The modern version of the Alfa Romeo that Dustin Hoffman drove in "The Graduate," the Mazda MX-5 may not be the most practical car, but it is an excellent reward for a successful graduate. Not being overly powerful, it has a good degree of safety built in, but most of all, it will help kick off your graduate's new, independent life with style.
Base price: $24,915
After a generation or two of lackluster models, Honda is back with this altogether tastier, new-for-2016 Civic. It offers sleek, almost four-door-coupe-like styling, yet it has a huge back seat and is actually large enough inside to qualify as a midsize sedan. There's a surprising amount of advanced driver-assistance systems on offer for such a low-priced vehicle, too. Best of all, the Civic finally has modern, velvety smooth drivetrains that return up to 42 mpg.
The small Cruze sedan echoes the functionality of the Honda Civic, making a smart choice for the new college grad. Not only does it offer adequate power and excellent fuel efficiency, your graduate will appreciate the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto features, letting the car integrate with his phone. And Onstar adds a layer of safety, letting you keep a virtual eye on your progeny.
Base price: $17,495
Don't be confused if you spot an iM with a Toyota badge on it -- the Scion brand may be dying, but that doesn't mean that this racy-looking five-door has to go away. On the contrary, it just got here, and it deserves to stick around a while, so it's being renamed the Corolla iM and will shortly be sold at all Toyota dealers.
Regardless of what badge you buy an iM under, you'll find a solid-driving, well-priced, very practical hatchback with generous levels of standard equipment. It may not drive as friskily as its aesthetics suggest, but it's likely to be a reliable partner. Besides, with two years or 25,000 miles of free maintenance (at least as a Scion), it's not only a much more interesting partner than its Corolla sedan counterpart, it may be easier to own, too.
VW's diesel emissions scandal may be (justifiably) casting a pall over its entire product portfolio, but that doesn't mean there aren't great, gas-powered models lurking in the German automaker's showrooms.
The best of them is likely the versatile Golf, which blends clean European design with class-above interior quality and polished dynamics. From behind the wheel, the compact hatchback feels more expensive than it is, especially more powerful models like the GTI performance variant shown here.
The Impreza offers hatchback functionality, letting your grad carry their worldly possessions to a new city. All-wheel-drive comes standard, good for wintry climes or folks who take to the slopes on the weekends. The Impreza is going through a transition right now, with the current 2016 model giving way to a new, reengineered generation, the 2017 model, late this year.
Base price: $18,295 (2016 model year)
The Prius is king when it comes to fuel economy, boasting an average of over 50 mpg. That means fewer stops at the gas station and less impact on a limited budget, plus no excuses for not driving back home for the holidays. Beyond fuel economy, the new Prius offers good cargo space with its liftback, supporting Ikea runs to furnish that new apartment, and a comfortable, responsive driving character.
Base price: $24,200
Looking for the higher seating position and the style of an SUV, interlaced with the driving dynamics of a hot hatch? Look no further than Mazda's CX-3, which is easily the best-handling subcompact crossover on the market. It might not be much good off-road, but how often are you driving down more than a dirt two-track?
This Mazda's tidy dimensions means it can be tight inside, but with up to 35 mpg, you can always make a second trip. And with the CX-3's buttoned-down chassis and willing Skyactiv powertrain, you might just want to, anyway.
There's a reason Kia's Soul has outlasted the auto industry's other so-called "box cars." No, it's not those cute animated hamsters from the marketing department, it's because the Soul is the best of the bunch. With its distinctive styling, very affordable price of entry, and a surprisingly roomy and well-built interior, this Kia delivers more than skin-deep fun.
The Soul also offers one of the snappiest and best-organized infotainment systems available at any price, and the attractiveness of its 10-year/100,000-mile warranty to a debt-laden college grad can't be overlooked.
A compact SUV, the Honda HR-V offers a good combination of cargo space and everyday drivability. New grads can move from college to new apartment or house, carrying more than the bare necessities. At 35 mpg on the highway, the HR-V serves as an economical commute car and a companion for weekend getaways.
Base price: $19,215