The BEST First Cars for Students Under $3,000

lexus gs300 drift car
Club Lexus

If you’re headed off to college or working summer jobs in high school, chances are you don’t have a lot of money to throw at a car. I mean, have you seen how much books cost? I don’t envy you at all. However, that doesn’t mean you have to suffer with some hand-me-down beater that’s as exciting as a plain hamburger with no ketchup.

In fact, we think that you could get something like a great entry-level overlander or a luxury car with an absolutely legendary engine. I’m serious. We have 8 cars here that we think are perfect for students, all for less than the price of tuition. 

No Civics or Miatas, we want you to get a car that will actually do what you want it to do, and enhance your life rather than just suck up your money. And guess what? You really can buy all of these cars for under $3,000!

Ford Mustang GT SN95 – The Ticket Collector

ford mustang gt sn95
Grassroots Motorsports

First up on our list is a car that is sure to get you a ticket on the top floor of a parking garage, the Mustang GT SN95. The Ford Mustang is pretty much the best cheap performance car to own. It’s rear-wheel drive, makes plenty of torque, and the modular 4.6-liter V8 will last forever! I mean, they came in cop cars, and those things have to run forever.

More importantly for those of you on a budget, unlike other enthusiast cars like the 240SX, you can pick up older GTs for next to nothing because Ford made approximately 10 billion of them and everyone has owned one at some point in their life.

The hardest part is avoiding trouble with Johnny Law. Even though by modern standards the GT doesn’t make huge amounts of power, it’s still got more than enough to light the rear tires and help you oversteer right into a light pole right outside the campus security building. Then, your buddy with the Catfish Camaro will ditch you and send you laughing emojis.

But, if you can learn to keep your foot under control, those old Mustangs will treat you really well. You can even pick them up as a convertible, and who doesn’t like riding around topless? We found one for $3,200 that you could probably get for $2,800 with our Ideal Car Strategies. Just rag on them about the crappy paint if they don’t want to budge. 

Honestly, the Catfish Camaro would be another great entry on this list, but it’s not on here. Instead, we have something for all of you who love camping or are thinking of picking up overlanding as a hobby.

Early-2000s Nissan Xterra – The Weekender

first gen nissan xterra
Automobile Magazine

In the early 2000s, Nissan could do no wrong. They were still riding the high of the Silvias and R34s, the 350z was making huge waves, and they actually had a pretty competent little SUV called the Xterra, which was meant to be like an off-road-ready competitor to the 4Runner. Or maybe it was a Jeep that was more approachable or something like that. 

It’s a weird vehicle. It’s based on the Pathfinder, which is not a great car, but it has a bunch of stuff on it that makes it worth it. See, it comes stock with a lot of mods that outdoor enthusiasts would install, like a beefy tube frame roof rack and steps that double as rock bars, which makes them perfect entry-level overlanders.

Now, I do want to temper your expectations a bit, these are not as nice as a 4Runner. The inside is boring and somehow they get worse gas mileage. But, because they aren’t 4Runners, they’re cheap as hell! We found one for just over $3,000!

However, those of you who are more into wrenching and don’t mind getting your hands dirty will probably prefer the next car on our list to the Xterra. 

BMW E36 – The Aspiring Mechanic

bmw 3 series e36

If you’re anything like me, working on cars was your one refuge where you could get away from boring homework and find some zen in turning a wrench. Now, the problem is that there’s no such thing as a cheap project car. So, if you’re going to spend your hard-earned money from your side hustle, you should make sure it’s going into something that has actual clout and value. And I hate to break it to you, but a Miata is kind of boring. 

Enter the E36 BMW, which is just about the most reliable BMW ever built. Plus, the aftermarket support easily rivals any ’90s JDM car. We found one that was automatic for $3,000, but manuals are out there, you might just have to be a little patient or expand your budget slightly.

Just as a note, you can find E46s in this price range as well, but I think the E36 BMWs have a little more prestige, and parts are a lot cheaper. 

If you just never want to buy parts and want a dead-reliable car that will do everything you need while still being a little fun to drive, this next one is right up your alley.

Toyota Matrix – Mr. Practical

2012 toyota matrix

This is the Toyota Matrix, and it’s a car that everyone forgot about. You’ll hear people go on and on about the other 2000s hatchbacks like the Civic Si or Mazda3 or Focus ZX3, but the only fun Toyota that people remember is the Celica. And let’s be honest, unless you’re Scotty Kilmer, you forgot about the Celica too. 

Well, Toyota actually made a hatchback version of the Corolla that had a slightly hotter motor, making it a sort of warm-hatch, which means they’re fun to drive and they can actually fit all your stuff. Perhaps the best part about the Matrix, though, is that you can’t kill it. Buy it, drive it until you’re ready for a new ride, then give it to your friend that’s down on their luck. It’s the circle of life for these older Japanese cars.

