9 Non-Boring Cars to Take Back to School
Plus the cars we lusted after in high school.
You did it. You got the driver's license. Some of your peers may be too busy staring at their iPhones to bother with a driving test, but you realize real freedom comes from being behind the wheel. But from behind the wheel of what? Don't worry, the editors of AUTOMOBILE have got you covered. We've come up with a list of the 9 best new cars to drive to school.
If you're a parent who's happened upon this list, you may be wondering: why get a young driver a new car at all? The answer is safety. We love old cars as much as anyone—more than most, actually—but there's no denying new cars do a better job surviving and avoiding accidents, thanks to tougher crash testing, standard stability control, and widely available Bluetooth connectivity. And just because you survived high school driving a Nova with rusted floor pans doesn't mean your kid will.
Our list takes into consideration both teenage yearning and parental practicality. Insurance nightmares like ponycars thus did not make the cut, and we didn't include anything with a base price much higher than $25,000. But every single car on our list can be had with a manual transmission, two of them are rear-wheel drive, and all of them are fun. Because no one, regardless of their age, should be in a boring car.
And, just to prove that we remember how it feels to be young, restless, and car-obsessed, we've asked several editors to recall the cars they wanted in high school. You'll find those memoirs below each entry.
There are plenty of cars these days that go fast. The Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S will teach you how to go fast. The 2.0-liter flat-four engine has enough power to chirp the rear wheels and hoon when no one's watching. But to actually make time in this thing, you'll need to master the much more difficult art of driving smoothly. The chassis responds to your inputs with blunt honestly—overdrive it and you'll have trouble keeping up with Mom's Subaru Outback, get it right and you'll embarrass the rich kids driving their dad's sports cars.
Speaking of Mom and her Outback, you should tell her that this sports car is still a Subaru (or a Toyota, if she owns a Camry). That means it scores extremely well on both NHTSA and IIHS safety tests and returns 30 mpg on the highway (34 mpg with the optional automatic).
When we were young
Michael Jordan, West Coast editor
I wanted a Lotus 7. First, it was a front-engine F1-style car, and about as close in spirit to Jimmy Clark's Lotus 33 as you could come. Second, the roads that twisted through redwoods of the San Francisco Peninsula were perfect for a car that was all about simplicity and lightness. The persistent fog would keep the British engine from puking out all its coolant. And finally, Patrick McGoohan drove one as No. 6 in "The Prisoner," and in high school you couldn't help but feel like a prisoner.
The Ford Fiesta ST is probably the best performance-car bargain going right now. For $21,845, you get a punchy turbo four-cylinder, four sticky summer tires, great seats, a good manual transmission, and a warranty. What else do you need?
And it's a tough little bugger. We've taken our Four Season's Ford Fiesta ST to a track day, three autocross events, an ice racing event, and a rally. She rattles, but she still rolls.
When we were young
Kara Snow, copy editor
Mitch was a senior at a neighboring high school when I was a junior at San Luis Obispo High School on the Central Coast of California. He was cute enough: slicked-back black hair, thick sideburns, blue eyes, and a Cheshire Cat smile. He didn't say much, instead keeping his lips busy with a chain of Camels Unfiltered. He liked me for some reason, and I liked him all right, but what really thrilled me about him was his car: a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air.
I was always a Euro car girl. Part of it was a rebellion to reject anything my Ford Mustang-loving dad thought was "cool." I dreamed of sleek, sexy Alfa Romeo Spiders, Porsche 356 Carrera Speedsters, Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprites, even two-stroke Saab Sonnetts. If it was zippy and petite and sat only the driver and a friend, it was my bag, baby. The '57 Bel Air, however, has always been the hulking, hell-raising, boisterous American exception to my tiny coupe fascination.
The one Mitch had was a four-door Sport in Tropical Turquoise with gray vinyl and black cloth interior. And whitewalls. The Sport trim had no B-pillar to split up the front and rear side windows, giving the seven or eight passengers a panoramic view as you cruised. The big picture window up front meant perfect viewing at the drive-in movies, even from the back seat. The best thing about the Bel Air was its greased-lightning speed, created by a 4.6-liter V-8 with two four-barrel carburetors and Duntov cams and fuel injection, giving that sweet ride a full 283 horses. We'd prowl the streets of our sleepy college town, searching for willing contenders and red lights, ripping their doors off right at the line and disappearing before the cops got a whiff of our oil-heavy exhaust. Most times, we'd glide across the countryside, listening to Wolfman Jack on the radio and inhaling the warm summer air thick with the scent of oak trees, jasmine, and fresh-cut hay.
