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The Best Cars for College Students

Sending a kid off to college means having an extra bedroom, some extra room in your grocery budget, and maybe an extra car sitting in your driveway. But for some college students, having a car is as important a requirement as making sure they get all their math credits. Though many residential campuses don’t let students have cars, for students who live off campus or attend a commuter school, a car can be key. Even for students who attend a traditional residential college, having a car means having access to work, internship, and volunteer opportunities.

Having a car on campus doesn’t just open the door to opportunity, however. It also opens it to risk. While most college students are old enough to have been driving for a few years, they face many of the same safety issues that younger drivers face, including inexperience, distracted driving, and driving under the influence of alcohol.

[In Pictures: Best Cars for College Students]

The best cars for college students are cars that balance the need to keep college students safe on the road with the need to stay on budget – and the student’s desire to have a stylish car with the right combination of interior features. All of the cars on this list have earned Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick status for their excellent performance in IIHS crash tests. They also have key safety features like stability control and anti-lock brakes. Safe doesn’t have to be boring or expensive, though. The cars on this list also have features that college students will like and price tags that parents won’t mind. If tuition bills make a new car a stretch, check out used models of these cars.  For the most part they'll have similar performance and features, but at a much lower price.

[See U.S. News’s 2012 Best Colleges rankings]

Best Cars For Less Than $15,000

Ford Fiesta

Base MSRP: $13,200

The Ford Fiesta is a subcompact car that’s big on safety and style. Available as a hatchback or sedan, the Fiesta is solid basic transportation. Outfit it with Ford’s SYNC infotaiment system, which can read text messages to the driver, keeping their eyes on the road, and it rivals some luxury cars in terms of features. The Fiesta is also available with the Super Fuel Economy package, which allows the Fiesta to get 40 mpg on the highway. That’s a big help to any college student’s budget.

Kia Soul

Base MSRP: $13,300

Car reviewers like the Kia Soul for its funky looks and surprisingly practical interior. College students will like it for available features like cabin lights that pulse along with the music on the stereo, an auxiliary input jack, and USB port. Parents will like it for its performance in crash tests, and for its 1.6-liter engine, which some reviewers say is underpowered. But if the car makes it tough for the driver to speed, the less likely they are to do it, lowering their risk for an accident.

[Find the best price on a Kia Soul or any car with the U.S. News Best Price Program]

Nissan Cube

Base MSRP: $14,740

With similar styling to the Kia Soul, but more passenger and cargo space, the Nissan Cube is a good choice for college students with lots of gear. It features a rear window that seems to seamlessly wrap around the side of the car, and a rippling water effect on the ceiling. Advanced airbags, traction, and stability control are standard. Optional features include Bluetooth and iPod interface but an auxiliary input jack is standard.

Kia Forte

Base MSRP: $14,995

Skating in at $5 less than $15,000, the Kia Forte is available as a sedan, coupe (Kia calls it a Koup), or hatchback. College students should stick to the sedan, as it’s the only model that earned Top Safety Pick status from IIHS. That doesn’t mean the Forte is a slouch when it comes to safety. Standard features include anti-lock brakes, brake assist with brake force distribution, stability and traction control, and front, side, and side-curtain airbags. Standard features that students will like include Bluetooth and iPod connectivity.

[Learn about student discounts on new cars]

Best Cars for $15,000 to $20,000

Hyundai Elantra

Base MSRP: $15,195

The Base Hyundai Elantra gets 40 mpg on the highway, which means students won’t be able to cite gas prices as an excuse for not coming home once in a while. While optional features include upscale amenities like heated rear seats, standard features on the Elantra include satellite radio and a USB port for music. Plus, the Elantra is one of the roomiest small cars on the market, so it works not only for college students, but also new grads and 20-somethings who may be getting married and starting families.

Jeep Patriot

Base MSRP: $15,995

The Jeep Patriot is not only one of the most affordable small SUVs you can buy, it’s also one of the safest. Not only does IIHS give the Patriot top ratings (when equipped with optional side-torso airbags), but the Patriot also features electronic roll mitigation and advanced multi-stage air bags. Front-wheel drive is standard, but available four-wheel drive makes the Patriot ready to tackle wet or snowy roads and get students to class. With 54.2 cubic feet of cargo space and off-road capabilities that live up to the Jeep brand’s reputation, the Patriot should appeal to outdoorsy, active college students.

[Find the best price on a Jeep Patriot or any car with the U.S. News Best Price Program]

Kia Optima

Base MSRP: $19,200

Most car reviewers agree that the Kia Optima looks like a much more expensive car than it actually is. That should make status-conscious college students feel good about driving this midsize sedan. Its Top Safety Pick Status, 35 mpg highway fuel economy rating and five-star overall crash test rating from the federal government should make budget- and safety-conscious parents happy. With lots of interior space, the Optima is another car that should have no problem transitioning from college to the workforce. Standard features like Bluetooth, an IPod interface, and steering wheel controls for the stereo and phone system should make adjusting to a daily commute easy.

Ford Fusion

Base MSRP: $19,850

The Ford Fusion may look buttoned up, but car reviewers say it’s one of the best-driving affordable midsize sedans you can buy. Available all-wheel drive make it a good choice if campus is in a snowy area, and an available blind spot alert system lets the driver know if there’s someone in the lane next to him or her, and alerts the driver to cross traffic when backing up. Inside, the Fusion can be equipped with Ford’s SYNC system, which uses voice commands to control the phone, radio, and climate systems. That keeps the driver’s eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. Ford’s MyKey system, which parents can program to limit speed and radio volume, as well as sound alerts when certain speeds are reached, is another way the Fusion keeps college students safe.