Buying Guides

The 5 Best Affordable Small Cars for College Grads

High quality, low price

Amos Kwon, Editor-In-Chief

Graduation from college is an accomplishment, especially if you finished off your four plus years with e-learning at your parents home. But not all of life has to suck, so you deserve a good car that won't break the bank. A big SUV makes no sense, nor does a sports car. Small cars and crossovers are where it's at, and we offer up seven great ones that are affordable, fun, and practical. Here are our recommendations that will get you to that first job, or at least to all those interviews you're gonna have to get through.

2020 Honda Fit

Best

for long-distance commuters

  • PROS: Fun to drive, ideal exterior size outside, roomy inside, great configurable seating.
  • CONS: Seems to get less attractive with every generation, rear seat headroom is compromised, infotainment system needs better response.

The Fit is deceptive. Just because it's priced at a very affordable $16,190 base MSRP doesn't mean it should be overlooked. It's much roomier inside thanks to Honda's Magic Seats that allow you to fold the rear cushions up and fold the front passenger seat all the way forward. Its little 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 130 horses is small, but if you mate it to the 6-speed manual, the car is zippy and easy to drive. Our choice would be the Sport model because it ditches the sunroof that makes headroom a bit tight.

The Sport comes with 16-inch dark alloy wheels, fog lights, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, 7-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a six-speaker sound system. The Fit is a lot of car for not much money, and it has Honda reliability to back it.

2020 Hyundai Venue

 
  • PROS: Nimble in traffic, great steering, comfortable front seats even for tall folks, top-notch physical controls.
  • CONS: No all-wheel drive available, steering adjustment needed at highway speeds, looks dumpy from some angles.

The Venue is Hyundai's newest crossover, slotting right below the Kona. It also happens to be fun to drive thanks to its smaller dimensions and great steering. The cabin is also well-designed with big climate control knobs, a great infotainment system, and easy-to-read large analog gauges.

While the 121-hp four-cylinder engine isn't powerful, the Venue feels quicker than it is. Standard equipment includes automatic headlights, an 8-inch touchscreen display with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Automatic Emergency Braking, and Lane-Keeping Assist. The price is an attractive $17,350 base MSRP. Just keep in mind it doesn't have all-wheel drive.

2020 Mazda CX-30

Best

for driving enthusiasts

  • PROS: Entertaining behind the wheel, beautifully-executed interior, exterior belies its price.
  • CONS: Some compromised rear/side visibility, less-than-impressive gas mileage.

The CX-30 is really what the CX-3 should've been. It's quick, pretty roomy inside, and quite wonderful to drive thanks to great steering and agile manners. For a very manageable $21,900 base price, the CX-30 looks and feels a lot richer. The 186-hp engine from the bigger CX-5 moves the CX-30 with alacrity, and the handling exhibits tremendous poise.

Standard equipment includes LED lighting, alloy wheels, an 8.8-inch infotainment screen, forward collision warning with automatic braking, and lane keeping assist. Upgraded trim levels include heated seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, premium audio, leather seats, a nifty head-up display, and adaptive front LED lighting. All your college-grad friends will think you landed a much better job than you did.

2020 Subaru Crosstrek

Best

for the outdoorsy

  • PROS: Mild ruggedness comes in handy, excellent standard all-wheel drive system, easy to drive, roomy in both rows.
  • CONS: Lackluster acceleration, small cargo space, non-intuitive infotainment system.

The Crosstrek garners big sales every year thanks to its compact size, fun personality, and that famous Symmetric All-Wheel Drive system that lets you go places other hatchbacks can't. It also comes with a great slew of safety features thanks to its EyeSight system that includes brake assist, a rear vision camera, and a robust set of airbags, all standard.

All Crosstreks come with 17-inch wheels, convenient roof rails, a 6.5-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. If you upgrade to the midgrade Premium trim, you get heated front seats, foglights, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Since the 152-horsepower engine lacks verve, we suggest mating it with the automatic transmission rather than the CVT. If you want more power, wait until 2021 when the Crosstrek gets turbocharging.

2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Best

for weekend autocrossers

  • PROS: One of the best-driving cars for the money, slick looks, retro plaid seats rock, excellent manual transmission is super-fun, roomy interior for two + cargo.
  • CONS: The most expensive car in this list, too much piano black plastic inside, dated infotainment system.

The GTI is one of our all-time favorite cars because it's just a hoot to drive. Its 228-horsepower engine is potent and responsive, and when you mate it with that great six-speed manual transmission, watch out. But it's not just quick, but it also steers and handles like a car that costs $10K more.

Our favorite is the S model (base) that has the same power as the top trim Autobahn version. It also is the only one that comes with those retro-licious plaid seats. The standard equipment list is long with flashy 18-inch wheels, a limited-slip differential, performance brakes, heated front seats, a 6.5-inch touchscreen with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, Blind-spot monitor, and Forward collision mitigation. And even though it's almost $30K, you'll never feel like you paid too much for it.

Why a get small car?

  • Easy to park, easy to drive.
  • Generally easy on the bank account.
  • Usually only need room for one or two people.

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