The BEST First Cars For Students Under $3,000

bmw 328i coupe
Auto Evolution

I get it, you have a budget of $3,000 and you want an ideal car! And no, this isn’t a list of clunkers like your buddies 20-year-old Audi that’s best friends with a tow truck. Oh no! These are reliable, cheap to insure, and a lot more fun than they should be! All for less than $3,000 bucks!

1999 – 2006 BMW 3 Series – The Ultimate Driving Machine

navy 2008 bmw 328i
Classic Cars

BMW doesn’t always have to stand for Break My Wallet. Nope! Believe it or not, one of the best all-around cars for under $3,000 is a Bimmer!

See, the 5th generation 3 Series was just expanding on an already award-winning recipe. Not only is it one of the best looking BMW’s of all time, it had a naturally-aspirated inline-6 that loves to play in the high revs. Plus, it had the option to shift gears yourself. 

Now, the model to get for under $3,000 is the 328i. One of the main reasons is that it has the tried-and-true 2.8-liter that pumps out a healthy 193 horsepower, which, with regular maintenance, is as reliable as reliable as its Japanese competition.

But that’s not the only reason you buy the Ultimate Driving Machine. See, when you put the pedal to the medal, you need a chassis that can back you up, and you’ll feel like superman as you push this rear-wheel drive Bavarian sedan with 50/50 weight distribution through the twisties! Think about it, there’s nothing more baller than driving a Bimmer!

Although, the 328i doesn’t come without flaws, and there is one huge weak spot. It’s that cooling system, specifically the radiator, thermostat housing, and waterpump. They’re plastic, and they’ll get brittle with age. Oof. So, either make sure that has been replaced, or plan on doing the work ASAP. But other than that, this thing is a cheap way to get a ton of smiles per mile!

Yeah, you could get it in a coupe, or even a wagon if that’s your sort of thing, but the versatility of the four-door is what you want as a student on a budget. It’s not only cheaper on insurance, but it has the benefit of looking the best out of the three options! Plus, you can find them for under $3,000 like the 2000 model we found on AutoTempest with xenon lights that’s racked up less than 120,000 miles. Man, I’m tempted! That looks like an ideal deal! 

But, personally, I think this Acura you can find for under $3,000 is actually the best looking sedan on this list!

2004 – 2008 Acura TL – Looks, Luxury, Performance, Oh My!

black 2008 acura tl
Car and Driver

Check this out! It’s the 3rd generation Acura TL! It almost looks like it was penned by an Italian, and has aged so gracefully! Plus, it’s extremely reliable given that Acura is Honda’s luxury brand. And the TL is derived from the 7th generation Honda Accord. It makes total sense!

Pop the hood and you’re met with a 3.2-liter V6 throwing down 258 horses. Yeah. 0 to 60 comes in just 5.7 seconds, which is one of the quickest on this list. But, more importantly, that powerplant has been known to reliably do hundreds of thousands of miles of trusted work without issue! 

It looks sporty, it’s reliable, but how does it handle? Well, I’m glad you asked! The TL isn’t just a pretty face! It has the performance to back it up with precise, responsive steering for a front-wheel drive sedan. This thing is the perfect, reliable daily commuter, and you’ll be able to find them for under $3,000 all day!

So, the Acura is a super nice Honda, and we all know Honda has had a friendly rivalry with, you guessed it, Toyota! Scotty Kilmer would be proud of this next pick, because Scotty and Toyotas go together better than peanut butter and jelly! I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this is my favorite Corolla!

2006 – 2011 Toyota Corolla S – The “S” Stands For Sweet

white 2011 toyota corolla s

Yeah, the 10th generation Corolla S is a sporty looking gas sipper, and probably the coolest looking Corolla they have ever made! See, the generic 10th generation Corolla they came out with in 2006 doesn’t really get a passing grade as far as styling goes, but, lucky you, they also launched the S model. The S transforms the aesthetics of this econobox with a front lip, trunk spoiler, and black interior throughout. Plus, find one with an optional manual transmission and it’s actually fun to drive! 

