Whether school is across town or on the other side of the country, the beginning of a new academic year often necessitates the purchase of a new (or used) car. As any parent will tell you, the most important factors to consider when picking out a new set of wheels in conjunction with a new slate of classes are affordability, reliability, practicality and safety. Most students, however, would likely trade all those attributes for a heavier helping of cool and fast.
Fortunately for all involved, it keeps getting easier and easier to have it all. In addition to a full warranty, the latest safety and technology advancements and perfect paint, entry-level new cars continue to provide more for less. You can save even more money with used cars, which are more reliable than ever.
All of the new cars on this year's Back-to-School list feature starting Fair Purchase Prices of less than $18,000, along with ding-free doors and immaculate interiors. (Values listed are for the lowest-priced entry in each model's lineup. All Fair Purchase Prices reflect transaction prices during the last week in July 2008.)
All of the used cars named have a Kelley Blue Book Suggested Retail Value -- the asking price you can expect from a dealer, from which you can negotiate downward -- of less than $12,000. (For each model, we selected the most recent model year available for less than $12,000, priced using mileage commensurate with each car's age. We chose 2004 as the earliest qualifying model year.)
Here, in alphabetical order, are Kelley Blue Book's Top 10 New and Top 10 Used Back-to-School Cars for 2008.
2008 Chevrolet Cobalt
Available as a sharp-looking two-door coupe
or a more accommodating four-door sedan
(or a versatile wagon
with retro sheet metal and an HHR nametag), the Cobalt backs up its low starting price with outstanding highway fuel economy of up to 37 miles per gallon.
2008 Ford Focus
It's affordable, economical and offers surprisingly sound driving dynamics, but what makes the Focus cool for school is the available SYNC communication and entertainment system with voice control.
2008 Honda Fit
A low starting price and highway fuel economy of up to 35 miles per gallon are appealing, but the five-door Fit wins over the in-crowd with clever interior flexibility and an available sport model that knows how to have a good time.
2008 Hyundai Tucson
Hyundai's compact crossover
delivers the high seating position and cargo versatility that propelled the SUV
to such great heights, but with more student loan-friendly highway fuel economy in the neighborhood of 25 mpg.
2008 Mazda MAZDA3
There's no doubting the significance of the RX-7 and Miata, but in some ways the MAZDA3 is the most successful car in the automaker's 38 years in America. Entering its sixth and final model year in its current skin, the MAZDA3 is as appealing today as it was its freshman year.
2008 Scion xB
You don't need a semester's worth of geometry to see that the second-generation xB is larger and less boxy than the first. Complementing the xB's cubic capacity are entry-level luxuries like air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors and a Pioneer sound system with iPod integration, all standard.
2008 Subaru Impreza
More than just a foundation for the rally-conquering (and pricier) Impreza WRX and WRX STI, the Subaru Impreza is a solid choice in the sub-$18,000 arena thanks in part to standard all-wheel drive and class-up road presence.
2008 Suzuki SX4
The Suzuki SX4 is a multiple-choice question with two right answers: hatchback
and sedan. Both body styles are available with navigation for less than $16,000, and the hatchback is the least expensive all-wheel-drive vehicle sold in America.
2009 Toyota Matrix
Pop quiz: What's the plural form of Matrix? Answer: Corolla Wagons
. Toyota's tall but sleek econo-hauler combines available highway fuel economy of more than 30 mpg with enough seat height and cargo versatility to satisfy reluctantly displaced but open-minded SUV drivers.
2008 Volkswagen Rabbit
Like any good all-nighter snack mix, Vee-Dub's venerable hatch is a mix of many good things. Every time we drive the Rabbit we're re-impressed by the responsive five-cylinder engine, the curiously tenacious cornering grip and an interior unmatched in materials and build-quality by anything within several thousand dollars.
2008 Chevrolet Aveo
Thoroughly restyled for the 2007 model year, the smallest Chevy is an over-achiever that combines freshman-like pricing with grad-student style and maturity.
2007 Dodge Caliber
The Caliber's outgoing personality is exhibited in its standout styling and copious cargo flexibility. Even parked in the student lot, the five-door Dodge seems to be screaming, "Hey, let's do something."
2005 Ford Crown Victoria
The car more commonly known as "Taxi!" (or, in some circles, "Cop!") rides on a decades-old platform, features an equally antiquated powertrain and is far and away the least fuel-efficient car on this year's list. So, how'd it make the list? Reliability, room (passenger and cargo) and sheer mass, the benefit of which can't be denied when it comes to passive safety.
2004 Ford Focus
So, you thought choosing a major was tough? The Ford Focus is available in three-door, four-door, five-door and wagon body styles, each of which delivers a uniquely appealing combination of affordability, flexibility and zeal. (For the record, we'd take the well-rounded five-door.)
2004 Honda Civic
The Civic owes its status as arguably the most prudent used-car buy out there to its famous reliability, outstanding fuel economy, refined interior and a mix of style and enthusiasm that varies within the lineup.
2006 Hyundai Elantra
In another instance of perception lagging reality, Hyundai's resale values have not kept pace with its recent quality and reliability improvements -- which make vehicles like the Civic-fighting Elantra especially good used deals.
2004 Mazda Tribute
With available all-wheel drive and enough room for four or five road-trippers and their gear, Mazda's version of the Ford Escape
offers all the versatility and capability any student would need to make the most of any and every impromptu three-day weekend.
2004 Mazda MAZDA3
As a regular entry on kbb.com Top 10 lists and the only vehicle named to both the new and used lists in this year's Back-to-School roundup, we've no new praise to bestow upon the fun, stylish, affordable and versatile MAZDA3.
2004 Nissan Altima
There's no denying the mass appeal of the mid-size sedan, and we like the Altima for its varsity-level athleticism. The V6 is the jewel of the lineup, but the more frugal four-cylinder leaves more money left for ramen noodles.
2004 Pontiac Vibe
The Pontiac Vibe offers fuel economy and reliability in a handy hatchback package that offers great versatility. We also like its sassy exterior styling and well-crafted, easy-to-use interior. Its low acquisition cost is just icing on the pastry.