First Cars For Students Under $5,000

Black 2001 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Car and Driver

You want something that has good performance, that’s safe so it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to insure, and reliable enough so you’re not late picking up your date for prom. I get asked all the time what are the best first cars for students under $5,000. And I think this article has a little something for everyone, even if you’re not a student! 

The last car on this list is always the answer, but in this post, I’m going to show you exactly why!

Infiniti G35

Silver Inifiniti G35 on sand

I’m starting off the list with the Nissan 350Z’s similarly styled brother, the Infiniti G35. Yeah, we all know about the rowdy and always ready for a good time Nissan 350Z, but it’s one of the worst cars for first-time buyers, because it likes to get a bit sideways way too easily. And since it has the highest mortality rate of any car, doesn’t have rear seats, and young drivers love them, insurance premiums are astronomical!

Yet, the more sophisticated G35, which offers similar performance, has one of the lowest morality rates. And it’s not only a more handsome car than the Nissan counterpart, it’s a rear-wheel drive coupe with almost 300 horsepower powered through a manual transmission. Plus, since the G35 has four seats instead of the 350Z’s two, you can easily haul you and all your friends to the party after Friday night lights! 

And not only are you going to get there in style, but that VQ35DE 3.5-liter V6 is easy to work on yourself if you’re somewhat mechanically inclined. Trust me… wrenching on cars is something you’ll want to learn how to do yourself so you can save tens of thousands over your lifetime! Oh, and throw an exhaust on it and it’s one of the best sounding V6s ever made! 

I get asked all the time, 350Z or G35 as a first car. And 9 out of 10 times I push for the Infiniti! Not only can you get it in a coupe, but if you want a sleeper, it comes as a sedan as well. And if you live in a snowy climate, you can get the G35x with all-wheel drive. As you can see, it’s way more versatile, cheaper to own, and has a passionate aftermarket community in case you get bit by the mod bug! Personally, I would have loved an ’07 G35x sedan as a first car for under $4,500. But if two doors are more your thing, you can still snag an 06 coupe for just under $5,000.

8th-Gen Honda Civic Si

Blue 2008 Honda Civic Si

This is a secret crush for me, and if i had to pick any one car on this list, it would be pretty tough for me not to choose the 8th-gen Civic Si. Reliability is pretty much a no-brainer. These things are dead reliable! And the idea of having a high-revving naturally-aspirated motor with VTEC mated to a smooth shifting 6-speed manual transmission and a limited slip differential for times when you need max power to both wheels is why you have to consider the Si, which stands for “Sport Injected Awesomeness”! Well, the “Sport Injected” part, but it really is an awesome all-around package! 

But, if you’re looking for the most power possible, definitely go with something turbo’d like the next car on this list, because although the Civic Si will cost an arm and a leg to make it go faster, if you throw on a drop and some nice wheels, you got a neck breaker that won’t break your wallet! 

Yes, I would say the Civic Si is a tad less comfortable than a comparable VW GTI, mostly due to the high-strung nature of that 2-liter engine producing 197 horsepower, and it not being a more versatile hatchback. But what it lacks in ergonomics, it more than makes up for in character! If you want a fun daily and you don’t fantasize about making the next Fast & Furious car, go with the Civic Si.

It gets better fuel economy than it’s foes, it’s more reliable and cheaper to fix, and quite honestly, I think it makes better noises than any other subcompact in this price range. Just one thing… be warned! If you do go for a Civic, get ready to be roasted regularly. The ricer stigma is terrible with Hondas, even my friends that aren’t car peeps make fun of them. Loud fart can exhausts and ratty racer kids have torn down the Civic’s reputation on the streets, but don’t let that deter you from snagging one, because this 2008 sedan can be had for only $4,900 and is an incredible value!


Red 2010 Mazdaspeed3 on track
Car and Driver

Okay, so if you’re interested in the Civic Si, you’ve got to promise me one thing, at least go drive this hot hatch Mazdaspeed3. It’s a little bit more spacious, it’s got way more power, and it costs about the same price. The stock model 2.3-liter turbo is considered pretty bulletproof, pushing out 263 horses. Well, the engine is reliable. The turbo? Not so much

With that turbo, you get a lot more oomph and tunability, and if done up, you’re looking at 400+ horses ready to annihilate those front two tires! But be warned, horsepower is a slippery, expensive slope to ski down once you get addicted!

So yes, the Civic Si will cost less to keep alive, but if you want something that’s more fun to drive, a lot faster, and a tad more practical being a hatchback. The Mazdaspeed3 is your golden ticket. And you can snag one for almost the exact same price as the Civic Si. So, it’s a tough choice.

BMW 335i

Black BMW 335i in front of a park

BMW is one of my favorite automakers of all time, and having owned 7 BMW M3’s, my latest being an E90 M3, I will say there’s one thing that’s lacking in every generation of M motor, and that’s low-end torque. The BMW 335i, on the other hand, has all the low-end torque you could ever want! 

So, when I buy my next BMW, it will most likely be one of these! Now what a sane person does is buys a 2011 or newer LCI model with the N55 engine, because they look great and are pretty reliable. But we’re here to have a little fun, aren’t we? Live life on the edge… And the N55 motor might be reliable, but it doesn’t take mods like it’s older brother! 

The N54 is BMW’s tuner engine, that some have called the German 2JZ-GTE, and we all know what that engine is capable of. So, the N54 335i is cheap, it’s fast, but reliability is a little suspect. Stock, you get 300 horsepower from the turbocharged straight-six, but with just a simple $500 tune you’ll be knocking on 400 horsepower’s door! And with some bolt-ons and a twin-scroll turbocharger, 700 horsepower is in sight without changing the internals! And that just sounds like a ton of fun!

But, once you start modding, watch out! Turbos can go bad, fuel pumps like to shit the bed, and water pumps tend to leak. But like with any car, if you take care of it, it’ll take care of you! And the great thing about BMWs is the huge community behind it, so it’s easy to find parts and DIY articles to do the work yourself.

So, if you’re looking to wrench on your own car, and want to go fast, finding something like a four-door 335i with xDrive might be a cheap ticket into the world of tuner cars! Just like every car on this list, but especially the 335i with the N54, get a detailed pre-purchase inspection! It’ll cost you a couple hundred bucks up front, but save you thousands down the road!

Mazda Miata

Red Mazda NB Miata on pavement

You know what’s kind of fast, reliable, and cheap? Come on, guys! You know Miata is always the answer! Miatas are fun little cars right out of the box, reliable as hell, rear-wheel drive, cheap, and a perfect modding platform with an engine that was originally made to take boost.

You could get an NA or NB for under that $5,000. And, whichever you choose, it’s going to be a ball of gas-sipping fun! Now, if i were to choose which generation Miata to own, the NB just feels more modern, has a tighter chassis, better motor, better aerodynamics, and more. There’s a saying that the NA is a better Miata, but the NB is a better car. The NB is a little easier to live with and daily drive, it’s a little bit faster, and although the interior has a little less room, the seats are way better! 

Just promise me you’ll throw a roll bar in whatever generation Miata you get, because you don’t want to flip over in one of those without protection! And there are MX-5s for a whisker under $5,000 that are reliable and are do-everything-well topless sports cars!

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