Back to School: Best Cars for Student Budgets

What's the best car for a struggling college student? Why, a bicycle, of course. Or wait, what's that really big one? You know, the extra-roomy and efficient two-door with space for all their friends? Oh yeah: the bus.

However, neither bike, sneakers, nor transit is going to work for everyone, particularly those who are opting out of on-campus life for mom and dad's basement and free wifi and laundry. Perhaps there's a job you need to get to as well, or perhaps you live in a rural enough area that transit isn't even an option.

Whatever the reason, ignore those other guides with their lists of shiny new sheet metal costing tens of thousands of dollars. Here's our take on matching your car to your degree.

The Accounting Student

If anybody's going to know the value of a dollar, it's this guy or gal. Their piggy bank wasn't just an empty vessel, they actually diversified their holdings at an early age, and insisted on branching out into other piggy banks. And also real banks.

As such, they've got the most squirrelled away to make the purchase, and will need to borrow the least from the bank of mom and dad. What are they going to spend it on? A sportscar? No way.

The Honda Civic is the most common car in Canada by a long shot, having spent more than a dozen years at the top of the sales charts. Your accounting student knows that means both excellent supply and a strong demand when it comes to resale. They're going to look for something with more than 100K km on the clock, one with the timing belt and other major interval maintenance done, and aren't going to give two hoots as to what colour it comes in. It's the smart way to buy a car.

Minoring in: Toyota Corolla or Nissan Sentra

The Business Student

This college kid knows a thing or two about negotiation and lays it all out on the table with just eight words. “Mom, dad? I'm going to buy a motorcycle.” Bingo, coffers prised open for a car.

The business student knows that appearances make the grade and you never get a second chance to make a first impression. That's why they're going to work their butt off, studying late into the night, yet showing up in a neatly pressed button-down, and it's also why they're going to try to get you to lease a new VW.

Leasing is a smart way to get the appearance of a new vehicle without sinking all your money into it up front, and gives you a monthly cost that's less than what you might be spending on rent if you commute instead of living on campus. Showing up for your co-op term in a car that's shiny, but not flashy, might just get the higher-ups' attention, projecting that oh-so-important aura of success. Then, just practice on getting your handshake right.

Minor in: Mercedes-Benz CLA

The Astrophysicist

Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of, um, a used Nissan X-Trail. Its mission: to get as far away from the city lights as possible, with ground clearance enough to get up the mountainside, and a sunroof so enormous you don't have to leave the car to go looking for shooting stars.

The Nissan X-Trail is about a decade old now, and was only ever sold in Canada, not the US. It's got a bit of a cult following, and is essentially an Altima sedan with a flat cargo floor big enough for all your telescopes and seating for up to five. Just the thing for a budding Neil deGrasse Tysons.

Minor in: Subaru Forester

The Classical Studies student

Perhaps you're a fan of Greek tragedies? Get ready to enjoy your Alfa Romeo. Well, perhaps enjoy is the wrong word. Suffer. Yep, that's more accurate.

Still, odds are post-university the student of classical studies is going to find themselves either back teaching what they've learned, or having to take some soul-crushing office job just to make ends meet. In the meantime, they can learn to literally make ends meet – speaking of wiring here – by having an impractical, unreliable, ethereal and wonderful car.

One positive way to look at it is that there'll be plenty of time to stay at home and study if you can't get the darn thing running. La dolce vita.

Minor in: an MGB

The Veterinary Student

Out in the field, up to your armpit in cow: that's where the budding veterinarian finds themselves in their element. Sorry, that's Element with a capital E, as the best car for them is built by Honda.

Perfect for puttering around from farm to farm on a co-op program, with plenty of space to store all the medicine you need plus room enough to run a dog-walking business on the weekends, the Honda Element is the ideal car for James Herriot junior. Best of all, most of the ones on the road have already been used as pet carriers, so the smell's already built right in. Woof!

Minor in: Nissan cube

The Geologist

Looking at rocks can be fun and interesting. Well, sort of. At least it can be profitable.

However, all the best sort of rocks, or so I am given to understand, are not so much here as they are over there, quite a long way away. That's why you're going to need a Jeep Wrangler.

The true Jeep has been around for more than seventy years now, and there's always a supply of battered-but-serviceable machines ready to take you where you need to go. No other machine is as capable (unless you can afford a helicopter, and if so, why are you reading this?), and when you graduate to using the company truck, it'll still be worth whatever you paid for it. It's the wheeled equivalent of a shovel. Get digging.

