2011-2015 Kia Optima -- Brian Cooley, editor at large
The 2011 Kia Optima has big things going for it: A 10-year/100,000 mile transferable powertrain warranty that it shares with Hyundai and a fresh new design by former Audi design boss Peter Schreyer that separated it from the AARP styling of its sibling Hyundai Sonata. Both of these Korean sedans represent a time when they had the industry by the short ones and were nearly the hottest story in US auto sales.
Specifically, I'm choosing a base-trim Optima LX, which eschews a lot of filigree that is just more to go wrong (and will never get fixed on a student budget biased toward beer).
I am, however, factoring in two solid options at this price: Alloy wheels and Infinity audio. Leave out factory navigation, because what OEMs offered in 2011 is of interest to nobody now, least of all to a Waze-centric student. An automatic transmission is included at this price, though the base gearbox was a 6-speed manual.
At around $9,800, we're looking at the car with the 200-hp direct-injection 2.4L inline four that I recall to be a perfectly nice motor, biased toward torque at the low-to-mid RPM range where real-world driving is done.
The student may carp about being saddled with a sedan instead of a Miata, but years after they've beaten their Optima into the ground and sold it on Craigslist for $500, they'll remember it as a damn good car that never gave up and had lots of room for their friends along with backpacks full of contraband.
2011-2017 Nissan Leaf -- Chris Paukert, managing editor
An electric car as a back-to-school ride might not work for everyone, but there's many good reasons to consider an EV like the Nissan Leaf.
For one, they enjoy the sort of ultra-low running costs (both in fuel and maintenance) that cash-strapped youth appreciate. For another, most students trundle around on shorter, fixed routes on a daily basis, and an EV is perfect for that duty.
Leafs that fall into this price bracket typically have a battery that provides 73 miles of range. No, you won't (easily) be able to take long trips home, but that's what friends — or parent-purchased plane tickets — are for.
The biggest hurdle will be finding juice, but progressive towns, universities and apartment complexes are adding more EV chargers every day. Oftentimes, driving an EV will even help you score the best spot in the parking lot.
The biggest reason to get a used EV? They have the resale value of day-old sushi.
NADA says a loaded 2013 Leaf SL with 50,000 miles should run around $9,500, but in practice, $10K will net you an off-lease certified model with just 10,000 to 20,000 miles. Because the Leaf's appearance hasn't changed through the 2017 model year, it'll still look and drive like a new car!
1992-2002 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28-- Tim Stevens, editor in chief
For college, you need something with a little bit of practicality and room for you and your friends, but more importantly, you need something that you can have some fun in... and maybe make some questionable decisions.
And what better questionable decision than the pinnacle of the F-Body, the 310-horsepower 2002 Camaro Z/28? It has room for three of your friends (uncomfortably), a rear hatch that can be surprisingly accommodating and an exhaust note that'll always announce your arrival at the party.
For your $10K, you should be able to find a well-maintained 2002 Z/28 with somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 miles. The NADA price for that car, fully loaded, is about $8,500, but most that we found for sale were priced at around $10,500. In other words, $10,000 if you walk in ready to buy.
You can get a convertible for that money if you like, but I'd go with the T-tops.
The second-generation Scion tC was the sportiest member of the Toyota's young sub-brand (until the FR-S came a-calling) with its coupe-like profile and very functional three-door liftback design.
Beneath the hood is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine borrowed from the Camry. Don't laugh, its 180 horsepower feels plenty peppy around town in a car this size, and Toyota's legendary reliability means it should be easy to find a tC in good working order.
The tC's interior is fairly spartan but functional and very low tech. The simple nature of the dashboard makes it easy to upgrade with a modern receiver with Android or Apple's phone technologies. So, you can save a few bucks by finding a model without the optional navigation.
One of the hallmarks of the Scion brand was its lack of complicated trim levels. Basically, the only choices to make are what color you want and whether to spec the sportier 6-speed manual or commute-friendly automatic. (I recommend the manual, but you do you.)
The tC's popularity makes used examples easy to find; however, the trick is finding one that hasn't been over-modified by the previous owner.
For around $10,000, NADA says you should be able to find a nice 2012 model with about 60,000 miles on the clock.
1997-2004 Porsche Boxster -- Andrew Krok, news editor
Not every back-to-school choice needs to be sensible. For buyers who prefer to risk reliability in favor of spirited driving dynamics and interesting looks, I present to you the first-generation Porsche Boxster.
With a snick-snick manual and the option for an automatic, there's a Boxster out there for everyone -- almost literally, because Porsche sold a ton of 'em.
2011-2017 Nissan Juke -- Wayne Cunningham, managing editor
With its unique design, the Nissan Juke will certainly stand out on campus, and that's perfect for students ready to reinvent themselves for the entry into college. But there's more to the Juke than just looks.
This funky little crossover's hatchback gives it cargo versatility, perfect for hauling all of a student's worldly possessions. At the same time, its mighty little 188-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine means a minuscule gasoline budget. On top of all that, the little Juke handles very well, making it a sporty ride.
The Juke just enters eligibility for our $10,000 car budget for a 2011 model year example, when the car was first introduced, and based on 72,000 miles on the odometer. But don't worry, there were no significant improvements in subsequent model years.
An all-wheel-drive model might make sense for locations with wintery weather, but you can only get a stick shift on the front-wheel-drive version.
Don't bother looking for an example with navigation, as it's worth replacing the head unit entirely for an aftermarket stereo supporting Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
With a mere 117 horsepower on tap, the Honda Fit isn't the quickest kid on the block. However, what it lacks in off-the-line speed, it makes up for with a practical cabin, good economy and that ol' Honda reliability.
For my $10,000 NADA dollars, I've picked a 2012 Sport model for its alloy wheels and fog lights, neither of which are available on the base model. Figure on finding one with around 60,000 miles on the clock.
I've also decided to go with the five-speed manual, as NADA says it cuts the resale value down by $500. That's half a grand in your pocket for ramen money, plus the manual is more fun to drive anyway. And feel free to ditch the navigation. You'll just use your phone anyway.
The best part of the Fit may be its super-flexible rear Magic Seats, which can be folded flat as normal or positioned with the bottom cushions tipped up. That latter option allows for up to four feet of vertical space behind the front seats -- perfect for a bike.