My Favorite Vehicles for Going Back to Campus

Ah, college. To be an undergrad again…

Every college town – big and small – face the same onslaught of students coming back from the summer to resume academic life again. The future of our country bound for a college across town or on the other side of the country with their cars filled to the gills with everything for their dormitory or apartment. The parents tag along with a case of tissues hidden amongst the rest of their child's stuff.

It is uncertain whether the tissues are meant for seeing their precious child off…or, seeing their savings fly out the window in tuition, student expenses, entertainment (your definition varies here) and a vacation to South Padre Island.

If you live in Madison, Wisconsin, the "back to college" thing is a ritual onto itself. On August 15, all of the leases for student housing both on- and off-campus change over. For most students, that means moving. Ten years ago, I worked for a telephone company based in Madison to facilitate the insanity of students who either had phone service scheduled that day, or forgot to schedule installation of their service. If they wanted to go through our company, students who wanted new phone service may have quite a wait on their hands. They could go with the company that owned the lines (not my employer at the time), who could service them sooner more expensively.

When I was an undergrad, I commuted to school. My 1991 Acura Integra made the 37.5mile trek from San Rafael to Hayward through the Richmond Bridge and the MacArthur Maze every morning. It was a solider that thing was. I did not live on campus, as I was a little older than your traditional undergrad. Though, I wished I had that kind of insane on-campus (or, nearby campus) life full of friends, parties and late night cram sessions.

Recently, a list circulating amongst automobile and news sites tipped several vehicles that were right for going back to school. It made me consider what would be a great vehicle to send my college student off to campus. Or, if I were an undergrad again (meaning aged 18-22), what vehicle I would bring onto campus as my way to be free.

Again, it's Five Favorites time! Here are five vehicles for back to school. This time, I made it more reasonable (or less) for the parents' budgets.

2000-2011 FORD FOCUS: Consider this a form of solid engineering that does not offend anyone. You can take this anywhere and it won't quit or budge. It has the space for things – especially the hatchbacks. A 2.0litre Zetec DOHC 16-valve engine can be serviced readily at various places. Older models may seem cheap and nasty because of the Euro design carryover inside, but that's part of the charm of the Focus! The second "generation" of Focus balances the quirky Euro-ness of the older models with some conservative, but highly functional touches. Granted, it’s not on any "best used car" list. Still, there are plenty of Focus models out there for the picking.

2003-2010 PONTIAC VIBE/2003- TOYOTA MATRIX: Both were developed for the same purpose from slightly different on various fronts. One is built in California while the other is made in Canada. What these small crossovers represent is reliable, spacious and fun transportation. They're essentially Toyota Corollas with a wagon-esque body and heaps of versatility. A 1.8litre DOHC 16-valve engine is all they need – in either manual or automatic. Keep in mind, these cousins were part of two recalls by Toyota, therefore the buyer must make sure these issues were already taken care for before the transaction is agreed upon. Otherwise, they can run for quite a long time. Think of the fun (or trouble) a student could have in one.

2004-2009 MAZDA3: What do you consider fun? In this case, fun comes in two varieties: A nice four-door sedan with sure footing or a mean five-door upright hatch. The choice of 2.0litre and 2.3litre motors is a good start to see how you would zip around campus. The hatches can swallow a lot of your dorm stuff while you buzz across town or down the highway. You could opt for a Mazdaspeed3, but I wouldn't want to pay your insurance. Stick with the 2.3 S models tops. That way, you stay out of trouble…though I wouldn't guarantee you’d be followed by the campus police in one.

2006-2009 VOLKSWAGEN RABBIT (GOLF Mk5): It was a marketing gamble that almost paid off. Despite the reversal of naming convention for the North American Golf, the German-built models proved to be the best built ones in a long time. They were straightforward in their approach and just right for many situations. There is a lot of power from the 2.5litre 5-cylinder motor exclusive to North America. However, Rabbits yielded plenty of cargo space and a safe shell to protect it – including yourself! What you will find from a Rabbit is a fun factor that can only be found in a Volkswagen. Before you buy one, ask yourself whether you need the GTI or not. In this case, a good ol' Rabbit 2.5 will do the trick.

2007- TOYOTA YARIS: Amongst B-Segment cars, this is my top choice. Why? No recall history, a solid design and a proven motor. Sure, it's a soft rider, but why do you need to take a curve when you’re only going from the apartment to work to class and back. The 1.5litre DOHC 16-valve engine works perfectly in this subcompact. You can get this with a manual or an automatic. The cargo hold is not bad, but could swallow plenty in a pinch. So, what's wrong with the Yaris? If you skip the sedan and stay with the Liftback (hatchback) models, you’ll have a proper runabout on and off campus. I’d hurry up and get one before the new version hits the showrooms later this year…

All photos by Randy Stern

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