Last Updated May 10, 2010 7:21 PM EDT
If you can afford to buy a car for the new grad in your life-or if he or she amassed enough savings to finance one-think safety first. Picking models with electronic stability control-which helps prevent rollovers-and side air bags is especially important. "While airbags provide protection when people are in crashes, research shows that electronic stability control reduces the risk of getting into crashes in the first place," says Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research organization funded by the insurance industry.
To give you some good, safe picks, MoneyWatch today offers up the best used cars for grads and will soon recommend new cars. Our five used-car picks are three-year-old, 2007 models with important safety features, in good condition with 40,000 miles on them, which keeps the price below $20,000 (sometimes much below). Consumer Reports rates all five reliable.
Beginning drivers: Teens who get a car not long after receiving their driver's license, on average, have a much higher accident rate than even drivers just a few years older. So, for them, "the best car is big, boring and slow," says Rader. Sedate sedans encourage less risky driving than small sporty cars and give better protection if an accident happens.
The 2007 Hyundai Sonata, unlike many midsize sedan competitors, has stability control and side air bags as standard features. And you might even be able to convince your teen driver that the Sonata isn't too boring. Expect to buy this car for about $9,150 from a private seller or $10,000 from a dealer, according to Edmunds.com. The mileage ratings are 21 mpg city, 30 highway.
Headed off to distant college: A high-school grad making a trek to college needs to haul stuff for a dorm room. So we looked for a safe and commodious vehicle and came up with the 2007 Mitsubishi Outlander. It's one of the few small crossover SUVs in this model year with stability control and side air bags standard. Plus, the price is right: You should be able to buy this Outlander for about $12,300 from a private seller or $13,250 from a dealer. The mileage rating is 17 mpg city, 25 highway.
Going to a local college: Economical commuting is the main concern for a grad who's living at home but attending a nearby college. So a 2007 Volkswagen Rabbit (mileage ratings of 19 city, 28 highway) should work. Look for a used Rabbit with optional stability control; side air bags are standard. College classmates may well think a used Rabbit is cool. So is the price, at about $10,800 from a private seller, $11,800 from a dealer.
College grad with an okay entry-level job: Lucky to have a job in this economy, this grad needs to be sure to get to work on time. Dependable and sporty-looking, the Honda Civic Si is one of the few Honda 2007 models with standard stability control. Side air bags are standard, too. The Civic line is the top small car pick for used cars by Consumer Reports. The Civic Si should cost about $13,675 from a private seller and $14,675 from a dealer. Mileage ratings are 20 mpg city, 29 highway.
College grad with a high-paying job: If your grad had the good fortune to make it through college with an in-demand specialty and not too many loans, this driver might want to flash a little style behind the wheel of a 2007 Audi A4. With stability control and side air bags standard in this used luxury model, the grad can set out to work in a car featuring great looks and sporty handling. Though more expensive than our other picks, the 2007 A4 should sell for about $16,700 from a private seller or $17,875 from a dealer. And mileage rated at 21 mpg city, 29 highway should help keep costs down.
Photos courtesy of manufacturers
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