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Six Back-To-School Cars for $9,000

The focus here is on economy models that are good at avoiding service-centre hoists.
Mark Toljagic

“I’m not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia,” baseball great Yogi Berra once remarked. “Let them walk to school like I did.”

The cost of higher education is getting, well, higher. It sometimes has to do with where students choose to live. Take up residence at a Canadian college or university and rent will amount to about $9,000 for eight months of campus living.

Being automobile buffs, we humbly suggest an alternative: Spend that $9,000 on a reliable used car.

Equipped with an inexpensive car, a smart student could live comfortably at home – with fridge privileges – and commute to their suburban campus if it’s a manageable distance. Here are six recommended used cars you can find today for less than $9,000 plus the cost of a set of winter tires.

The focus here is on economy models that are good at avoiding service-centre hoists. Remember, you don’t have to be registered at college to buy one. Anyone on a budget will benefit from these cheap and cheerful rides.

2011-14 Scion xD

Back-To-School Cars

As Toyota’s former youth-oriented brand, Scion wooed Generation Y using viral and guerrilla marketing techniques that were hit and miss. Same could be said of the models, a collection of blocky little cars that, fortunately, featured reliable Toyota hardware underneath. The Scion xD is the most affordable of the bunch, a relatively obscure five-door wagon that relies on Corolla bits to run.

The xD’s funky cabin is small but tall; seats are upright and headroom is generous. Rear passengers enjoy ample space thanks to the flat floor, sliding bench and reclining seatbacks, but cargo space takes a bit of a hit. The xD is safe with a top score of five stars in U.S. government crash tests for both front and rear passenger safety in a side impact collision, and four stars in a front-end collision.

Back-To-School Cars

This Scion’s 128-hp 1.8-L four cylinder is just quick enough to get out of its own way, but won’t encourage any late-night racing. While it’s a dull driver, it rarely breaks. The xD was named by Consumer Reports as the most reliable new automobile for 2009 with 83 per cent fewer problems than average.


2010-11 Subaru Impreza

Back-To-School Cars

Increasingly Canadians want the all-weather capability of all-wheel drive, especially for their kids, and Subaru delivers the goods with its trademark symmetrical AWD standard in its entry-level economy car, the Impreza. Available as a sedan and five-door hatch, this generation uses Subaru’s 170-hp, 2.5-L SOHC flat-four engine working through a five-speed manual or a four-speed conventional automatic transmission (and not a belted CVT).

The cabin is a pleasant space that belies the Impreza’s econobox mission. Everything is laid out thoughtfully and the view all around is very good for young drivers. The five-door’s split rear bench seat folds flat, making a flexible cargo hold that’s handy for helping friends move back home from campus.

Back-To-School Cars

With its AWD system always operating (many crossovers use a part-time system), the Impreza is stable at speed and in all kinds of conditions. Fuel consumption is a little heavy for a four cylinder, but that’s the toll you pay for all-wheel traction. Mechanical issues reveal a few leaky head gaskets, weak clutches, and easily chipped paint. Monitor the dipstick for oil consumption, which is a known problem with Subie’s 2.5-L engine.


2010 Volkswagen Golf

2012 VW Golf


The sixth generation of the Volkswagen Golf saw the North America-only Rabbit nameplate disappear and the new car injected with more helpings of refinement and tangible quality. The redesigned Golf provided ample room for people and cargo in versatile three- and five-door hatchback configurations while riding on the previous front-drive platform.

Those weaned on Hondas and Toyotas are often struck by the upscale feel of a German car with its robust construction, strong safety features, good feature content, and quiet and comfortable ride. Base models use a 2.5-L inline five-cylinder gasoline engine derived from a Lamborghini V-10 engine split in half. The powerplant produces 170 hp and a robust 177 pound-feet of torque, making it well suited to the automatic transmission Canadians favour.

2012 VW Golf interior


Imported from Germany, the Golf 2.5 has exhibited better durability than any VW in recent memory. That said, watch for the occasional knock sensor or secondary air pump tripping the Check Engine light. Also, the door locks and sunroof can get fussy. Unfortunately, five cylinders will burn more fuel than four, even in a small car. Avoid the TDI and 2.0T models. 

2010-11 Mazda3

Back-To-School Cars

The Mazda3 has won a lot of fans in Canada, especially in Quebec, being renowned for its refinement and sweet handling that easily show up its econobox competitors. Available in four-door sedan and five-door hatchback configurations, the 3 is powered by a 148-hp 2.0-L DOHC four cylinder paired with either a five-speed stick or five-speed automatic transmission.

There’s a high-efficiency “Skyactiv” powertrain that arrived for 2012 that’s just beyond the budget we’ve set here, but the regular engine is sufficiently energetic and frugal for a student’s budget anyway. The cabin is nicely appointed – rivaling the standard seen in German cars – though the back seat is a little cramped, as is the trunk, and some people may find the ride a little stiff.

Back-To-School Cars

Mazda still exports some of its models from Japan, including this generation of the 3, so reliability is uncommonly good. It does suffer from a manual-transmission clutch that wears prematurely (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 links. Mazda has addressed the latter two issues with recall campaigns.


2009-10 Honda Fit

Back-To-School Cars

The wee Honda Fit is a prodigy of exceptional packaging. By locating the fuel tank under the front seats and specifying a compact torsion-beam rear suspension, engineers created deep cargo space and a back seat that imitates a Swiss Army knife. The 60/40-split rear bench could fold down to the floor for long cargo, or the seat bottoms could fold up against the seat back, opening a tall floor-to-ceiling cavity for bulky items.

Sold as a five-door hatchback, the redesigned 2009 Fit benefited from some tweaks to make it a lively driver. And thanks to more high-tensile steel in the unibody, the Fit is small but safe. The U.S. government agency NHTSA gave it mostly five stars in crash testing, while the insurance industry awarded a mostly good rating (its highest), making it an IIHS Top Safety Pick in 2009.

Back-To-School Cars

The Fit’s 117-hp 1.5-L four-cylinder engine, working through a five-speed manual transmission or conventional five-speed automatic, provides enough spunk to move this flyweight with some authority. A few noteworthy quality lapses in the Japanese-made Fit include faulty air conditioners, intermittent electric steering, faded paint, and water leaks infiltrating the cabin.


2009-11 Toyota Matrix

Back-To-School Cars

Apparently inspired by a Keanu Reeves movie, Toyota’s Matrix is a compact five-door hatchback that makes use of its Corolla underpinnings to great effect. The car’s tall stance and flat floor provide good room inside – taking five in a pinch – although the cargo hold is pretty meagre. Passengers will find comfortable seating, though taller drivers may wish for a bit more legroom.

The base engine is a 1.8-L four cylinder making 132 hp, while a torque-rich, 158-hp 2.4-L four lifted from the Camry powers XR models. The 1.8 makes do with an old-but-trusty four-speed slushbox (or five-speed stick), while the larger engine works with a five-speed automatic transmission and optional all-wheel drive. If fuel economy is a priority, pick the smaller engine.

Back-To-School Cars

The Matrix found an appreciative audience in Canada thanks to its frugal ways and bulletproof reliability. Mechanical problems? Watch for oil burning inherent in both engines, as well as finicky issues with the Matrix’s electronic stability control and brake sensors, which will trip the dashboard warning lights. The mechanically identical Pontiac Vibe is an equally good buy if you come across one.
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