We found one for $3,400. All you have to do is haggle them down to $3,000 by threatening to go buy a Pontiac Vibe instead. Those are the same car but uglier. And you’re willing to pay more for a manual, right? Then you can impress people with your advanced car wizardry.

Need to haul more stuff than will fit into a little hatch? Get a truck. Not a Tacoma, those are way to expensive, but an old American half-ton.

Dodge Ram 1500 – The Tailgater

2015 dodge 1500
Car and Driver

With a truck, you’ll be someone that everyone needs. Your friends are moving across town? Your lab partner needs the giant presentation board delivered? Someone’s about to party in the parking lot when your team plays? Hit up Home Depot for those one-time-use grills and make your friends bring the drinks!

There are some tricks to buying old trucks, though, because they’re in really high demand. First, don’t expect anything in amazing condition. Old trucks last forever and they run just fine with mismatched paint or ruined interiors. You’re not buying them for beauty contests. 

Second, if you really want a great deal, check with friends and family. Chances are someone has a truck just in case they might need it, and are probably thinking about getting rid of it. Go talk to them, be interested in their hobby, and offer them $3,000 for that old pickup. We found an old faded Ram 1500 for $3,000, and as long as you keep oil in it, it’s not going to let you down.

Now, some people just don’t want to deal with the size of a truck or the sheer volume of gas they drink, but they still need more space than a little hatch. Can you hear the call of the station wagon?

Ford Freestyle – The Party Planner

2005 ford freestyle
Wikimedia Commons

The Ford Freestyle is another one of those cars that people don’t really think about, but not because it was a lemon or anything, more because it was ahead of its time. You see, nowadays crossovers are everywhere. But, back in the early 2000s, they were a brand new idea, and the Freestyle was Ford’s first attempt to enter the market.

They didn’t really get it, though, and what they built was a weird-looking Outback. That’s perfect for you. It’s big enough to carry you, your friends, and all the party supplies, and it doesn’t have the wallet-destroying gas mileage of an SUV.

Just be aware that they do have one serious Achilles heel. If you rip off all the paint, the Freestyle is a Volvo with a CVT, and that’s bad. CVTs, or continuously variable transmissions, basically make a car disposable. You can’t really fix them, so if you see the slightest hint of a transmission problem when you’re looking for one, just walk away.

That being said, they are cheap, so don’t be afraid to shop around and find one with a good transmission. We found one for $2,500, and it was by no means the only one we found.

Alright, maybe you just can’t be seen in a station wagon. You want something that will turn heads, right? I got you.

Volkswagen Baja Beetle – The Wild Card

1969 volkswagen baja beetle

For less than $5,000, you probably aren’t going to get anything that makes people stop and stare unless you’re willing to be a little bit extra wild like YouTube Girlfriend and pick up an old Beetle.

Now, I need to clarify that I don’t actually recommend this. Old cars take a lot of work to maintain and they are not reliable or safe at all. They don’t have airbags or crumple zones. If you’re the type of person to consider buying a ratty classic, though, you won’t’ listen to me. And if you’re dead set on getting into crazy rides that will turn heads and start conversations, a Beetle is perfect.

Beetles are ridiculously easy to work on, they were produced forever so parts are plentiful and cheap, and no one is capable of hating them. Bonus points if it’s a Baja Beetle, like the one that our very own YouTube Girlfriend built with her father. Not only do they look like something straight out of Mad Max, but because they’re modified already, no one will be upset at you “ruining a classic car.”

There is always a local one for sale for under $3,000, and it might need a little work, but you’re going to have to get used to that if you go down this path.

And now, we have reached the last car on our list. The previous entry was a screaming metal death trap, so we might as well end with the exact opposite and bring you a car that your parents will be proud that you own.

Lexus GS300 – The Business Major

2006 lexus gs300
Car and Driver

Executive and indestructible, that’s what Lexus represents. It’s a car that you absolutely won’t be embarrassed to drive up in. The Lexus badge alone is enough that people will notice you, and there’s no rule that says you need to tell them how much you actually paid for the car. 

The GS series is the sporty little brother of the bigger LS series, and you can tell exactly who Lexus was trying to compete against with these cars because if you squint it’s a Mercedes. The great news is that it’s just a Toyota under the gold trim, so you won’t have anywhere near the issues that an old Mercedes will have,

When they came out, people often praised the “better than the competition” ride quality of these touring cars, so you aren’t really sacrificing anything by getting an upbadged Toyota. Your date will actually want to take your car on date night, and not insist on borrowing their mom’s pink Prius. But, the best part is that under the hood of the Lexus GS300 is the legendary 2JZ motor. So, if you really wanted to, with a little bit of work, this car could run rings around everything else on our list. Just don’t mention that to your parents when you’re out shopping.

We found one for $3,000. The bushings looked shot, though, so save up $400 to have those replaced. But after you do that, you’ll have a car that drives like million bucks for a little over $3,000.  

Brad Danger
Mr. Danger loves cars, finance and living the Ideal Lifestyle!