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Back to School - Eight Used Cars for Campus

Here are eight recommended used cars you can buy today for around $8,000.
Mark Toljagic

In a time-honoured rite of passage, our American neighbours move into college dorms each fall to immerse themselves in campus life, while many Canadian students forego the experience and live at home, grudgingly joining the daily grind as commuters.

Plenty of students have to travel daily to a suburban college or university campus that isn’t always easily reached by transit. Buying a used car to make the commute bearable makes some sense if the distance is manageable.

For the equivalent to one year of rent, a smart student could be driving to campus and learning some essential life lessons – like circling around traffic jams and sourcing cheap gas. Here are eight recommended used cars you can buy today for around $8,000.

Any one of these will make a decent alternative to a backpack.


2009-10 Pontiac Vibe

Campus Cars

The wee Vibe may outlive all the other orphaned Pontiacs still in circulation, mostly because it’s powered by the same fuel-efficient, 132-hp 1.8-L four cylinder that makes the Toyota Matrix and Corolla such dependable buys. Vibes use an outdated, but durable, four-speed automatic transmission or five-speed stick with this engine.

The Vibe was sold only as a mini wagon by its dearly departed dealer network. There’s good room inside for five, thanks to the flat floor and upright seating. The cargo hold behind the folding rear bench isn’t particularly big, but it’s finished in hard plastic to accommodate wet and messy cargo – like the college’s pet mascot.

Stick with the 1.8-L engine and pass on the larger 2.4-L four; it has a reputation for burning oil. Other problems include worn-out sensors that trip the Check Engine light, scratch-prone paint and some interior rattles. There’s an all-wheel-drive model, but you’re better off with a set of four snow tires. GM still services the Vibe, and Toyota dealers are happy to help, too.

Comprehensive Vehicle Reports Provide Transparency

2010-12 Mitsubishi Lancer

Campus Cars

The Mitsubishi Lancer is not a household name – and that’s the genius of it. It languishes on dealer lots so buyers can negotiate a lower price. The Lancer comes as a four-door sedan, but there’s also a rare but practical Sportback model with a yawning hatchback that’s great for helping your friends move back home.

It’s adequately motivated by a 152-hp 2.0-L four-cylinder engine, mated to a five-speed manual gearbox or optional continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission. The car handles better than most economy cars; credit the Lancer’s alter-ego, the high-performance Evo. Most Lancers come with a big spoiler sprouting from the trunk lid – we’d pay a premium for one without it.

The made-in-Japan Lancer doesn’t break much. Gripes are limited to easily chipped paint, short-lived clutches, a few failed CVT transmissions and unwelcome rattles. Some drivers dislike the CVT’s sluggish behaviour, which can stifle a lot of forward thrust from the four banger, especially when the air conditioner is running.


2010-12 Kia Soul

Campus Cars

We can’t think of a better student (or hamster) driving appliance than the quirky but endearing Kia Soul. Built on the modified front-drive platform of the Rio subcompact, the Soul conceals its econobox roots but delivers a lot of the cheap-to-own benefits. Owners rave about its cheerful cabin, eye-searing paint colours, refined demeanor and student-friendly tech options.

The Soul yields a surprising amount of interior space for occupants and cargo, thanks to its tall-box profile. There are two available engines: a base 1.6-L four-cylinder making 122 hp and a 2.0-L four putting out 142 horses – the latter of which works better with the six-speed automatic transmission.

Liabilities include big blind spots to the rear, road noise, susceptibility to crosswinds and scratch-prone plastic in the cabin. Reliability has been above reproach. Reported boo-boos include easily chipped paint and windshields, faulty brake-light switches and some rattles. Some worn steering linkages have been reported; there’s a recall for selected model years.


2010-11 Mazda3

Campus Cars

Redesigned for 2010, the Mazda3 is an overachieving driver’s car that elevates it well above the economy-car class average. It’s almost too good to hand over to a student. Still, the back seat is a little cramped for friends, the trunk is a tad small and some people may find the ride stiff – the downside of driving a sweet-handling car.

Available in four-door sedan and five-door hatchback configurations, the 3 is powered by a 148-hp 2.0-L DOHC four cylinder carried over from the previous 3, paired with either a five-speed stick or five-speed automatic transmission. There’s a bigger 2.5-L four, too, but it’s very fond of gasoline.

