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The Right Car for College and Beyond

When you’re in college, you have leeway. You can show up to class in a t-shirt and flip flops. If you make a bad choice, like skipping class, the consequences only affect you. While you may have long-range career plans, most decisions you make won’t impact you beyond the next week or next semester.

After college, all that changes. Your boss will likely have a problem with you showing up for work in a t-shirt and flip flops. If you choose to skip work, your choice will negatively impact your family or your roommates. And, instead of buying books that will last you a semester, you’ll have to live with your big purchases for many years.

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

Nowhere is that more true than in the car you buy. Sure, a house is a bigger and longer-term investment, but odds are, you won’t be buying a house in college and living in it while you launch your career. Your car is another story. If you’re buying a car in college, the smart thing to do is to hang on to it during your first working years. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you’re shopping for a car that can transition with you from college to a career.

Space Has Its Place

Driving mom’s old van in college has its advantages: The price is right, and you’ve got plenty of interior space for road trips and carting your stuff home at the end of the year. And, if that’s all you use it for, you probably aren’t worried too much about the kind of gas mileage your college car gets. Once you get out of college and spend the majority of your time in the car commuting alone, having all that extra space and paying a fuel economy penalty for it may not be something you can be so blasé about.

On the other hand, you may be happy with a tiny subcompact in college, especially if you pay for your own gas to get to and from class, jobs, or an internship. But once college ends and your personal life starts taking off, a small car may not work. Think about how a subcompact would work out if you got a dog, got married, or had a kid. All of the sudden, that Lilliputian fuel-sipper may not seem like such a good deal.

[Learn about discounts for new graduates on new cars]

As you shop for cars, think about how you’ll use it, not just for the next year or two, but for the next t10. A 2010 RL Polk study found that the median age of cars on American roads is 10.2 years, with most consumers keeping their cars for more than four years. Hanging onto a car for as long as it’s useful saves money, but it means you have to think about how you’ll use it over the long term. Think of your personal and career plans before you settle on a college ride, and make sure the car you settle on fits your life, figuratively and literally.

Be a Creature of Features

Nothing can make a car feel as out of date as having to crank up a cassette tape while everyone else on the road is wirelessly streaming music from their smartphones. Finding a car with the features that will work for the long haul can feel like you’re playing psychic, but it’s something worth thinking about.

Shelling out cash for the latest gotta-have-it entertainment feature in a new car can be temping, but it’s expensive and entails some risk. You don’t know if that same feature is going to be useful a few years down the road. Personal electronics like phones and music players evolve a lot faster than car tech does, and the car tech you invest in now may not be compatible with the electronics you buy later.

One way to hedge your bets is to skip the factory-installed tech options and go for a car that can be easily updated. While you might spend well over $2,000 for an option package on a new car, you can spend a few hundred at a car stereo store and get the exact entertainment features you want. Since you’ll have invested less, over time you’ll have more flexibility to upgrade. And, if you’re marginally handy, you may be able to make the upgrades yourself.

[Read 10 big and small ways to save money in college]

Other features aren’t so easy to skip. Spend your money on safety features like traction control, anti-lock brakes, and extra airbags. Lots of relatively affordable cars are offering these features standard. For example, the Ford Fiesta has seven airbags, including a driver’s knee bag, and the Chevrolet Cruze has 10. Getting a car that’s loaded with standard safety features can save you money at the dealership and on your car insurance–not to mention that it could also save your life.

Finally, look for features that can help save gas. Going for a car with an automatic or continuously variable transmission, low-rolling resistance tires, a high fuel-economy package and good EPA fuel economy ratings saves you money with every mile you drive. Since adding these types of features is nearly impossible, look for them when you’re deciding which car to buy.

Think Corporate

Hop from a college campus to a corporate office and you’ll see two wildly different aesthetics at play. While it’s true that few people are going to know what kind of car you drive, or what your car looks like when you join the working world, in certain fields you’ll be expected to project a corporate image. Odds are that corporate image won’t include flames, neon license plate frames, and a rumbling exhaust. If you’re going into a career where you’ll be interacting with clients and using your own car, going for something that’s stylish but safe is a smart choice.

Even if your job doesn’t involve anyone knowing what your car looks like, your boss will care if your car is so unreliable that you’re constantly late or missing work. Missing a class or two over the course of a semester isn’t that big a deal. When you have a job being late and missing days not only makes you look like a slacker, it also eats into your leave. Reliability ratings may seem boring when compared to checking out the stereo options on a new car, but when your boss is chewing you out for being late again because your car wouldn’t start, you’ll wish you’d looked into them. As an added bonus, a more reliable car will not only safe you grief at work, but it will also save you money on repairs. That’s something that a college student and a corporate drone can appreciate.

[Find some decent paying jobs for college students]