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Back to School Auto Specials!

by Corey Conley

August is here, and so are shelves stuffed with school supplies, the first whiffs of autumn, and tearful (or jubilant) parents shuttling their newly-minted high school graduates off to university - and those kids are going to need a set of wheels. As a public service to these fresh-faced, newly-minted drivers, we proudly present our selection of the best cars for the collegebound (or for the anywhere bound students of life
as we know it, of any age, as well!)  All start at under $20,000, and offer a balanced mix of practicality, style and performance.

2015 SCION iA

1. 2015 SCION iA
Scion’s first ever sedan has a dirty little secret- it’s actually a Mazda. Some corporate rigamarole between Scion’s parent company Toyota, and Mazda, has slathered the new Mazda2 sedan (otherwise not sold in the United States) with a slew of Scion badges, and a new, fish-faced grill.

While we’re not crazy about the front end, those who look past it will get a lot for their $15,700, including Mazda’s excellent info-tainment interface, and a low-speed, anti-collision system that will help drivers avoid collisions and apply brakes at up to 18 mph, perfect for the low-speed campus cruiser distracted by, say, a comely co-ed. It’s perhaps a sign of the times that a CD player is not among the robust feature list - but rest assured USB and AUX inputs will still be available. The lengthy equipment list is complemented by Mazda’s trademark sharp handling and reflexes, though the latter serves only to under score how much more power the iA could use over its 106 horsepower engine. That said,  the small engine does pay off with up to 37 mpg combined fuel efficiency.


2. 2015 HONDA FIT
This should come as little surprise to those familiar with Honda’s smallest offering - the Fit is well-known for its peerless blend of practicality, fun and frugality - perfect for any youngster on the move. The hatchback form is hardly unique to the Fit, but unlike other hatches the Fit’s “Magic” seats fold flat to create a prodigious cargo hold - perfect for those who have to pack an entire dorm with them at the end of each semester. Also not surprising is the 36 mpg combined EPA rating, as well as the $15,790 starting msrp. What may surprise many gawkers at a stoplight though, is the Fit’s sprint to 60 mph in a mere 7.6 seconds when matched with Honda’s excellent manual transmission! While that’s hardly sports-car territory, the Fit’s unexpected vigor bests all other cars on this list.


3. 2015 KIA SOUL
While the Kia Soul is one of the older models on the list, its boxy style still comes off as modern and fresh, while a nicely laid-out interior is still competitive with the best in its segment. Handling and acceleration are merely adequate, however, but Kia’s box offers a quiet, composed ride and a full list of features for its $15,190 asking price, such as 16 inch alloy rims, bluetooth, and keyless entry. Those features adorn a cavernous cargo hold for dorm; folding down the rear seats unlocks 61.3 cubic feet of moving space. Where its age shows is in fuel efficiency, which at 21 city, 30 highway, is best for those students who don’t plan to drive home every weekend.


The 2012 Ford Focus marked the start of a renaissance for Ford, and the Focus continues to be a solid player in the competitive compact segment. 2015 editions received a new, fuel-sipping engine option, and a refresh featuring a revised grill, and minor packaging updates. What hasn’t changed is its well-rounded combination of affordability, performance, and style. While the $17,170 base model has all an aspiring alumnus really needs, many option boxes can be ticked without cracking the $20,000 mark. Buyers have the choice between a sensible sedan or a nicely proportioned 5-door hatchback body style. The Focus’ basic engine is one of the zippiest in its class, and the Focus has tight, communicative steering. Inside, although the interior is no longer the best-in-class, its angular lines still come across as attractive and mature.


I make no secret about my adulation of Mazda’s little barnstormer (I even plunked down my own hard-earned cash for one - twice), and I’m not alone. The compact commuter with the soul of a sports car is a critical darling, melding style and performance with high-mpg practicality. Depending on your configuration, a 2015 Mazda3 can hit the 41 mpg mark on the EPA’s highway test, and lock in a solid 30 in the city. Normally that kind of frugality dings the wallet or the fun-factor, but even a base sedan starts at $16,945 with the same 155 horsepower engine and magnetic handling enjoyed by pricier versions. Although beauty, as ever, is in the eye of the beholder, many rave about the Mazda3’s flowing exterior lines, as well as its European-like interior.  Like the Focus, the 3 is available in both sedan or hatchback forms at far under $20,000 - and it’s a car you’ll likely keep beyond your college years.

Chevy Sonic

6. Chevy Sonic
As one anecdote would have it, the product planners for Chevy’s sub-compact Sonic insisted that all versions of the Sonic have standard alloy rims, rather than the faux plastic covers over black steel wheels that usually grace a company’s price leader - this is why, even on its cheapest trim levels, every Sonic donned stylish alloys for its debut year. Whether or not this story is true, the Sonic is clear proof that GM is now taking small cars more seriously than ever before. The Sonic hatchback and sedan are nimble and fast, with adventurous, motorcycle-inspired styling inside and out.  At $15,070 though, its feature list has a standard lot of goodies that still falls short of value leaders like Kia and Hyundai. Also falling short is a 30 mpg combined rating from the EPA, owing to the Sonic’s surprising heft. However, what you get in exchange is a surprisingly composed ride and best-in-class horsepower - and those looking for extra zoot (yes, I really do mean zoot!) can opt for a fun and frugal turbocharged engine to spice up those late-night Taco Bell runs. / Issue 172 - September 2018
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