The BEST First Cars For Students Under $5,000

2019 mazda3
Digital Trends

So, you’re a first-time student looking for the perfect car. I know what your parents will say: “Get a Camry or an Accord. It’ll be safe and get good gas mileage.” That’s not what we know you’re interested in. You’re reading this Ideal blog because you like going fast and burning gas. So what should you look for?

Obviously, you can’t afford a Porsche, so we’re here to give you our list of cars that you can get for under $5,000 and won’t make you look like a total loser at school.


2009 mazda3
Wikimedia Commons

We’re starting out this list with a little bit of an obvious choice, but with a twist. It’s from a company we’ve all heard of before, but this isn’t the clear first choice that we all know and love, but it’s a good one. We knew coming into this list that Mazda was going to enter the mix. Mazda is one of the first car brands that comes to mind when people ask, “What car should I get?” But this isn’t the Mazda you think it is. Our first choice isn’t the Mazda Miata; that comes later.

Nope, we’re looking at the Mazda3 for our first car. The 3 is basically a four-door Miata. The “Zoom Zoom” ideology isn’t reserved just for the Miata. The 3 gets the same performance capability as the Miata while adding a little practicality.

With MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link suspension in the back, the 3 handles like a sports car. A lightweight body also keeps the 3 nimble on its toes and, of course, it’s available with a five-speed manual transmission. And that’s the one we’ll be looking for.

Typical prices for the 3 run anywhere for under $5,000 to newer models asking for around $15,000 to $20,000. But the used models are still screaming deals, packing performance and value all in one. So, if you want to zoom to school in style, then pick up the more practical Miata.

Okay so the Mazda3, while great, is still just a sedan. Let’s get into sports car territory with an option from the States.

Ford Mustang

2005 ford mustang v6
Car and Driver

So the Mazda may be fun to drive, but it isn’t exactly cool. So here’s a real sports car to flex with. That’s what kids are saying now, right? Anyway, this next car is, of course, the Mustang. The Mustang is the signature budget sports car for the general public. That’s how it was when it was built in the ’60s and that’s how it is now.

The models available on the market are pretty varied too. There’s the standard GT with the legendary 5.0-liter V8. There’s a V6 and, depending on what year you look for, you can find a four-cylinder as well. The V8 is the one we all want and it’s the one that will get you the most respect, but most of those models are going to be out of budget range. The V6, however, while being the one that gets the most flack from the car community, is plenty cheap and has tons of room for mods. All we care about is burning rubber, baby!

The Mustang will run you right around $5,000, but we think it’s worth it to own a little piece of automotive history. You’ll get respect from all parts of the car community thanks to the Mustang’s identity in car culture. Historically, the first pony car is widely recognized and respected as one of the definitive sports cars. So, go get yourself a piece of automotive history, and maybe just don’t tell anyone it’s actually a V6. Don’t worry; we won’t tell anyone.

So the Mustang is the ideal American sports car, but that doesn’t exclude the Japanese. Remember how I mentioned that the Miata would come up later in the video? Now is that time.

Mazda Miata

2000 mazda miata
Mecum Auctions

The Miata lays in the magical golden spot all sports cars dream of being in. It’s cheap, extremely reliable, and a total blast to drive. There’s a reason why it makes everyone’s “Perfect Affordable Sports Car” list. The NA and NB models, in particular, are the ones most people go with for cheap sports cars.

The reason we’re choosing the Miata for this list is pretty simple. The Miata is dead reliable, so it’ll get you to class every day of the week. It also has plenty of room for everything you’ll need day to day, such as a backpack. If you happen to have one other person in the car, the trunk will be able to fit your backpack and theirs with no problem. Just don’t expect to fit much else in there.

The calling card of the Miata is its performance. There isn’t much horsepower, but when you only need to move a small convertible like the Miata, then whatever the little four-cylinder is pushing out is more than enough. However, there is plenty of room for mods if you happen to have the extra cash laying around. The Miata engine itself has room for a good amount of extra juice under the hood. That coupled with the base performance makes it near-perfect in almost every way.

The Miata is a great choice for any enthusiast, but students, in particular, will love the combination of performance, reliability, and practicality. The NA and NB versions can all be found for under $5,000. So hop onto Craigslist and search until you find your perfect little convertible. 

The Miata is the obvious choice for any list and we think it’s been talked about enough, but there’s another car that is incredibly underrated and ignored in the cheap, fun car category. It’s the workhorse that helped get one company as firmly planted in American automotive culture as the Mustang did for Ford.

Honda Civic

2006 honda civic
2 Brothers Auto Sales

We are indeed talking about the little, plucky Honda Civic. This is probably not one of the cars you’d expect to see on a list like this, but there are several good reasons why it’s here. Of course, it checks off the big three reasons: reliability, practicality, and fun. The Civic is one of those cars that’s been around forever and will more than likely be around for the rest of time.

It’s a simple formula that goes a long way, with its front-wheel drive setup and four-cylinder engine that doesn’t even need proper maintenance to run. There are so many other cars that have the same formula but don’t execute it in quite the same way as the Civic. A big part of that is the manual transmission. The stick in the Civic has always been one of the most satisfying things to operate. You can slam-shift the crap out of it all day and it’ll be as crisp as the day it came out of the factory. And we’re saying all of that about a commuter car! That’s high praise for something with four doors and a good-sized trunk.

So what’s the ideal Civic for you? Well, have your choice, because every generation will put a smile on your face for one reason or another. That’s the beauty of the Civic. It’s a Swiss Army knife.

