If you’re headed to university and becoming a student, then owning a car can be an extremely handy way of getting around. However, prohibitive insurance costs mean that you’re unlikely to be able to get a new car for your time on campus. Here we round up some of the best used buys for a variety of modest student budgets.
In a lot of ways, a cheap car is a good choice. Not only will the insurance be more affordable, but you should have fewer concerns about the car suffering parking dings or interior damage. You can get a surprising amount of car for your money these days, too, but our recommendations here are designed to offer low running costs, both in terms of insurance, fuel and road tax costs.
Of course, we’re aware that most students will be turing to the bank of mum and dad to help pay for a car to get to university. And most parents will be happy to buy a set of wheels for their kids if it means they don’t need to ferry their loved ones to and from university at the start and end of every term.
One useful item that’s worth adding to any car that will help to reduce running costs is a car insurance ‘black box’. This is an electronic device that allows an insurance company to monitor how a car is driven. If it’s being driven carefully, then insurance costs will be reduced for whoever is at the wheel.
Another thing you should seek out is a car with a 12 month MoT. This will give some peace of mind that if any issues arise you’ll have time to get them addressed before the next MoT test is due. One handy tool at your disposal is the DVLA’s MoT checker: simply enter a car’s registration, and you will see a history of its MoT passes and, more importantly, its failures all the way back to 2005 (although this isn’t available for cars tested in Northern Ireland). Of course if a car has had more failures than passes, and failures on something more critical than consumables such as a broken windscreen, blown lightbulbs or worn tyres, then maybe it’s worth looking elsewhere, as there are plenty of choices at our different price points.
We’d advise signing up to a breakdown service for some added peace of mind, too. Then, if your car does let you down, at least you’ll have somebody to help you get home whether your car is fixable or in need of a tow.
If your budget allows, then an aftermarket warranty will also help to take the sting out of buying a used car. But the cost of one of these can be pricey when compared to how much you’ll be paying for the car in the first place, so we’d only advise on getting an aftermarket warranty if you have the money to spare.
A better option would be to get your car inspected and serviced before heading off to university. Do this, and you will know if there’s any issues that need addressing – preventative maintenance will usually less expensive than fixing problems when they do arise.
With these points in mind, we’ve picked three cars in three price bands that will be a good choice for the student on the move. Find a good example of any one of these, and you’ll have a car that will be useful around campus, as well as giving you the ability to venture further afield and back home under your own steam.
On a budget of £1,500
Honda Civic (2001-2005)
If you want reliable student transport, then you can’t go wrong with a Honda. At this price point, you could go for the Jazz supermini, but its status as a pensioner’s dream machine probably won’t cut it on campus. Instead, we’d go for an EP3-generation Civic. Not only should it run like clockwork, but it’ll have a bit more space than a supermini, yet still be small enough to be easy to manage for an inexperienced driver.
We found a few examples with less than 90,000 miles on the clock at this price point, which isn’t a mileage to be feared in a car like a Honda. Find an SE Executive model, and you’ll get a decent amount of kit for your cash, too, with luxuries such as leather, electric windows, climate control and remote central locking all available.
Nissan Micra (2002-2011)
If you’re a student, it’s highly likely that you’ll also be a new driver. And if that’s the case, you need a car that inspires confidence at the wheel. As well as needing to be reliable, it could do with being easy to drive, and the tall shape and big windows of the Nissan Micra help you to see your surroundings. Another bonus is the high-set headlights. Not only do they let you know where the front corners are, but the lights themselves are pretty good for night driving.
You can get 1.2 or 1.4 petrol power, and because these cars are popular with older drivers, then you should be able to source a well cared for 2004-2006 example with a full Nissan dealer history and a mileage that’s well below the average for a car of this age.
Kia Picanto (2004-2011)
If it looks like there’s a theme with our cheap student cars, and it’s one that’s backed up by our past Driver Power surveys, then it’s the fact that cars from the Far East are likely to be more reliable than those from elsewhere in the world. And if a small city car is what you’re after, then the Kia Picanto is worth a look. It was one of the first cars from Kia to shed its budget image, and while it’s pretty basic now, it should keep on motoring when rivals have been scrapped.
