It's time to head back to school. For some students (or their parents), this means more than buying a laptop — it means buying a new set of wheels. Before deciding on a car, here are some things to consider.
This should be the first consideration of any car buyer, especially young, inexperienced drivers. You want the most safety gear possible for the price.
Start by looking at vehicles with the greatest number of air bags — including front and side. Other safety items to look for include anti-lock brakes, traction control and electronic stability control.
Kelley Blue Book's picks for the 10 Best Back to School Cars, based on fuel economy, safety, style and a starting price below $20,000:
1. 2014 Nissan Versa Note
2. 2013 Ford Focus
3. 2013 Chevrolet Sonic
4. 2013 Mazda3
5. 2013 Honda Civic
6. 2013 Kia Sportage
7. 2013 Volkswagen Golf
8. 2013 Toyota Prius C
9. 2013 Subaru Impreza
10. 2014 Fiat 500L
— NWautos staff
While it's easy to get these features in a new car, finding them in a used car is more difficult. If a car lacks some of these, don't assume that a vehicle's size will offer greater protection. Just because a vehicle is large doesn't mean that it's safe; large, old SUVs can have a high center of gravity, longer stopping distances and greater chance of rollover.
Beyond looking for safety features, it's a good idea to also check the vehicle's crash-test ratings.
The car is not worth it if it has performed poorly in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tests or the more stringent ones performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). New-car price stickers list NHTSA crash ratings. They're also available, along with older ratings, at safercar.gov.
The IIHS's ratings are at iihs.org. The nonprofit organization also lists insurance loss rates for various models, which can guide you to models that cost less to insure. The IIHS's crash tests include photos of the various models so you can see how they perform; the safest models earn a Top Safety Pick Plus designation.
You'll want a vehicle that can go 500 miles without breaking down. But this shouldn't be the worry that it once was. The reliability of cars is improving, and the reliability gap between Asian and American automakers has narrowed.
While many consumers turn to Consumer Reports, another good source is J.D. Power and Associates, which rates not just new cars, but reliability after three years of ownership. Find its ratings at jdpower.com.
Given that college students cart a lot of stuff back and forth, you'll want to buy something that can safely carry all of this gear.
Look specifically at the load rating of the vehicle. If a vehicle can carry four passengers and has a load rating of 1,000 pounds, it's easy to overstuff the cargo area once all four passengers are aboard. This makes the vehicle unstable and unsafe.
Also, make sure the car isn't too powerful. If younger drivers have lots of power behind the wheel, they're going to want to use it.
True cost of ownership
Most people look at the purchase price as the sole cost, without considering the cost of gas, insurance, maintenance and repairs. While you can estimate some of these costs, sites such as Intellichoice.com give a fuller financial picture.
Also, choose a vehicle that doesn't depreciate quickly, since a student's lifestyle could change after college and the car might be traded in.