.
Price: $10,000 to $15,000
Safety: Overall Death Rate – N/A, IIHS – Top Safety Pick (2015), NHTSA – Five Star Overall (2015)
Reliability: Fewer than 6 complaints per year since 2012
Fuel Economy: 34 mpg Highway
Cool Factor: Off the chart
It’s a tragedy that more people haven’t enjoyed the Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ twins. They are among the most fun small cars available for purchase today, provided you can live without the top going down. Even the automatic transmission is fun, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t drive the manual.
Fifteen grand buys a whole lot of Toyota 86 — as it will be known now that Scion has kicked the bucket — with well under 60,000 miles. There’s no data on death rates, but both cars score well as Top Safety Picks with the IIHS, and five-star-rated overall performers with NHTSA.
And according to CarCompliants.coms database, they have to be among the least complained about cars in production. Granted, sales numbers are small, too, but CarComplaints.com has only recorded a total of NINE complaints for the Scion, and SIX complaints for the Subaru since 2012, combined. Typically, those complaints were about grinding gears while shifting in manual transmissions, and most of those were in the first year of production.
Cheap, fun, reliable, relatively fuel efficient. What more are you looking for?
Price: $10,867 to $15,000
Safety: Overall Death Rate – N/A, IIHS – Rated Good for all applicable ratings 2005 to 2014, Acceptable for Head Restraints and Seats, NHTSA N/A
Reliability: Fewer than 243 complaints per year since 2005
Fuel Economy: 23 mpg Highway
Cool Factor: A no-frills workhorse
Compact-to-midsize pickups are either wildly expensive or not terribly reliable, but the Nissan Frontier bucks both of those trends. You can pretty easily find a four-wheel drive Frontier with fewer than 75,000 miles for less than $15k, and if you can do without the four-wheel drive, you can get trucks with much fewer miles in higher trim levels.
There’s nothing fancy here. The Frontier hasn’t had a lick of updates since 2005, and it feels it. But if your graduate needs a rugged pickup that can stand up to the rigors of outdoorsmanship or new home ownership, this is the truck.
Don’t let the reliability numbers throw you. CarComplaints.com recorded a ton of cooling system issues back in the earliest years of the current generation, but from 2008 to the present, the site hasn’t recorded more than 34 complaints a year.
When you can find ratings, Frontier pickups prove to be relatively safe. In IIHS crash testing, the trucks got Good ratings for Moderate Overlap Front, Side, and Roof Strength, and an Adequate rating for Head Restraints and Seats.
Fuel mileage isn’t horrible at 23 mpg on the highway, but that’s for a four-cylinder with two wheel drive.
Price: $11,350 to $15,000
Safety: Overall Death Rate – 0, IIHS – Top Safety Pick (2008 and 2009), NHTSA – Five-Star Rating (2005 to 2010)
Reliability: Fewer than 300 complaints per year since 2005
Fuel Economy: 25 mpg Highway
Cool Factor: Try moving a drum kit in a Miata
If for some unknown reason your graduate wants a minivan — they’re handy for bands, we suppose — it’s tough to beat the 2005 to 2010 Honda Odyssey. They get exceptionally good crash test ratings, but when NHTSA collected data in 2011, no lives had been lost per million cars registered. Again, that probably says something more about the type of driver behind the wheel of a minivan, but it’s still a pretty dramatic figure, considering how many kids drive mom’s minivan until they get their own car.
They’re not exceptionally complaint-free, though. The earliest years of the third generation had transmission problems, according to CarComplaints.com’s database, but the complaints fell every passing year until the end of the third generation in 2010, when the number of complaints fell to 52.
Fuel mileage is fair, considering these things way as much as a ’65 Buick Electra. There are plenty of seats that fold up and out of the way, and if you can live with the tight footwell on the driver’s side, you could run one of these across the country and back.
Search for a vehicle for your graduate with BestRide.com’s comprehensive listings, beginning with these cars for sale for less than $15,000.