Reliability-wise the Mazda3 has a manual-transmission clutch that wears unusually quickly (not an issue when most students will opt for the automatic), the tire valve stems may fail and there’s reports of collapsed driver’s seats due to broken seat height adjustment lifter links. Fortunately, Mazda is repairing them through a recall campaign.

Buying a car? Take Time to Research Financing Options

2008-09 Subaru Impreza

Campus Cars

Living in Canada’s snowbelt provides an understandable predilection for all-wheel drive. But it doesn’t have to be an SUV. With its standard symmetrical AWD system always churning, the Subaru Impreza is immensely stable at speed and in all conditions. Buyers can choose between four-door sedan and hatchback configurations.

Subaru’s 2.5-L SOHC flat-four engine puts out 170 hp, working through a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. The engine is a “boxer” design, meaning that the cylinders are horizontally opposed, two to a side, laying flat and low to reduce the car’s centre of gravity. Fuel use is a little thirsty, but it’s a big four cylinder and there’s a toll for four-wheel traction.

Mechanical issues reveal a few leaky head gaskets, weak clutches and easily chipped paint. You may be challenged finding a good example for $8,000 since Canucks covet their Subies and depreciation is slow. The good news is when you sell it later, you’re bound to get lots of your money back.


2009-11 Honda Civic

Campus Cars

Here’s a business case study: how did a motorcycle company figure out what makes a great small car? The Honda Civic’s sleek styling and upscale cabin contradict its economy-car mission, while refined drivetrains work seamlessly to deliver good power and fuel economy. What’s nice is there’s a two-door coupe available, in addition to the popular four-door sedan.

Inside is a two-tiered instrument panel with an analog tachometer, while a digital speedometer lives near the windshield to help keep the driver’s eyes focused on distance. The chain-driven 1.8-L SOHC four cylinder is good for 140 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque, working through either a manual or automatic transmission, both with five gears.

Prior to 2009, porous aluminum engine blocks and uneven rear tire wear caused by faulty upper control arms marred what was supposed to be a flawless reputation. The 2009-11 Civic corrected those problems, though some owners had to contend with premature brake wear, broken engine mounts, short-lived a/c condensers and clearcoat delamination. Hey, nobody’s perfect.


2012-13 Hyundai Accent

Campus Cars

The subcompact Hyundai Accent impresses with its surprisingly opulent furnishings and features on a mac-and-cheese budget. Available as a four-door sedan or five-door hatchback, the cabin is rendered in good materials and pleasing shapes. There are nice things inside this small package.

Outside, the fourth-generation Accent saw the previous car’s forgettable styling replaced with crisp European lines stretched over an 8-cm longer wheelbase that yields more legroom inside. The Accent’s lone engine is a direct-injected 1.6-L four-cylinder good for 138 hp, working through either a manual or automatic transmission, both with six gears.

Ride and handling characteristics are appreciably better than the subcompact class average. In U.S. government testing, the Accent earned four out of five stars for overall crash protection, frontal impact and side intrusion. There are few reliability complaints beyond a common gripe that the manual gearbox’s clutch may wear out rapidly. The car’s Korean tires are known for developing sidewall bulges and checking out early.


2009-12 Suzuki SX4

Campus Cars

Suzuki may have left Canada for greener pastures, but it also left us with a bunch of orphaned SX4 sedans and five-door hatchbacks that have held up well. Most are front-drive models, although there are some all-wheel-drive SX4s with an electric solenoid-operated clutch pack that activates the rear wheels when required. It can also be locked in 4×4 mode, an unusual feature in a crossover.

The SX4 offers a generous greenhouse and tall seating, giving occupants the illusion – and the esteem – of riding in a five-eighths-scale minivan. Power is supplied by a 2.0-L four cylinder making 143 hp, tied to a five-speed manual gearbox or four-speed automatic transmission, the latter replaced by a CVT in 2010.

The made-in-Japan SX4 has drawn little criticism in terms of its dependability. The air conditioner may stop working because the electromagnet compressor clutch failed. Faulty airbag warning lamps and seat sensors have been the subject of a recall. Suzuki reportedly still supports authorized service centres, though buying a moribund brand entitles you to a hefty discount.

Used Car Myths Busted

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