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Top 10 New Cars for Back to School

by Jeffrey N. Ross
August 11, 2009

As the summer months come to a close, three words haunt more teenagers than any other phrase: back to school. For those of driving age, however, this can be a great opportunity to show off the money earned from that grueling summer job by pulling up for the first day of school in a brand new car. Keeping the restrictions of budget and insurance premiums in mind, we came up with the coolest cars out right now that would make driving high schooler a little less anxious about the first day of class.

With just about three weeks left until the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, we looked at affordable cars with distinctive, fashionable styling and enough room to carpool and came up with the Top 10 New Cars for Back to School. We tried to keep the list reasonable, too, as cars like the Chevy Camaro and Ford Mustang could easily make this list, but neither car is very practical due to the high insurance premiums.

Kia Soul - See right panel.

Nissan Cube For those who truly want to stand out in the student parking lot, our top two vehicles are a great way to do just that. First up, the Nissan cube. Like its name suggests, the cube is about as boxy as a car can get, but its odd shape gives it incredible dimensions inside. Starting at $13,990, the 2009 Nissan cube isn't going to win any beauty contests but is about as practical as a compact five-door can get. With Nissan's optional XTronic CVT (continuously variable transmission), the 2009 Nissan cube gets almost as good fuel economy in the city as it does on the highway with EPA estimates of 28 mpg and 30 mpg, respectively.

Chevrolet Cobalt In XFE trim, the Chevrolet is one of the most fuel efficient vehicles in its class, but toss in the souped-up SS model, and the Cobalt range is probably one of the most exhilarating compact vehicles. Available as either a coupe or a sedan, the 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt gets up to 37 mpg on the highway with a base price starting at just $14,990. Of course, the coolest version of the Cobalt is the 260-horsepower SS model that still gets 30 mpg on the highway but price is bumped up considerably to $23,525 for the turbocharged engine, sport-tuned suspension and aggressive body kit. One thing we liked about the Cobalt is its styling that is somewhere between the overly conservative Toyota Corolla and the wedge-shaped Honda Civic.

Mazda MAZDA3 When it comes to sporty compact sedans and hatchbacks, the Mazda MAZDA3 has had a stranglehold on the market for some time. Redesigned for 2010, the MAZDA3 pulled off a complete change without messing with the recipe for success that put it at the top of its class in terms of styling, comfort and performance. Starting at $15,045, the 2010 Mazda MAZDA3 sedan is quite a value, but stepping up to the five-door hatchback version of the 3 will come at a premium with prices starting at $19,230. The base MAZDA3 sedan offers a more fuel-efficient engine option that increase EPA estimate for highway driving up to 33, but the more powerful engine used in both the upgraded sedan and the hatchback adds power but drops fuel economy down to 29 mpg on the highway.

Nissan Versa Out of our top 10 list, the Nissan Versa is probably the most unique of the bunch as it competes with subcompact vehicles, but it offers enough interior space to qualify it as a midsize vehicle according to the EPA. Besides its spacious seating for five passengers, the Versa also offers the convenience of Bluetooth connectivity, an in-dash, six-disk CD changer with MP3 capabilities and an auxiliary jack. Although the base Versa sedan is the second least expensive vehicle on the market at $9,990, our favorite model for this list is the five-door hatchback that starts at $13,110. Unfortunately, Nissan's XTronic CVT (continuously variable transmission) is not available on the base model, but fuel economy on the highway is still rated at up to 32 mpg.

Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe The Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe are sister vehicles that both happen to be sporty hatchbacks aiming at a sub-crossover demographic. Despite the fact that the Pontiac Vibe will cease to exist following a brief 2010 model year and the Toyota Matrix may not be far behind as a result, both cars are among the most versatile and sporty vehicles in this class with low starting MSRPs. For 2010, the Pontiac Vibe has a starting price of $16,100, while the Matrix starts at $16,550, but both cars get 32 mpg on the highway. The spacious, utilitarian cabin offers plenty of room for people and cargo which would make the car a great choice for loading up friends for a Friday night football game.

Ford Focus coupe Ford's Focus may ride on an antiquated chassis, but the car's sporty coupe model and interior goodies are really what help get this car on our list. Without getting too fancy, the $15,995 Focus coupe comes standard with Ford's MyKey technology and has the option for the voice-activated Sync system - both of which help reduce the distractions of young drivers. Ford's MyKey is designed to give parents control of certain aspects of the car including top speed, the inability to turn off traction control and have the stereo muted if seatbelts are not properly worn. When equipped with the five-speed manual transmission, the 2009 Ford Focus has EPA fuel economy estimates of 35 mpg on the highway.

MINI Cooper Like the Volvo C30, the 2009 MINI Cooper may only be attainable to students whose summer jobs paid a littler higher than average, but this little retro hatchback is about as good as it gets when it comes to getting both a fun-to-drive car and an economical, fuel-efficient car. The advantage of the Cooper is that it comes in three different body styles (Hardtop Coupe, Convertible and Clubman wagon) for prices that range between $18,550 and $20,200. The old-school styling would definitely stand out in a sea of hand-me-down sedans, but the true highlight of the Cooper lineup is the peppy engine and nimble suspension. Of course having EPA fuel economy estimates that max out at 37 mpg on the highway generally won't hurt the car's likeability either.

Volvo C30 Made popular by a certain vampire love story movie, the 2009 Volvo C30 is a sporty three-door hatchback with unique Volvo styling. Based off the S40 sedan, the four-passenger C30 is highlighted by its sporty turbocharged engine, all-wheel drive system and distinctive hatchback looks. The Volvo C30 may not be in the budget for all teenage drivers with a starting MSRP of $24,100, but with Volvo's track record for safety, the Volvo should add a sense of security for parents. Despite its sporty design, the 2009 C30 still gets decent fuel economy with EPA estimates of 28 mpg on the highway.

Hyundai Accent Nothing could be cooler than saving your hard earned money, so sacrificing some of the coolness for other cars on this list, the Hyundai Accent made it for the simple fact that it is the least expensive new car for 2009. Starting at $9,970, the 200 Hyundai Accent is officially the cheapest new car by only $20, but its three-door hatchback layout makes the most out of the car's small stature. The hatchback design is much less cookie cutter than the sedan, which not only accommodates five passengers and their backpacks, but it also keeps fuel costs down by getting EPA fuel economy estimates of 35 miles per gallon on the highway.


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