Used Cars

11 budget beaters for commuting to campus

These reliable but inexpensive cars are the automotive equivalent of mac and cheese

Budget beaters for campus

Canadians are a pretty pragmatic bunch. Unlike our American neighbours, who dutifully file into massive blocks of campus dorms each fall, many Canadian students are commuters who forego the campus experience and elect to live at home (or off campus) and join the daily grind to travel to class.

Think of it as early indoctrination into the world of work. Plenty of students will be attending classes at a suburban college or university campus that isn’t always easily reached by transit. And that’s where we come in.

Buying a used compact car to commute from home – rather than renting a dorm room or basement apartment – makes economic sense if the distance is manageable. For around $8,000 – less than the price of many residence fees – a smart student could be driving to class and acquiring some essential life skills, such as negotiating traffic jams and hunting for cheap gas.

Here are 11 reliable, second-hand cars you can buy today for around $8,000. Our emphasis is on inexpensive personal transportation, the automotive equivalent of mac and cheese. 

2008-11 Mitsubishi Lancer

Redesigned for 2008 – and barely updated since – the base model Mitsubishi Lancer is adequately motivated by a 152-hp 2.0L four-cylinder engine, mated to a five-speed manual gearbox or optional continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission. The Lancer comes as a four-door sedan, but there’s also a rare but practical “Sportback” model with a yawning hatchback that’s great for helping your friends move back home after they flunk their year.

Lovingly crafted in Japan by non-union robots, the Lancer doesn’t break down much. Gripes are mostly limited to easily chipped paint, short-lived clutches and tires (there are reported alignment issues), a few failed CVT transmissions and some unwelcome rattles. A few drivers dislike the CVT’s sluggish behaviour, which is reputed to suck a lot of forward thrust from the 2.0-L four cylinder, as does the air conditioner. Most Lancers come with a big spoiler sprouting from the trunk lid – we’d pay a premium for one without it.

2010-11 Kia Soul

Speaking of yawning hatchbacks, we can’t think of a better compact moving appliance than the quirky but endearing Kia Soul. Built on the modified front-drive platform of the Rio subcompact, the Soul hides its econobox roots well. Owners rave about its cheerful interior and brilliant paint hues, refined demeanor and student-friendly tech options. The Soul yields a surprising amount of cabin space for occupants and cargo, thanks to its tall profile. It’s so upright it may very well have been designed by the Amish (we kid).

There are two available engines: a base 1.6L four-cylinder making 122 hp and a 2.0-L four putting out 142 horses – which works better with the six-speed automatic transmission. Liabilities include big blind spots to the rear, road noise, susceptibility to crosswinds and scratch-prone plastic in the cabin. Reliability has been above reproach. Reported boo-boos include easily chipped paint and windshields, faulty brake-light switches and some rattles. The Soul may be the ultimate student backpack.

2010-11 Mazda3

Thoroughly redesigned for 2010, the Mazda3 is an overachieving driver’s car that rises above its econobox billing. It’s almost too good to hand over to a student. Available in four-door sedan and five-door hatchback configurations, the 3 is powered by a 148-hp 2.0L DOHC four cylinder carried over from the previous 3, paired with either a five-speed stick or five-speed automatic transmission. There’s a bigger 2.5L four, too, but it’s very fond of gasoline.

The back seat is a little cramped for friends (especially amorous friends), the trunk is a tad small and some people may find the ride stiff – the downside of driving a sweet-handling car. In terms of reliability the made-in-Japan Mazda3 with manual-transmission has a clutch that wears unusually quickly, the tire valve stems may fail and there’s reports of collapsed driver’s seats due to broken seat height adjustment lifter links. Fortunately, Mazda is repairing them through a recall campaign.  

2009-10 Honda Fit

With its low weight and well-sorted suspension, the front-drive Honda Fit is another unexpectedly good driver’s car that masquerades as an econobox. Sold solely as a five-door hatchback, the redesigned 2009 Fit benefited from some tweaks to ensure lively handling. By locating the fuel tank under the front seats, engineers carved out plenty of cabin space for five in what is a pretty small footprint. The clever 60/40-split rear bench could fold down to the floor, or the seat bottoms could fold up to reveal a floor-to-ceiling cargo hold.

The Fit is small to be sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s unsafe. The U.S. government (NHTSA) gave it mostly five stars in crash testing, while the insurance industry awarded a mostly good rating (its highest), making it an IIHS Top Safety Pick in 2009. The Fit’s 117-hp 1.5L four-cylinder engine provides enough spunk to move this flyweight with some authority. A few noteworthy quality lapses in the Japanese-made Fit include faulty air conditioners and blower fans, intermittent electric steering, and water leaks infiltrating the cabin.

2009-10 Toyota Matrix

“Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is,” is a line from the movie of the same name. But we can tell you. The Toyota Matrix is a compact five-door hatchback that employs Corolla underpinnings to great effect. The base engine is a 1.8L four cylinder making 132 hp, while a torque-rich, 158hp 2.4-L four lifted from the Camry powers GT models. The 1.8 makes do with an old-but-trusty four-speed slushbox (or five-speed stick), while the larger engine could be bundled with a five-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive.

The Matrix’s tall stance and flat floor provide ample room inside, although the cargo hold is pretty meagre. It found an appreciative audience in Canada thanks to its frugal ways and bulletproof reliability. Mechanical problems? In a few documented instances the electrically assisted power steering has cut out intermittently, which increases the effort required to steer the car. Watch for oil burning inherent in both engines, as well as finicky issues with the Matrix’s electronic stability control and brake sensors.

