Best back-to-school cars for 2021

It’s that time of year again, and hopefully most kids will be going back to campus for a year of learning. If your kid needs some wheels for the upcoming school year, we’ve picked out some good ones, and all for less than $25,000. After all, you can get some great vehicles at this price, saving you some extra coin for that luxury car you’ve always wanted.

Realizing that not all students are created equal, we’ve given our list a bit of personality. So if your kid is an attention seeker, a commuter or the outdoorsy type, we’ve got you covered. We’ve also included the destination charges for each vehicle so you know exactly what you’re getting. 

Hyundai

Commuting to campus can be a drag, but the Hyundai Ioniq hybrid gets up to 58 miles per gallon combined. This isn’t a plug-in powertrain, so no worries about waiting around for a charge. A 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine is augmented by a 32kW electric motor with a 1.6kWh lithium-ion battery located under the rear seats. Total system output is 139 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque, mated to a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.

Admittedly it’s not the most fun car in the world to drive, but the hatchback styling gives students plenty of utility and drivers can adjust the amount of regenerative braking with the steering wheel-mounted paddles. Forward-collision warning, a driver attention monitor, lane-keeping assist and high-beam assist are standard, but you have to jump to the SE to get blind-spot monitoring and to the SEL to add adaptive cruise control. Highway Drive Assist is only available on the top Limited trim. —Emme Hall

Hyundai

With cute, friendly styling, a nicely equipped interior and a peppy but efficient four-cylinder power plant, the Hyundai Venue is the perfect car for any student, but especially one who has an eye for design. The Denim Edition is a lot less Jay Leno than it sounds, with a handsome blue and white two-tone exterior and denim-esque seat fabric inside. We love the blue accents throughout the interior, too. Add in Hyundai’s epic warranty and an out-the-door price under $25,000 and it’s gotta be my pick. –Kyle Hyatt

Emme Hall/Roadshow

It’s hard to beat a compact crossover for versatility, and it’s even harder to beat an all-wheel-drive model if you go to school someplace with challenging weather. The 2021 Mazda CX-30 might not be the most capable model in the truly rough stuff, but it more than makes up for any shortfall by being fun to drive, efficient and smartly styled.

For $24,625 (including $1,175 destination fee), you can get yourself into a base S model that comes with a brace of active safety features including adaptive cruise control and LED lights. No, the Mazda Connect infotainment system still isn’t very good, but you’ve got Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, which is all most young people care about these days. —Chris Paukert

Honda

The Honda Civic is often a no-brainer choice no matter what you need, but for a student in need of fresh, reliable wheels to get to class, I can’t think of a better suggestion. The latest Civic oozes style inside and out, but especially inside. Plus, youngsters will get the tech they want in today’s cars with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and a 7-inch touchscreen. Fuel economy? That’s also a grand selling point for the Civic. You’ll walk away with an impressively well equipped cockpit for just under $23,000. In a world where the average new car costs an eye-watering $40,000, that’s darn cheap, and this is hardly a cheap-feeling car. –Sean Szymkowski

Craig Cole/Roadshow

Look, I’m definitely not advocating for skipping class, but if you find yourself needing a, uh, break from the day-to-day monotony of sitting inside buildings (or staring at Zoom presentations), not many other inexpensive cars will get you off the grid quite like a Subaru Crosstrek. With 8.7 inches of ground clearance, standard all-wheel drive and a nice-sized hatchback to house all your gear, the Crosstrek is ready and willing to hit just about any trail you can find, and with a whole bunch of standard safety equipment, it’s a great car to live with on the daily, too. –Steven Ewing.

Read our 2021 Subaru Crosstrek review.

 

Chevrolet

From tuition to room and board to ramen noodle packs, college can be an enormous financial burden. For students who need a new car but must keep their costs as low as humanly possible, give the Chevy Spark a good look. Go ahead, drink it in.

This spunky little hatchback should be the most affordable new vehicle available in America today, undercutting similarly miserly rivals like the Hyundai Accent, Mitsubishi Mirage and Nissan Versa. An entry-level LS model with a manual gearbox, crank windows, 15-inch steel wheels and no smiles checks out for a positively parsimonious $14,595, including $995 in freight charges. That undercuts this list’s price cap by a whopping 10 grand. Think of all the textbooks you can buy for that!

Sure, it may be cheap, but the Spark isn’t all bad. It’s offered in a range of spunky colors, from orange and light blue to dusty purple, plus it’s small and highly maneuverable. While its 1.4-liter engine won’t set the world ablaze, its 98 horsepower and 94 pound-feet of torque are more than adequate for a car of this size. –Craig Cole

Kia

While I’m sad that the lovable hamsters are no longer being used to promote the Kia Soul, the vehicle itself is still one of the most interestingly styled, flexible and affordable new vehicles available today. Beginning at a shade above $20,000, the most basic Soul is powered by a serviceable 2.0-liter I4 making 147 horsepower that works with a continuously variable transmission. Throw in a roomy cabin for passengers and cargo, standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and the 10-year or 100,000-mile powertrain warranty and you have a great vehicle for young drivers. –Jon Wong

Comparison of the best back-to-school cars for 2021

Name Price (including destination)
Best car for the commuter 2021 Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid $24,404
Best car for the fashion student 2021 Hyundai Venue $23,235
Best car for the cold-weather student 2021 Mazda CX-30 $24,625
Best car for the budget-minded student 2021 Honda Civic $22,715
Best car for the outdoorsy student 2021 Subaru Outback $23,295
Best car for the desperate student 2021 Chevrolet Spark $14,595
Best car for the attention-seeking student 2022 Kia Soul $20,365

What is the best back-to-school car?

The best car for back-to-school is one that is safe, reliable and inexpensive. This may be your kid’s first car, so there is no reason to go all-out with some kind of monster off-road machine or luxury convertible. Let them earn something like that. A good back-to-school car provides reasonable transportation, not over-the-top performance. Refrain from buying something like a Dodge Challenger Hellcat Redeye with gobs of power. Your kid won’t be able to handle it and they’ll get oodles of speeding tickets at best, crash it at worst. 

Same goes for any kind of big SUV. Does Emily really need to move herself and seven of her best friends around campus? More importantly, can she afford the gas to do so? Stick with something small and economical. 

Why should I buy a back-to-school car?

It’s true, many of us weren’t given a car when we started our senior year in high school or went off to college, so buying your child a car might seem like extreme privilege. In fact, it is. Many parents have trouble just making rent, forget about dropping $25,000 on a car for their teenager. However, if you can afford it, buying your kid a new car makes sense. With myriad safety systems like forward collision warning and emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring and lane-keeping assist, new cars are much safer than what you can find on the used market. Further, their fuel economy is often better and they can be more reliable. 

Your child has enough to be concerned about with making grades and working that part-time job — they shouldn’t have to worry about how they’re going to get around as well.