If you’re going for a used version of any of these recommendations, make sure you’re buying the same generation model. The Kia Soul, for example, was redesigned for 2014. A 2013 Soul is vastly different from the current generation in engineering and refinement.
And the Soul is an excellent choice. Nothing in this price range swallows up Ikea and Goodwill finds quite like Kia’s boxy crossover. There are three engine choices, but skip the base model with its 1.6-liter four cylinder at $18,695 and invest in the Plus model. At $21,295, it adds a more powerful 2-liter four-cylinder engine and an excellent touch-screen interface that includes Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Youth is impatient, but it doesn’t need the turbocharged engine that powers the “!” model. Not on your dime, at least.
Honda’s HR-V crossover ($21,445, or $22,845 with all-wheel drive) is a roomy choice that earns honors for a clever storage space under the rear seat. The cushions fold upward, creating the perfect place for a dog to travel. Backpacks (or briefcases) can be stashed there when friends ride along.
The new Hyundai Kona ($20,480, or $21,780 with all-wheel drive) is also a top pick. It lacks the HR-V’s trick back seat, but it adds a stylish interior, refined driving dynamics and Hyundai’s 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. It also includes five years of free roadside assistance, so you won’t be jumping a dead battery or changing a flat tire.
Another model worth a look? Toyota’s C-HR ($23,495).
Those compact crossovers are mighty handy, but their popularity has a side benefit: Since buyers prefer S.U.V.s these days, great deals can be had on hatchbacks, which offer much of the same utility at a lower ride height. Honda’s Fit has the same clever back seat as the HR-V and costs just $17,880 while easily gobbling up bikes in the back, as long as the seats are folded down. Enthusiastic drivers may shy from its continuously variable transmission, but it’s hard to beat the practical and frisky Fit. And there’s always the manual gearbox.
Unlike their taller cousins, hatchbacks typically aren’t available with all-wheel drive — a feature that could prove invaluable for grads who end up in the Snow Belt. But there are a few. Subaru’s Impreza 5-Door is an excellent value at $20,355, and its fraternal twin, the Crosstrek ($23,710), adds ground clearance and protective cladding. Subarus are powered by Boxer engines, whose pistons fire horizontally rather than vertically. That allows them to be mounted deep in the engine bay, which lowers the car’s center of gravity and improves handling.
If your son or daughter graduated with a degree in environmental studies, consider a hybrid hatchback: the Hyundai Ioniq Blue ($23,085). The Environmental Protection Agency rates its average fuel economy at 58 miles per gallon, which is 6 m.p.g. higher than Toyota’s Prius. (The Prius pushes just past the price limit at $25,580, but consider it if you’re feeling flush.)
Some people prefer sedans and the security of a lockable trunk. In that case, the Honda Civic sedan is pretty much a slam dunk at $20,530. It’s roomy and refined, allowing it to grow along with your grad. A bonus? The Civic is enjoyable to drive when chucked hard into the corners.
The Chevrolet Cruze ($20,400) is stylish, especially comfortable and frequently overlooked.
One important note on a popular model: The current Toyota Corolla ($19,495) is built on an aging platform that’s being replaced soon. But with the next generation of the already affordable Corolla on its way, perhaps there will be bargains available on 2018 models.
Like your kid, automobiles have become much smarter in the past four years. Technology such as automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection plus adaptive cruise control have left the ivory towers of Mercedes-Benz and Volvo to hardworking offerings.
These active safety technologies and more, including lane-departure alert and automatic high beams, are standard equipment on the Corolla and the C-HR, where the system is called Toyota Safety Sense, or TSS. The Civic gets its Honda Sensing safety features, including automatic braking, adaptive cruise control and lane assist, standard in most models. Subaru makes its similar EyeSight system available at extra charge in the Crosstrek and the Impreza.
It’s worth doing your homework to compare safety systems, since the technology varies from manufacturer to manufacture. Even within Toyota, the Corolla sedan’s TSS-P system offers more features than the TSS-C system found in the Corolla iM hatchback ($20,485).
Finally, since money is always an issue, check with your insurance carrier to see if one automobile choice is significantly more costly to cover than another. And don’t forget to school your grad on the importance of proper maintenance. The last thing the office newcomer needs is a car that won’t start because it hasn’t had an oil change. Ever.
A good education, whether its college or street smarts, pays dividends.