2008-09 Subaru Impreza

Given our wacky climate, Canadians like the sure-footed capability of all-wheel drive, especially for their kids, and Subaru delivers the goods. The Impreza sedan and five-door hatch look like bland economy cars, but it’s what’s under the hood that makes them distinct. Subaru’s 2.5L SOHC flat-four engine puts out 170 hp, working through a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. The engine is a “boxer” design, meaning that the cylinders are horizontally opposed, two to a side, laying flat and low to reduce the car’s centre of gravity.

With its standard AWD system always operating, the Impreza is immensely stable at speed and in all kinds of conditions. Fuel consumption is a little heavy for a four cylinder, but that’s the toll you pay for all-wheel traction. Mechanical issues reveal a few leaky head gaskets, weak clutches and easily chipped paint. You may be challenged finding a good example for $8,000 since Canucks covet their Subies and depreciation is slow. The good news is when you sell it later, you’re bound to get lots of your money back.

2008-11 Suzuki SX4

Orphaned vehicles often make great bargains after their manufacturers close shop. Suzuki Automotive may have left us for greener pastures, but it also left us with a bunch of SX4 sedans and five-door hatchbacks that have held up well. The interminably cute Suzuki offers a big greenhouse and tall seating, giving occupants the illusion – and the prestige – of riding in a five-eighths-scale minivan. Power is supplied by a 2.0L four cylinder making 143 hp, tied to a five-speed manual gearbox or four-speed automatic transmission (replaced by a CVT in 2010).

Suzuki sold an all-wheel-drive version of the SX4 hatchback for Canadians living in the snowbelt – virtually the entire country. An electric solenoid-operated clutch pack activates the rear wheels as required, but it can also be locked in 4x4 mode, an unusual feature for a crossover. The made-in-Japan SX4 has drawn little criticism in terms of its dependability. The air conditioner may stop working because the electromagnet compressor clutch failed. Faulty airbag warning lamps and seat sensors have been the subject of a recall. And Suzuki still supports authorized service centres.

2012 Hyundai Accent

Over the years the Hyundai Accent has morphed from a penalty box into an executive box – well, almost. For a budget subcompact, the interior furnishings can impress. Available in four-door sedan or practical five-door hatchback configurations, the cabin is rendered in good materials and pleasing shapes. Outside, the fourth-generation Accent saw the old car’s forgettable styling replaced with crisp European lines stretched over a 7.6-cm longer wheelbase that paid dividends inside.

The Accent’s lone engine is a thoroughly modern 1.6L four-cylinder featuring direct injection, good for 138 horsepower, working through either a manual or automatic transmission, both with six gears. Ride and handling characteristics are better than the subcompact class average. In U.S. government crash testing, the Accent earned four out of five stars for overall crash protection, frontal impact and side intrusion. There are very few reliability gripes beyond a common complaint that the manual gearbox may wear out its clutch rapidly.

2008-09 Volkswagen Rabbit

The Volkswagen Rabbit marked the return of the cutesy North America-only nameplate affixed to a European hatchback that had grown pudgier than the previous Golf. Propulsion is provided by a 2.5L inline five-cylinder engine derived from a Lamborghini V-10 engine split in half like a peach. The powerplant produces 170 hp and a robust 177 lb-ft of torque. This engine is a lugger, not an excitable revver, so it’s well suited to the automatic transmission (a six-speed in this case) Canadians typically favour.

The resurrected bunny won over buyers with its disciplined road manners, refinement and best-in-class interior. Built in Wolfsburg, Germany, this three- and five-door hatchback has exhibited better durability than any VW in recent memory. That said, watch for bad fuel pumps, along with troublesome automatic transmissions, wonky power-window regulators and inaccurate speedometer/odometer readings. Unfortunately, the Rabbit’s five-cylinder engine likes to drink deep at the fuel station, thankfully the regular grade.

2010-11 Kia Forte

Car buyers don’t normally think of Kia when they think of California styling, but the all-new Forte sedan and “Koup” released for 2010 managed to surprise (it’s their brand tagline, after all). Their design is not hard on the eyes, there’s a roomy interior with a cornucopia of features, and it rides quietly with no drama. A handy five-door hatchback joined the Forte family for 2011. All base models used a 156-hp, 2.0L four-cylinder tied to a five-speed manual transmission or four-speed automatic. Pass on the fuelish 173-hp, 2.4L four cylinder, however.

Riding on the same front-drive platform as its corporate mate, the Hyundai Elantra, the Forte earned the top score of “Good” in IIHS crash tests. Owners boast this Corolla/Civic competitor is a reliable runner that makes it a solid buy for budget-conscious students. A common reoccurring malady involves faulty tire pressure monitors on the stem of the tires. High-mileage examples may exhibit engine knock. The few drivers who shift their own gears found the manual transmission rubbery and unsatisfying to row.

2009-10 Toyota Corolla

Water freezes at zero- degrees Celsius and the Earth revolves around the Sun. Here’s another true fact: Toyota Corollas seldom break. That’s because engineers have been reluctant to throw out the automaker’s battle-hardened technology, such as the 1.8L four-cylinder engine that’s been powering Corollas for eons (with some improvements), and the trusty – but primordial – four-speed automatic transmission. In this iteration, the engine churns out 132 hp and comes with a five-speed stick, as well as the reliable slushbox.

The XRS model uses the Camry’s larger 158-hp four-cylinder, along with its five-speed automatic tranny (or stick). Look past the sedan’s dull three-box styling and the Corolla rewards with a reasonably roomy interior and good fit and finish. Reported durability issues include some oil burning (keep an eye on the dipstick), and unsettling lane wandering by the electrically assisted steering system used in the Canadian-made Corolla. The water pump may fail earlier than what is the industry norm. Hey, nobody’s perfect.


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