The Civic is an awesome choice for students looking for fun and practicality in one package, but what if you’re looking for a car with a little bit more of a German twist? We think you’ll really like our next choice, which comes from our friends over at Volkswagen.

Volkswagen Jetta

Car and Driver

The Jetta is probably not what you’d expect to see on this list, but hear us out. The Jetta was created back in the ’80s, after VW came out with the Golf, as a way to give people the same diving experience and practicality as the little hatchback, but in a family sedan package. Since then, the Jetta has been acting as a German Civic.

In particular, the Mk5 is one of the best generations for the Jetta. The Mk5 comes standard with the same underpinnings as the Golf in a four-door setup. That means a multi-link rear suspension setup for awesome handling in the twisties. The Mk5’s party piece is its engine, a 2.5-liter five-cylinder packing 170 horsepower. That’s not much; but even without a custom exhaust, the five-cylinder does actually sound like a mini V10! You’ll be having a ton of fun revving out that sweet little engine on your way to English class.

The Jetta is also leaps and bounds more luxurious than the other options on this list. Leatherette seats are standard on most models and all materials are soft-touch. It’ll feel more like you’re in a BMW than a little commuter car. So, if you want the practicality and sportiness that a Civic can offer in a car that hits above its weight class in luxury, there’s no reason the Autobahn commuter should be overlooked.

We’ve covered some really nice commuter cars that won’t stand out too much and will get you to class with no problem. But what about those who want to be a little more adventurous on the weekends? If you fancy some off-roading, then we think we have the car for you.

Jeep Wrangler

2006 jeep wrangler

Everyone has that dream of heading to the beach and driving past the parking lot, having the coastal wind in their hair and the confidence to take their party into the dunes. Well, the Jeep Wrangler is one of the best ways to achieve that dream. The Wrangler has a ton of history behind it, from being a military workhorse to the main vehicle used by surfers everywhere. That history has made its way through almost every single generation of the Wrangler, which has remained unchanged for most of its production. The Wrangler hasn’t changed, but it hasn’t needed to.

You won’t get much in terms of luxuries with the little Jeep, but you won’t care when you’re driving nearly anywhere you want with the top off and the doors removed. You wait and see how quickly you become the cool kid at school after driving your friends onto the beach a few times for a late-night bonfire.

The Wrangler will also run for hundreds of thousands of miles if taken care of properly. The straight-six under the hood has been in the Jeep lineage for decades and has kept thousands of Jeep models on the road. If you do want to find yourself a good off-road toy, there will have to be some sacrifices to the rules we’ve established for this list. Mileage will have to creep above the 150,000-mile mark because the Wrangler model has kept a surprising amount of its value over the years. But thanks to that straight-six, even north of 150,000 miles, the Wrangler will be running strong.

So if you want to have some fun on the weekends exploring the backroads and beaches, then pick up a Wrangler and explore away! Now let’s explore the complete opposite of the Wrangler: a two-door, front-wheel drive coupe that wouldn’t be found dead anywhere near a beach. This next car comes from Toyota’s ex-cool-kids brand Scion.

Scion tC

2008 scion tc
Wikimedia Commons

We get what Toyota wanted to do with Scion. They didn’t have the market they wanted with younger drivers, so they created a “totally cool and hip” brand to appeal to younger buyers. They even had weird and quirky hamster commercials that were kind of cool but kind of weird in the same way that a teacher trying to impress their students by using modern slang is. That doesn’t mean that Scion completely missed their mark.

The tC is one of those cars that’s mostly forgettable but merits some attention. It’s a front-wheel drive hatchback that can come with a nice manual transmission, decent performance, and fun dynamics in the corners. And it’s basically a Toyota, so it’ll be super reliable. Some could argue it took over where the last generation of the Celica left off, which is worth some merit.

The tC was a victim of a serious identity crisis Toyota was going through when it was made. In a different world, it may have been a cool offering from Toyota to appeal to younger buyers, but instead, it was a Scion. That’s not a terrible thing, though, because the tC is still a great two-door from a company known for their bulletproof reliability. So, if you want something that’s much more practical than a Miata, as reliable as a Camry, and fun to drive on the way to school, maybe take a second look at Toyota’s forgotten side project.

Let’s keep the unexpectedly fun commuter car theme going. Ford is known mostly for the Mustang and its F-series trucks, but they also have a pretty decent run of small commuter cars being built overseas. Thankfully, they decided to give us some of their Euro-style eco-boxes.

Ford Fiesta

2013 ford fiesta

The Ford Fiesta is a model that’s best known in the United Kingdom as one of the most-used commuter cars offered. They’re fuel-efficient, reliable, and are a ton of fun to drive. All of that comes in a tiny commuter car package that Ford basically brought directly over from the United Kingdom.

The chassis has a torsion beam in the rear that does take away from some of the refinement, but it adds to the fun. It means the Fiesta is a little more likely to get wild when it’s pushed. And because the Fiesta has about as much horsepower as a lawnmower, all of this fun won’t get you in trouble with the police. The four-cylinder is also a gem of an engine that loves to be revved and yearns to misbehave.

Some people have even said that the Fiesta is almost like a modern take on the original Volkswagen Golf. The Fiesta is a win-win in almost every aspect. It’s not the fanciest or most refined car on this list, but it’s a winner at putting a smile on your face. So, if you’re looking for that genuine European driving experience, pick up a Fiesta and let that baby rip.

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