I Need A Cheap Ride To Get Me Through College! What Car Should I Buy?

What Car Should You BuyThe experts at Jalopnik answer your car-buying questions.

Luke is a full-time medical student with who needs a reliable car but doesn’t have a lot of cash to spend. Even with a limited budget, he would like something fun but with some practicality. What car should he buy?

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In med school, Luke essentially has to practice being a doctor without any of that sweet doctor income, and he certainly doesn’t want to get himself into more debt as the student loans mount. He’s a smart man in need of a good ride.

Here is the scenario:

I’m a grad student who needs a car. I don’t know how grad students buy cars or what they should buy at all. I have about $2,000 right now and could do maybe up to $5,000, but I’d prefer to do less. I just don’t understand the process for a grad student who is cash light to buy a car.

I’m not real picky. Mainly I just want it to run and be reliable. Anything hatchback-y would work, or even a small pickup. I’m looking for something that can fit me, my soon-to-be-wife (July 1st), and our dog or two (small ones), along with my myriad of bicycles. I don’t mind wrenching myself, I just don’t have the tools right now, but I’ve spent some time working in a shop and can do just about anything. Good gas mileage (around 30 MPG) is a plus, and if it can be future-proof (e.g. kids in the next few years), that would be super nice too. The only requirement I have is that it has to have good handling. It needs to be quick and sprightly, not heavy.

Quick Facts

Budget: Up to $5,000 but would prefer less

Daily Driver: Yes

Average Miles Per-Week: Less than 100 miles

Wants: Reliable, good handling, practical

Doesn’t want: Something too big and heavy

Expert #1: Tom McParland - This Isn’t A Glitch


Luke, I remember grad school, it was good times. Wait, who am I kidding? Grad school wasn’t fun; it was endless books and tests and late nights spent writing papers, twice the work of undergrad with none of the binge-partying.

Anyway, so you need a car to get to class and do other things. I would have you hunt down a Toyota Matrix or a Pontiac Vibe. Mechanically they are identical cars, hailing from an era when General Motors and Toyota built some cars together, though the Matrix getting the slight edge in the looks department. These hatchbacks share many components with the mid-2000s Toyota Corolla which is arguably one of the most reliable small cars ever made.


The Matrix/Vibe is also small enough to be tossable on a curvy road but large enough to handle, dogs, gear, and kids if the need arises. While the 130 horsepower engine isn’t terribly quick, the little 1.8-liter motor can achieve up to 36 mpg on the highway. Here is a 2005 Matrix XR with only 104,000 miles and a five-speed manual. This one is at a dealer and at the top of your budget, but you can probably score a cheaper example from a private seller.

Expert #2: David Tracy - Trust Me On This One

Photo via Favcars

The perfect car for you is very clearly an AMC Pacer. It’s a lightweight hatchback (by today’s standards), it can be found dirt cheap on Craigslist, it can be had in wagon form to fit your bikes and future children, and most importantly, just look at that cute little thing! That quirky, stubby profile. Those beautiful swoopy rear glass windows. Those round headlights recessed in square bezels; it’ll make your heart melt every time you look at it.

But enough about design, this is serious business. You’re a graduate student coming here for the sagest of advice from real automotive experts, so allow me to continue with why the AMC Pacer is the car for you. First off, you’re looking for reliability. What on earth is more reliable than an AMC 258 inline-six backed by a Chrysler TorqueFlight A904 transmission? Answer: not much.


To be sure, the powertrain and drivetrain are probably the least of your concerns when buying a Pacer, but you’re a medical student for god’s sake. Your job is to diagnose and mend faults. What better way to practice that than to wrench on a Pacer? If you can fix a Pacer, you can fix a human.

And with that, allow me to present the vehicle that you’re most certainly going to buy after reading this article, this $1,800 fixer-upper Pacer from Murray, Utah. Sure, it’s got a few flaws here and there, but who knows, maybe “needs transmission work” just means its low on fluid? If you can figure that out, you can throw that on your resume and command all sorts of respect from your fellow medical professionals. I’ve got your career in mind with this recommendation.


Expert #3: Jason Torchinsky - Holy Crap, I’m Going To Suggest Something Rational


As much as I adore AMC Pacers, let’s just come out and say it: David’s an idiot. Maybe he inhaled too many 60-year-old fluid vapors from his old Willys, or he took a knock to the head from some flying bolt or something. Who knows. The point is, you want something reliable to drive every day, and a Pacer that’s been sitting in a field for a whole presidential term isn’t that. But I have a fantastic solution for you: a Scion xB.

Your list of requirements (good on gas, light, nimble, can hold dogs and kids and bikes, light, reliable) may as well be a description of a first-gen Scion xB. They get 30+ MPG in the city, weighs about the same as a Miata, has an insane amount of interior room, bulletproof Toyota reliability, and I think they’re fun to drive.


I’m not just saying this because of shit I’ve read on the internet: I own one of these things, and it’s one of the best cars I’ve ever had.

That first-gen xB is just such a damn good solution to the fundamental task of transporting you and your crap you have to respect it. It’s a machine of pure form following function, and as a result, it does so much more than you’d ever think. The rear seats have more legroom than most huge SUVs. It only makes around 103 HP, but with a manual and its light weight, it’s actually fun to drive.


Hell, I had Tiff Needell wring mine out on the track at Willow Springs, and it was a blast! All this from a car that I’ve also crammed an entire washing machine into.

I have two dogs that ride in this car routinely, and we’ve used it as our primary kid-hauling vehicle for years. I’ve hit a deer with it and put the front back together on my own, and the thing still drives great. I get out of press cars costing ten times as much and climb back into this thing and somehow, against all reason, I’m never disappointed.


I love that stupid little box. You’ll love it, too. Here’s one nearby you, with a five-speed manual and as you see from the pic up there, it’s even sort of purple. It’s only $1800, and it’ll be the best money you’ve ever spent. Don’t even bother reading the rest. You’re done.

Just avoid the second-gen xB, from 2007 on. They fucked it up.

Expert #4: Patrick George - Buy The Same Damn Kind Of Car We Tell Everyone To Buy


Someone at What Car Should You Buy invariably suggests getting a Mazda3 hatchback, because let’s face it: a reliable, fun-to-drive Japanese hatchback will fit the daily needs of, I dunno, probably 85 percent of the car-buying public. It’s an unoriginal pick but a proven one.

I think you may be able to find its older brother, the Protege5, for a little closer to your $5,000 budget, if not less. They’re solid cars with tons of room for bikes and dogs and spouses that will get you through med school just fine, and after that you can embark on a long journey of leasing BMWs.


I was gonna suggest something insane like a motorcycle with a sidecar or this 1988 Saab 900 SPG for $4,000, but I can’t with a straight face. It’s not crazy, but it works.

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About the author

Tom McParland

Tom is a contributing writer for Jalopnik and runs AutomatchConsulting.com. He saves people money and takes the hassle out of buying or leasing a car. (Facebook.com/AutomatchConsulting)