Believe it or not, college students have some serious restrictions when it comes to cars, particularly when it comes to those who live in snowy states. After all, your typical college student needs a lot of versatility out of their vehicle. It needs to be reliable, cheap to maintain, easy to work, and for many, good in the snow. Ideally, it should also be spacious enough for friends, have space to lug back stuff back and forth from home each semester, and not a complete laughable hunk of junk.
Obviously you have a lot of options, but below are a selected few of the more inexpensive ones.
We'll start with a very obvious one. Most Subaru's would also apply to this list. The AWD system is a lot of help in the snow, even if you don't have dedicated winter tires. But the Legacy isn't totally impractical either, which is what helps it make this list.
There's space inside to comfortable seat four people, and a good amount of trunk space (even more if you get the wagon.) It's also a very dependable car, these things will go to 200,000 miles easy. Parts are pretty common, and like most cars made by Subaru, they are easy to wrench on. Although the gas mileage isn't spectacular (the downside of having all wheel drive) it still isn't horrible, and if you're doing a lot of highway driving, it will do just fine.
The Legacy has been around for a while now, and you can pick up a used third or fourth generation model for cheap. Bonus points for sportiness if you manage to pick up one of the 2.5 GT ones with a stick shift.
Believe it or not, Nissan's luxury car, the Maxima, is now a very affordable option to most college students. Tons of early 2000s models are available for less than $4000! What's more, the Maxima is actually a very good car. There is tons of legroom in the rear seats, by far the most comfortable back seats of any car on this list.
Better yet, it's a very safe and heavy car, and should fare well in the winter weather. The interior is also very comfortable, most are leather, and the stock stereo is even rather good. The 5th generation, which is going to be the one college students will find most affordable, has a rock solid V6 engine, and rides very comfortably both in town and on the highway. It's also an extremely reliable car, there are tons of these things still getting around with more than 300,000 miles clocked in!
Volkswagen Golf / GTI
The Volkswagen Golf and GTI are cars that have been practically synonymous with college student life, and it isn't very hard to understand why. You've got a practical hatchback, especially with the four door. It's good looking, it's very reliable, there are millions of them out there to strip parts off, and it can lug three of your friends and their stuff to a beach for spring break. As for winter, the front wheel drive should fare just fine with a good set of tires.
What's more, the VW GTI can now be had for a very low price. With so many of them out there, you can find a used one easily for less than $5000. It may have some high mileage, but these cars aren't as hard as other Volkswagen vehicles when it comes to doing your own labor. They also run forever, and Volkswagen holds the record for most cars with 100,000 miles or more on the road today.
The TL may seem like an interesting choice, but let me explain. This is a car that offers the same Honda reliability that millions of drivers swear by. And once you start looking at a lot of the parts, you will find that it is very much like an Accord. This is a good thing though. After all, the Honda Accord is one of the most dependable cars ever made- they never stop running, and there is even one with more than a million miles.
As for the TL, it is far more comfortable than an Accord on the inside, for either your stuff or your friends. It's got plenty of get up and go power, and the front wheel drive will perform good in the snow with a decent set of tires. It's also very easy to work on, and parts are dirt cheap. Even a high mileage TL, which are the ones likely affordable to most college students, would be a great car choice.
Ford Five Hundred
This may seem like a boat of car, but let me win you over. First of all, it seems only fitting to round the list off with an American car. And while the Five Hundred was not the most popular car that Ford ever made, it could be a great option for you.
Firstly, as far as snow driving goes, this thing is heavy, incredibly safe, and great in the snow. Second, it's got a nice reliable 200+ horsepower V6 engine. It's also, if you haven't realized it yet, a Ford, which means that parts and labor on this thing are going to be incredibly cheap, especially when compared with other cars of this size. And the back seat legroom is competitive, perhaps even superior, to that of the Maxima.
It's also got a big trunk, it rides smooth and quietly, and, with the exception of maybe the Acura, it has the best interior of any car on this list. For around $5000 you can pick one of these 2005-2007 gems with less than 150,000 miles. And when you're finished with the car, you can bet there'll be a retired couple who want to buy it from you!
While no car is going to perfect, the ones on this list are some great options. At the very least, it should give the typical college student a good idea of some qualities to look for when picking out their car for this part of their life. As you grow older, other less interesting things like resale value and how easy a car seat fits become more important. So at the end of the day, make sure you enjoy driving the car you have during this time, because it could be a minivan soon.