Minor in: Land Rover Defender

The Music Degree

Obviously, there's a joke to be made here about buying a Versa Note. Really though, you need a van. Possibly because you might end up living in it.

But what sort? Well, you can't afford a Vanagon or Microbus because the baby-boomers are snapping them all up, and a windowless Ford Econoline is a bit creepy. Best thing to do: buy an old Dodge Caravan and rip all the seats out to make room for your amps and speakers.

The other sweet part about owning a van is that you will instantly become Mr. Popular with all the other kids on campus that can't afford a car. With six other people chipping in for gas, you'll be able to be master of the music festival roadtrip, and you'll be up to your eyes in sixpacks of bee- um, soda pop from all the times you lent it out to people who were moving. Paint Wyld Stallyns on the side and call it a day. Excellent.

Minor in: GMC Safari

The Engineering Student

Well, why wait? You might as well just buy a Volkswagen GTI and be done with it – it's going to happen eventually.

The GTI is the unofficial car of the engineering student, possibly because they're all fans of German engineering, or possibly just because you need that sort of analytical mind to figure out how to get them back on the road again when something important goes fizzzt. It's sporty and fun, but won't look out of place in the parking lot of the firm where you'll end up working, and when you make enough money, you can just buy the latest and greatest version. Step onto that first rung of the ladder with a slightly wonky one, and work on your electronic know-how.

Minor in: E30 BMW

The Art Student

If you ever want to see the definition of a condescending look, tell somebody you're getting an arts degree. How totally unfair: an degree in the arts might not be as direct a route to getting a job as one in chemistry or engineering, but without the aesthetes of the world, where would we be? Up to our necks in Fiat 500Ls, that's where.

You're going to need quirky, and you're going to need cheap, but because the air-cooled VW Beetle isn't the easy choice it once was, cute is getting a bit hard to find. That's why you're going to get a JDM import: the Nissan PAO.

It's perfect: hatchback practicality to haul your canvases around, seating for four on the way to your book circle, and an engine so tiny, it's practically invisible to the naked eye. Driving a right-hand-drive car might take some getting used to, but it'll give you a different way of looking at the world, something the art student already values.

Minor in: Mini Cooper

The Medical Student

Forget it. Your student loans are far too huge already. Take the bus.

The Biology Student

Algae is disgusting. But awesome.

Why awesome? Because you can grow your own fuel, and that's just what you're going to do with your biodiesel converted Mercedes-Benz 300D. It's going to be smelly, but then, so's your lab.

Growing your own gas is the ideal science experiment, and just the thing for the biology student. Also, the popularity of biodiesel in most major centres means that there's probably a co-op nearby where you can fill up if your crop is taking a while to get going.

Who knows, maybe a fortunate accident in the lab will have you solving the modern world's fuel crisis. Or maybe you'll end up turning into a Spiderman villain. It's win-win.

Minor in: Volkswagen Jetta TDI

The Kinesiology Student

Sports medicine, physiotherapy, chiropracty – all these spring from the route of knowing a thing or two about the human body. And, more than any other discipline, majoring in them likely means that you're an athlete of some kind.

That's why you're going to need a pickup truck. Now, the temptation will be something small and Japanese, but those are expensive, so it's going to be a Ford F-150. Not a new one, an old one, boxy and cheap.

You'll have room for your hockey bag (even if you're a goalie), your mountain bike, your rock-climbing mat – any piece of equipment imaginable. It'll pull double duty if you work construction on the weekends too.

Minor in: Chevrolet Silverado

The Rich Kid

A visit to the parking lots near UBC will open anyone's eyes: BMWs, Mercedes, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis. There's so much money here, it boggles the mind.

As such, how do you hope to stand out, and not have most of the other kids on campus not think you're an arrogant jerk? Simple, you employ a little taste and buy an old air-cooled Porsche.

It's sporting and luxurious, but not ostentatious; expensive, yet understated. They're also hard to find, meaning it's going to take equal parts money and brains. Best of all, air-cooled 911s are all going up in value, year over year, so it shows that even if you're well-heeled, you still know the value of a dollar.

Minor in: classic muscle car

The College Professor

Clearly what's called for here is the automotive equivalent of a cardigan. So, Volvo, then?

Nope, you're going to buy a Challenger Hellcat. Why? Because when that final bell rings, you are outta there, leaving two black stripes on the pavement and a stack of marking for this semester's TA. Later kids, class dismissed!

Minor in: Chevrolet Camaro ZL1