hether your kid is graduating from high school, entering college, or simply needs wheels for a summer job or starting out in a career, the best vehicles offer a winning combination of reasonable price, fuel-efficiency, reliability and, most of all, safety. Good looks and a modicum of cool don’t hurt, either.
Here are 8 recommendations of new and recent-vintage used vehicles, in each of four categories: compact sedan, midsize sedan, small crossover and sports car. Each was rated a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or received high marks in crash tests from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In addition, each model has stability control, traction control, and head and side airbags.
2011 Kia Soul
Sticker price: $16,190 (+, manual)
Invoice price: $15,545
True Market Value: $15,647
Service costs (5-year): $3,568
MPG (city/hwy): 26/31
With its boxy looks, fuel economy, and low price, the Soul makes a “thinking outside of the box” statement. Inside, Bluetooth and a USB connection for an MP3 player are standard. The four-cylinder engine produces 142 horsepower, and cargo space is a roomy 19 cubic feet. Roadside assistance is included for the duration of the five-year/60,000-mile warranty.
2009 Honda Civic
price: $17,863 (EX-L sedan, manual)
Private-party price: $16,630
Certified used price: $18,567
Service costs (5-year): $5,777
MPG (city/hwy): 26/34
The Civic has been a great value since it debuted in 1972. The EX-L has standard stability and traction control (not available on lower trims), heated leather seats, and USB connectivity. Plus, the dealer price on this two-year-old car is $3,700 off the original sticker price.
2011 Hyundai Sonata
Sticker price: $21,145 (GLS, automatic)
Invoice price: $20,288
True Market Value: $20,950
Service costs (5-year): $4,152
MPG (city/hwy): 22/35
Kiplinger’s winner for Best New Car in its class this year, Hyundai’s redesigned Sonata has the sleek good looks of a luxury car for a fraction of the cost. The Sonata lineup features a trio of four-cylinder engines: the base 2.4-liter for the model listed here, a turbocharged 2.0-liter and a hybrid.
2008 Chevrolet Malibu
Dealer price: $13,754 (LT, automatic)
Private-party price: $12,490
Certified used price: $14,723
Service costs (5-year): $8,700
MPG (city/hwy): 22/30
Its redesign in 2008 won the Malibu Best New Car and Best in Class nods from Kiplinger’s. In addition to its standard safety features and 169 horses, the Malibu features hands-free calling and OnStar (free for three months when you buy a pre-owned GM). Add a wallet-friendly price and the 2008 model is still a winner.
2011 Subaru Forester
Sticker price: $22,420 (2.5X, automatic)
Invoice price: $21,213
True Market Value: $21,435
Service costs (5-year): $4,850
MPG (city/hwy): 21/27
Whether you’re a mountain climber or you stick to the urban jungle, the Forester can take you where you need to go. Maintenance costs after the three-year warranty expires are a bit above average, but in exchange, you get one of the safest crossovers on the road. It has been an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick for the past five years straight, and it comes with standard all-wheel drive.
2009 Toyota RAV4
Dealer price: $18,666 (base, automatic)
Private-party price: $17,225
Certified used price: $20,168
Service costs (5-year): $6,715
MPG (city/hwy): 22/28
Toyota’s small crossover seats up to seven (with the optional third row) and holds 73 cubic feet of cargo with the second row folded. Plus, it’s fuel-thrifty in any of its iterations -- even the V6 with all-wheel drive gets 27 mpg on the highway.
2011 Ford Mustang
Sticker price: $22,995 (base coupe, manual)
Invoice price: $21,928
True Market Value: $22,612
Service costs (5-year): $3,739
MPG (city/hwy): 19/29
The Mustang GT was named Kiplinger’s Best New sports car in this year’s annual rankings, but most young drivers don’t need 412 horsepower. The base model gets better mileage with its 305-hp V6 and costs $7,500 less. Note: Only front passengers have side and head airbag protection.
2008 Nissan 350Z
Dealer price: $20,161 (Touring coupe, manual)
Private-party price: $18,246
Certified used price: $21,416
Service costs (5-year): $8,763
MPG (city/hwy): 18/25
Agile handling and plenty of speed are baked into the two-seater Nissan Z. Our pick for value is the Touring model because it comes with stability control, which isn’t available on lower trims. Side and head airbag options are included in the price above as well. One drawback with all sports cars: They can cost a bit more to insure than more basic vehicles.
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