Ryleigh is a college student in Michigan looking to pay about $8,000 in cash for something reliable. It doesn’t need to be fancy just a decent ride with Bluetooth for the tunes. What car should Ryleigh buy?
(Welcome back to What Car Should You Buy? Where we give real people real advice about buying cars. )
Here is the scenario –
I’m a college student on a low budget looking for a car I can pay for in cash. I can spend up to $8500. I want something reliable with decent gas mileage and Bluetooth. I like small hatchbacks but I am flexible on the body style. However, it does need to be an automatic.
Budget: up to $8500
Daily Driver: Yes
Location: Mt. Pleasant, MI
Wants: Reliable, compact, decent MPG
Doesn’t want: Something too big or hard to maintain
Expert 1: Tom McParland – The Car Was Better Than The Movie Adaptation
Ryleigh so I am so old I actually remember a time in the early 2000s when $8,000 could buy you a pretty sweet college car. I had a similar budget around your age and was chasing down all kinds of things like VW Corrados, 240SXs, MR2s and I settled on a Honda Prelude. Those were rad times.
However, even though the market sucks and college costs have skyrocketed that doesn’t mean you can be driving around in a nice ride. Take for example this 2013 Chevy Sonic LTZ with about 113,000 miles. It’s a hatchback, as requested, so you can cram all your stuff from campus and back home in-between semesters. These were fun little cars and were one of Chevy’s better efforts in the sub-compact segment. The four-cylinder motor can get up to 37 mpg on the highway and this LTZ trim comes with leather seats and some other nice upgrades.
Expert 2: Mercedes Streeter – Drop-Top Reliable Fun
Despite how prices appear in today’s market, working with a low budget doesn’t mean that you have to give up on fun or reliability. In fact, you can get a car that you’ll turn around and look at when you’re done driving it. Meet the Pontiac Solstice.
These cars were birthed from a dream that Bob Lutz had to create an inexpensive American roadster. The result was a car with architecture derived from the Corvette and a mid-front engine, rear-wheel drive layout. And the bodies on top were given a design unlike anything before or since.
The engine housed in the base model of the then new Kappa platform cars was the 2.4-liter Ecotec four. It’s making 177 hp and 166 lb-ft torque here and is paired to an automatic. Not very fast, but these are known to be reliable and easy to work on. The Kappa cars also robbed the GM parts bin. So you get that drop-top experience with a sporty body without worrying about having to repair it all of the time.
Here’s one within budget nearby!
Expert 3: José Rodríguez Jr. – No New Integra, RSX or Bust
Ryleigh, you’re in good company. Deep down inside, we’re all college students looking for a car we can pay for in cash! I’m a lover of small hatchbacks myself, though I wouldn’t saddle you with an old German hatch, because you want reliability. In that case, a go-to would be something like a Honda Fit or Toyota Matrix. Also, the Pontiac Vibe Tom hinted at. But I want you to have a little fun driving to school, so I’m recommending this sportier 2006 Acura RSX.
Not only does this RSX have one of the coolest taillight designs of the aughts, it’s also got a hearty 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine from Honda. Someone say VTEC? Well, i-VTEC, anyway — for the iPod and iMac crowd. That little engine is not as rowdy as the one in the RSX Type-S, but it’ll likely be reliable college ride given the car’s low mileage, while saving you money at the pump.
There are two caveats: a cracked taillight and no Bluetooth. It kills me that one of those gorgeous lights is hurt, but sourcing a replacement shouldn’t be too hard. And the missing Bluetooth shouldn’t be hard to remedy, either. The RSX appears to have room for either a single- or double-DIN head unit, which means you can fit almost anything in there! Something with CarPlay or Android Auto.
Expert 4: Lalita Chemello – Pop in a Little Sporty Hatch
Ryleigh, my fellow Chippewa (I’m assuming Mt. Pleasant means you’re at the home of the now ‘Flying C’s’ — Go, fire up, Chips!). I once graced the same school grounds many, many years ago, and I understand what the area is like, and just how far away from civilization you are. You definitely need something that does great on mileage, but isn’t a soul-sucking piece of machinery (like my 1996 Lumina I had while attending). And Tom’s got a point — it’s nice to have ample room for friends, adventures, and moving all your dorm stuff back home for the summer. I think what you could use is a Fiat 500 Sport.
The Fiat 500 wasn’t around in the U.S. for long, thanks to its predecessors of decades prior earning the car and brand some bad nicknames (Fix It Again, Tony). But when Fiat bought out the Chrysler family of vehicles in the mid-aughts, it brought with it to America the 500, and this time, it was no slouch.
I bought a 2015 when it debuted, and put over 50,000 miles on it with no repairs outside of a recall on the clutch for the manuals, and Detroit lived up to its reputation and ate a couple of tires. Otherwise, she was a solid, sound vehicle, and great for everything including hauling my mountain bike to trails, and the occasional Ikea trip.
While I no longer have her, she is absolutely perfect for what you need. Not only unlike Jose’s suggestion does she include Bluetooth thanks to UConnect — she’s gas savvy too, with highway trips getting me on average 40 mpg, and my daily driving anywhere from 32-38 mpg.
There’s almost too many of them in white on various sites that you likely will lose in those mid-Michigan winters, so I found you a shiny red 500 Sport that’s in Illinois for $4,999. I’m sure you can find a few in Detroit as well. Just, ya know, it’ll be scarce in Mt. Pleasant, cause, it’s Mt. Pleasant. Good luck!
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