young man packing a car with box of clothes

When it comes to cars for college students, there are plenty of factors to consider. With so many options, it’s wise to look to the experts to get some input into how to buy a car for a college student.

Size of the vehicle

While it’s easy to fall for something flashy and sporty, that’s not typically the best bet for younger drivers. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the best cars for young drivers are midsize and large cars.

Crash test performance has steadily improved in recent years. For example, a 2015 study by the IIHS found there were 20 fewer driver deaths per million drivers in 2012 than there were in 2009.

Research from the IIHS attributes a decline in fatality risk to two main factors: improved safety technology and better vehicle designs. But there’s also a firm distinction between the safety of larger cars and small ones. In fact, the IIHS reports that crash fatalities fall as the size of the car increases. And U.S. News & World Report found that midsize and large cars have lower death rates in accidents than small and subcompact cars.

Safety features

Having a bigger car helps, but there are other ways to ensure you’re buying a safer car. Some of the things to look for – particularly for teen and young adult drivers – are high-tech safety features. Though this means you’ll likely be looking at buying a newer car, some of these safety features may also pay off by lowering your insurance costs.

Options such as anti-lock brakes, daytime running lights and electronic stability control have been around for a few years and bring added safety measures for drivers. If it comes down to a choice between a slightly older, less expensive car without these safety features and a newer car with the features included, think about the benefit of those safety options. They could prove to be a good investment.

Fuel efficiency

Another factor to consider is the vehicle’s gas consumption, says Jeff Ostroff, CEO of

“When gas prices are low, people go out and buy SUVs and pickup trucks like there is no tomorrow,” he says. ”But six months later, the gas price could double.”

This could make the burden of filling the gas tank too much for students’ budgets leaving them in a position of having to make difficult choices just to be able to afford driving their car.

Looking for a larger vehicle that also gets good mileage can give you the best of both worlds.

Making the grade

Of course, a brand-new four-door with all the latest features typically isn’t in the budget for college students, so it’s important to be able to distinguish what is most important. A survey of parents published in the December 2015 edition of Journal of Safety Research found that most parents bought used vehicles for their teen drivers. While they were most often large or midsize cars, many of those vehicles did not have key safety features that could improve safety.

Several different resources offer information about which particular makes and models are safest, so parents can check to make sure the vehicles they are considering meet their expectations regarding safety. From the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration(NHTSA) to Consumer Reports, there’s no shortage of information as to how the cars compare.

Beginning the research for the right vehicle, according to the IIHS, begins with knowing which features are most important. The IIHS recommends that parents use four key principles when considering which cars to purchase:

  • Horsepower. In most cases, the base engine of a model has sufficient horsepower, and it’s generally best for younger, less experienced drivers to have less horsepower in their hands.
  • Think big. Mini-cars and small cars won’t make any teen safety list; look for midsize or larger cars. Even small SUVs can be OK, but check their safety ratings, as some are safer than others.
  • ESC. Electronic stability control has been standard in cars since 2012, so if you’re looking at cars made before this year, ask about ESC. It helps a driver maintain control on curves and wet or slippery roads and is credited with cutting the risk of single-vehicle fatality crashes nearly in half.
  • Go for ‘good’ – or better. Don’t settle for “acceptable” ratings in crash tests. Look for cars that are, at the very least, in the “good” category and preferably have earned a “best” rating. It’s worth your peace of mind – and your child’s safety.

Top Cars for College Students

All of these factors should be weighed when considering a car for your college student. The good news is, there are plenty of cars that come highly recommended. These models are some of the safest cars on the road for young drivers:

2019 Vehicle model IIHS safety ratings Safety features
Subaru Legacy Subaru Legacy safety features
Hyundai Elantra Hyundai Elantra safety features
Mazda CX-5 Mazda CX-5 safety features
Subaru Impreza Subaru Impreza safety features
Toyota Camry Toyota Camry safety features
Kia Forte Kia Forte safety features
Honda Insight Honda Insight safety features
Kia Optima Kia Optima safety features
Hyundai Sonata Hyundai Sonata safety features
Subaru Outback Subaru Outback safety features

Before making any final decisions, talk with your Nationwide insurance agent to find out what kind of auto insurance and coverage you’ll need, and what you can expect to pay for insurance on each car you’re considering.

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