There’s no glamour to go with a first generation Picanto, it really is just a means to an end for somebody that needs to get around, although if you’re not so worried about mileage then a later 2007 post-facelift car with smarter looks is within reach. This car also comes with the industry-wide standard of having the indicator stalk to the left of the steering wheel and windscreen wipers to the right, which is the opposite on the earlier model.
On a budget of £2,000
Renault Clio (2005-2012)
French cars have a reputation for unreliability that’s largely unfounded these days, and the Renault Clio actually shares plenty of tech with the Micra in our £1,500 category. It looks a bit more stylish than the Nissan, while kit such as cruise control and steering wheel controls for the stereo are available.
The Clio Mk3 comes as a three or five-door, and there’s even an estate version if you’re really concerned about getting all your clobber to and from campus each term. This price bracket can even get you a hugely economical Clio dCi diesel, if you’re planning on taking up a placement at a far-flung uni well away from home.
Toyota Aygo (2005-2014)
We’ve picked the Aygo here, but you can just as much select its Citroen C1 or Peugeot 107 siblings, as all three are built in the same factory and use the same advanced 1.0-litre three cylinder engine under the bonnet. This was developed by Toyota, so there should be any concerns with its reliability, either.
Toyota offered a number of special editions of Aygo, called Blue, Black and Platinum, among others, and these offer additional kit that makes them tempting. All cars feature an aux-in socket, so you can plug in a smartphone or MP3 player and have all your music playing over the speakers. All cars offer a great drive in the city, although longer trips are a bit of a chore. At least that small capacity engine means road tax is cheap.
Mazda 2 (2007-2014)
A small car that’s good to drive will help boost a new driver’s confidence, and not many cars are better than the Mazda 2 in that regard. This generation features a platform that’s shared with the equally fun Ford Fiesta, but the fact the 2 is built in Japan might help give more confidence that it’ll last.
There are sharp looks, and a decent amount of space inside, while a 1.3-litre petrol engine is offered, which is eager to rev and make the most of the Mazda 2’s fun handling. Again, you can find a decent example with a reasonably low mileage at this price point.
On a budget of £3,000
It’s the small car that a lot of people aspire to, and a budget of £3,000 will get you behind the wheel of a MINI One three-door. Not only will you get the popular retro looks, but the One is an affordable car to run, with low insurance costs and pretty economical engines. Don’t expect to be able to carry many friends, but fun handling and decent comfort offset this.
Of course the amount of personalisation available to new MINI buyers means that you are spoiled for choice when buying used. A lot of the optional extras buyers could add don’t really add much in the way of value when it comes to sell on, so you can pay a few pounds extra to get a well specced MINI One. Check a car’s history carefully, though – if something big needs fixing, you can expect a large bill from a main dealer.
Ford Fiesta Mk7 (2009-2018)
Boost your budget to £3,000, and you start to get into the realms of cars with modern connectivity. While Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are still a little way off, USB connections start to appear alongside the usual Aux and 12 Volt sockets on the kit list in cars like the Ford Fiesta.
Another luxury you might find is sat-nav, although how useful this will be is open to question, as the software will need regularly updating to remain current, which can be a pricey job at a main dealer. And dealers are one reason to go for a Fiesta. While it should prove reliable, if you do have trouble, Ford’s 700-plus dealer network means there won’t be one too far from your campus. You’ll have plenty of fun getting there courtesy of the Fiesta’s entertaining handling, too.
Suzuki Swift (2004-2010)
A bit of a left field choice this one, but the Suzuki Swift combines the best of Japanese reliability with looks that are a bit like a MINI’s. In addition, it’s great to drive, so it’s another small car that will inspire confidence from behind the wheel. Suzuki dealers aren’t as common as Ford ones, but you should get good service when you find one, although apart from regular servicing you’re unlikely to need to visit one.
Cabin space is pretty good, too, with just as much room inside as rival models. Power comes from a 1.2-litre petrol engine, or the super-rare yet extremely economical 1.3 DDiS diesel. If your insurance allows, there’s even the pocket rocket Swift Sport to consider. Even better is that this generation Swift is the second generation, and yet it looks largely similar to the later Mk3, and again, most cars will have been studiously looked after by a typically older owner.
Read more of our best car recommendations…