This little Corolla will get you and your friends from point A to B in style without breaking down. Yeah, I agree, the 1.8-liter 4-cylinder with 126 horsepower isn’t earning any extra credit, but parts are cheap, maintenance is easy, and when you’re getting over 41 miles per gallon on the highway, your wallet will at least be fatter! 

We found a Corolla S for just under $3,000. It’s definitely a great choice if you’re looking to put some serious miles on the pavement. But what if you want to take the road a little less traveled?

2002 – 2007 Subaru Forester – The Swiss Army Knife

2007 subaru forester
Auto Database

You know, if blasting down some fire roads is more your style, then the Subaru Forester with the 2.5-liter boxer motor is just as much fun off-road as it is on! This is the ultimate $3,000 rig if you’re an adventurer. It sits a little taller than a car for added ground clearance, but not so much you can’t get your toys on top of it.

So, it’s taller than a car, but shorter than an SUV, so is it a car or SUV? I don’t know, I guess I’ll just call it a Subaru! Yes, a Subaru wagon of sorts, with bulletproof reliability, excellent comfort and an all-wheel drive system that makes blasting through a blizzard to your favorite ski slope a breeze.

I always wondered why Subaru owners owned their cars for longer than most brands, but now it’s all starting to make sense! No, the boxer 4-cylinder isn’t the most fuel efficient, and no, it’s not going to beat that 328i from a dig to 60 miles per hour. But, man, this is easily one of the most fun options on this list! 

Now, the main thing you want to watch out for are the pre-2003 Foresters, which have an issue with the head gaskets failing. Yeah, no bueno. Luckily, this was addressed starting with the 2003 model year. But don’t worry, we found a 2007 model with the 2.5-liter boxer for under $3,000! 

But, if a sporty little two-door is more your style, look no further than the spiritual successor of the Toyota Celica… the Scion tC!

2005 – 2007 Scion tC – Cooler Than A Toyota

blue 2007 scion tc

Scion was Toyota’s “youth brand“, so you’re getting that Toyota reliability in this little pocket rocket! Overall, they’re extremely solid cars, reasonably attractive, cheap, and did I mention they’re reliable?Plus, the Scion tC is one of the easiest manual transmissions I’ve ever driven. So, if you want to learn how to drive a stick, look no further than the close-ratio, short-geared 5-speed in a Scion tC. 

And that tranny is bolted to a dual overhead cam 2.4-liter four belting out 160 horsepower. But, what makes it fun to drive is the 163 pound-feet of torque on tap! And the tC can be had for a steal, it may be the bargain of the century! 

And since we’re on the topic of cars that aren’t called Toyotas, but actually are, it’s time we chat about the Pontiac Vibe. But wait, that’s a Pontiac! Yes, yes it is, but it’s the exact same car as the Toyota Matrix, without the Toyota tax!

2003 – 2006 Pontiac Vibe – A Toyota Matrix In Sheep’s Clothing

red 2006 pontiac vibe

When people think of Pontiac, they cringe and think of that old, squeaky, rattly Sunbird their redneck neighbor used to roll around. Because of perceived value, this rebadged Matrix, the Pontiac Vibe, doesn’t get anywhere near the respect it deserves!

This little hatchback in GT trim is powered with a Yamaha-tuned 180-horsepower motor, which is pulled from Toyota’s ZZ line of inline-4’s. Yes, it’s a Toyota with some Pontiac sheet metal slapped on it! And the reason it was built was because Toyota and General Motors shared an assembly plant in Fremont, California, so GM could learn more about Toyota’s lean manufacturing methods. 

Low and behold, the Vibe is the brainchild of that partnership, and I can vibe with that! We found a Vibe GT for just under $2,800! It’s easily one of the best picks for a student that’s under $3,000, if you don’t mind the Pontiac badge, that is.


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