In the 30 years since then, I've owned a grande gruppo of classic European sports cars as well as my fair share of cowboy trucks, surfer vans, and punk-rock rat mobiles. I've never even been close to getting my hands on my own two-tone, big-finned "king of the short tracks." But for as long as I'm able to cruise the highways, I will always feel the sweet pangs of a teen's puppy love for the 1957 Chevy Bel Air.
2015 Volkswagen Jetta
In the late '90s through the early 2000s, the smartly styled, fun-to-drive VW Jetta was the unofficial car of That Cute Girl Who Likes Theater Group. Then, in 2011, Volkswagen ruined the car—made it cheaper, uglier, and worse to drive. The theater girls cried (we were not sure if they were acting).
But Volkswagen, to its credit, has vastly improved the Jetta. The uncouth base five-cylinder is gone, replaced by an excellent 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder (a smaller 1.4-liter turbo has just joined the lineup). The rear suspension is once again a smooth-riding independent setup rather than torsion beam.
As a result, the Jetta is once again a smart, nice-driving German car in a segment full of bland sedans. It says, "I can't afford an Audi just yet, but I'll know what to buy when I make it on Broadway."
When we were young
Eric Weiner, daily news editor
There's no better car to lust after than one owned by some prick you have to see every day. The car? A beautiful, silver E36 BMW M3 coupe. The prick? Dean of Students at my high school. I was already a BMW geek at this point, having seen Goldeneye and become infatuated with the Z3, so having to see an M car zoom into the faculty parking lot every morning as I walked through the front doors of my school was simultaneously thrilling and punishing. The Dean was the kind of guy who handed out detentions for his own enjoyment, as if his frigid soul were powered by the collective sorrow of the student body. It definitely enforced all of the stereotypes I'd heard about BMW owners, but I still had a hard time wrestling with the swell of envy that overwhelmed me every time I saw him drive off in that M3. In fact, I'm starting to hate-type over this. My dad used to pick me up from school well after the closing bell, on his way back from work, and I spent many hours looking at the M3's hard, clean lines; low stance; and polished aluminum wheels; wondering how great cars can happen to shitty people.
2015 Honda Fit
If there's a car engineered specifically for the needs of a student, it's the Honda Fit. Cheap to buy, cheap to run, reliable, and incredibly versatile. It'll happily haul all your earthly belongings from home to school or, eventually, to the dorm.
When it's not carrying stuff, the Honda Fit is a fun little car to drive. It has a fantastic manual gearbox, a willing (if not always able) four-cylinder engine, and responsive steering. To top it off it looks…well, it looks like a fish on roller skates. But if you're interested purely in looking cool, you're checking out the wrong list.
When we were young
Mac Morrison, executive editor
I lusted after anything Porsche. This stems from my father, who never owned a Porsche and, I've realized recently, was never really as crazy about the brand as I've become. He simply thought Porsches were nice. The elementary-school age me, however, did not understand this, so when he once or twice pondered buying a new 944, I was overcome by images of hopping into a German sports car for weekend drives through the woods. He never did buy a 944 or any other Porsche, opting instead to remarry and buy a Ford Aerostar. A few years later, in my senior year in high school, my best friend and his father semi-restored a 1977 911—midnight blue, turbo body and whale tail included. My friend drove it as his daily driver. On the days it ran. His dad pulled the plug when, if I recall correctly, the transmission died. I still remember my pal informing me of this disturbing development. I don't think I cried, but the news upset me a lot more than it did him. I told him that between his father and my own, I had a terrible childhood. Funny thing is, now I wish we still had that rear-wheel-drive Aerostar.
2015 Chevrolet Colorado
Those of us of a certain age can remember when compact trucks like the Chevrolet S10 and Ford Ranger filled high school parking lots. The 2015 Chevrolet Colorado is a lot like those trucks, only it's much safer and much better to drive. The base four-cylinder is more than enough for daily driving duty. If you can learn to work the sloppy 6-speed manual, everything you drive after will feel easy.
