7 sensible used cars for college life

Get a reliable ride for less than $10,000

If you're looking for something to drive back to school, consider one of our favorite college cars. "Coolness" doesn't factor into our choices. These are low-cost, workhorse rides that are safe and relatively cheap to operate. There will be plenty of time to enjoy your "dream car" after graduation. Kelley Blue Book says our recommendations should sell for less than $10,000 with about 15,000 miles per year on the odometer.

Mom and dad will like the top crash-test scores each earned from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. You'll appreciate that they get at least 28 mpg on the highway with an automatic transmission and front-wheel drive — well, except for one that's all-wheel drive. And since mechanical problems multiply as cars age, we don't reach any further back than the 2007 model year.

2009 Nissan Versa Sedan

Mileage: 26 mpg city/33 highway/28 combined

We think the Nissan designers probably dozed off more than once sketching the Versa Sedan's exterior. Exciting it's not. But when it comes to an efficient, roomy commuter car, it covers all the bases. A 107-horsepower four-cylinder engine with a five-speed manual transmission was standard, but we suggest looking for a Versa with the optional four-speed automatic transmission. Power windows and door locks were options on lower-priced trim levels, but air conditioning was standard on all Versas. Ride quality is better than average for this size car, and the front seats are quite comfortable. It has five more inches of rear-seat legroom than a 2013 Mercedes-Benz C-Class Sedan and a pinch more trunk space, too.

2009 Suzuki SX4 Crossover

Mileage: 22 mpg city/30 highway/25 combined

Who'd have thought Consumer Reports would score a Suzuki high in reliability and safety? But it gives high marks to the 2009 SX4 Crossover. We were surprised that the 143-horsepower four-cylinder engine and standard all-wheel drive powertrain could meet our price and mileage requirements. You also have to like the fact that Suzuki loaded up the SX4 Crossover with standard features that are costly options on most rides. That means you'll find six air bags, stability and traction control and lots of technology — automatic climate control, Bluetooth connectivity, navigation system — on every used SX4 Crossover you look at. It has loads of legroom front and back, and it can haul nearly as much cargo as the Mercedes-Benz E-Class Wagon. The mileage estimates above are for the optional four-speed automatic.

2009 Toyota Yaris Hatchback 3-Door

Mileage: 29 mpg city/35 highway/31 combined

The Yaris won't lay rubber when the light goes green, but its 106-horsepower four-cylinder engine has enough get-up-and-go to keep up with traffic. It's also an ideal size for shoehorning into those tight campus parking spots. We prefer 2009 models over previous years because that's the first year Toyota made side-curtain air bags and antilock brakes standard equipment. Base models come with air conditioning and a five-speed manual transmission, but you shouldn't have any trouble finding versions for sale in our price range with a four-speed automatic transmission, cruise control, and power locks, windows and outside mirrors. For a pipsqueak, Yaris also offers very decent front-seat legroom and as much backseat legroom as a new BMW 3 Series Coupe.

2008 Chevrolet Malibu Classic

Mileage: 18 mpg city/28 highway/22 combined

When Chevrolet redesigned the Malibu for 2008, it continued making the previous version for another year, calling it Malibu Classic. As time passes, differences between the two Malibus are blurred, but used Classics command a lower price. Although it gets the poorest fuel economy of all of our college cars, it's also the largest. The roomy cabin will easily accommodate five sweaty ultimate Frisbee players. It's also the only one that comes with a standard V-6 engine, which produces 219 horsepower, and four-speed automatic transmission. Acceleration is smooth and enthusiastic. The ride quality is terrific. Finally, you shouldn't have any trouble finding Classics selling for less than $10,000 that come loaded with all sorts of comfort and convenience features such as remote keyless entry and cruise control.

2008 Honda Civic DX Coupe

Mileage: 25 mpg city/36 highway/29 combined

Parked at the bottom of the Civic pecking order, the DX Coupe isn't packed with standard features. In fact, nearly every creature comfort except power windows was optional. But if you want Honda's bullet-proof reliability, this is how to get it for under 10 grand. If you look hard enough, you should be able to find a DX in our price range with the options package that included air conditioning and a four-speaker audio system. Civic delivers very strong fuel economy for a 2008, and that's with a 140-horsepower four-cylinder engine and five-speed automatic transmission — an upgrade we recommend. Energetic and nimble, this Civic is well suited for the stop-and-go driving, as well as the parking challenges, of college campuses. Front-seat room is ample, but even a couple of gymnasts will find the rear seat a tight fit.

2007 Ford Fusion

Mileage: 23 mpg city/31 highway/26 combined

Like Malibu Classic, the midsize Fusion is a family hauler, meaning it's roomy, comfortable and even entry-level "S" versions come packed with convenience features. Its rather mundane styling won't turn heads. But the large cabin will get the entire intramural basketball team down to Taco Bell, while the trunk is large enough to pack a semester's worth of dirty clothes home for washing. Ford made front side-impact and side-curtain airbags standard on all Fusions for 2007. Although there are some AWD-equipped 2007s out there, it will be tough to find one in good shape priced under $10,000. The fuel economy numbers listed are for the 160-horsepower four-cylinder engine mated to the optional five-speed automatic transmission. A 221-horsepower V-6 with a six-speed automatic was standard on pricier versions.

2007 Volkswagen Jetta

Mileage: 22 mpg city/29 highway/25 combined

We like the Jetta because even the entry-level 2007 came loaded with all manner of convenience goodies, as well as six air bags. Although probably not a lot of buyers opted for the extra-cost stability control on the lower trim levels, it was standard on pricier Jettas that should populate the used market today. We also like Jetta's handling dynamics, thanks to its German pedigree. The mileage listed reflects the 150-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and optional six-speed automatic transmission. You'll find a turbocharged 2-liter four in some of the pricier models. Although the turbocharged versions are quicker, even the 2.5L Jettas accelerate enthusiastically. Jetta offers an upscale cabin with ample front- and rear-seat legroom. It's trunk has more cargo space than the new Honda Accord.