When we were young
David Zenlea, senior editor
I've already written way too much about my high school ride, a 2000 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP. I loved it because it had enough power to do front-wheel burnouts and because it was mine. OK, it was my mom's. Anyway, had you asked me then, I'd probably have told you I dreamed of buying a Pontiac GTO or a Chevrolet Corvette, which had more power and could do rear-wheel burnouts.
I did, however, get my first taste of more refined automobiles when I learned to drive a manual transmission on my friend Nick Cho's 2003 Honda Accord LX. Not a dream car, by any estimation. Actually, quite a bit slower than my Pontiac. Yet the sensitivity of the steering wheel, the eagerness of the four-cylinder engine, and the delight of working a five-speed made me realize, for the first time, that the joy of driving is entirely disconnected from a car's horsepower figure.
I've been a car enthusiast my whole life, but I might never have become a car connoisseur had I not gotten a chance to drive that Accord.
If your parents offer to help you buy a Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic, say thanks, but then suggest you all look at a Mazda3 instead. It's as reliable and efficient as those better-selling Japanese compacts, but it looks great (especially as a hatchback), has a richer interior with better technology, and drives oh so much better.
When we were young
Chris Nelson, senior editor
Looking back, I don't know why I wanted anything other than my 1993 Acura Integra LS, which was a fantastic, handsome, well-rounded car. To be young and dumb, I guess, so I lusted over cars worse than mine: one guy's Mitsubishi 3000GT, one guy's tuned Eagle Talon TSi, and another guy's '32 Deuce, which bogged down and died if it took a turn too hard. Oh, and I made out with a girl once so I could drive her 2005 Ford Mustang GT. Did an epic burnout. Totally worth it.
2015 Jeep Renegade
You want a Jeep Wrangler, and we don't blame you. Wranglers are awesome. Just sitting in a Wrangler lifts you to the next social stratus and makes your acne less noticeable. The trouble is, the affordable two-door Wranglers are still not very safe by modern car standards—they come only with front airbags and perform poorly on side-impact tests. And although the Wrangler drives much better than it used to, it could still be handful for a new driver. The Jeep Renegade, on the other hand, drives like the largish Fiat 500 it basically is and comes with the sort of safety features you'd expect of a car engineered after World War II, including side-curtain airbags. For all that, it carries that ineffable Jeep charisma. You'll want to play hookie and drive it to the beach.
When we were young
Joey Capparella, daily news editor
I wasn't allowed to have my own car in high school, so I was jealous of just about everyone's ride—be it an old Volvo station wagon, a 1988 Honda Accord, or an early-90s Buick Century. But there were a few cars that made me particularly envious. One kid a few years older than me had a silver Acura RSX Type S, which made puttering around in my dad's three-speed-automatic Toyota Corolla even more depressing. Another friend's parents bought a brand-new, E46-generation BMW 325i in dark blue with a five-speed manual. I frequently rode in the cramped back seat, listened to the sound of the inline six, and longed for the day when I'd learn how to operate a clutch pedal.
2015 Subaru XV Crosstrek
If you live somewhere snowy, muddy, mountainous, or some combination of the three, consider the Subaru Impreza XV Crosstrek before defaulting to some big SUV. Its standard all-wheel-drive system and slightly raised suspension can take you almost everywhere (even Iceland). And while we hate to credit Subaru stylists for something as lazy as adding body cladding, the Crosstrek does look more than the librarian's special Impreza.
When we were young
Jake Holmes, daily news editor
I learned to drive on a Volkswagen Jetta (2.0-liter engine and automatic transmission). So, naturally, I lusted after all of Volkswagen's performance cars. When the R32 came out, I knew it was the car for me. A 3.2-liter VR6 engine gave you 240 hp (which was a lot back then), and a six-speed manual was the only transmission choice. I obsessed over the fantastic details—a cool body kit, a new three-spoke steering wheel, metal pedals, racier instruments, and a dual exhausts that sounded glorious. Considering that I soon managed to get a speeding ticket in my actual high school ride, a 115-hp Chevrolet Cavalier, it's probably a good thing I didn't have an R32.
2015 Nissan Juke
It takes guts to be weird in high school. The Nissan Juke will help you pull it off. It looks like it was styled by a team of motorcyclists and herpetologists (people who study of frogs, not people who study herpes), and it drives something like a Mario Kart, with quick steering responses and a punchy acceleration. Optional torque-vectoring all-wheel drive aids handling, but the cheaper front-wheel-drive model is just as fun and can be had with manual transmission in the Nismo version.