For some college and university students, acquiring a good used car can be an essential part of back-to-school shopping. Think of a car as a backpack, with ample room for a laptop, books and three study buddies.
Here are five second-hand vehicles that can whisk students to campus dependably and economically. All have thrifty four-cylinder engines and four handy doors. Other penny-pinching commuters may want to take note, too.
2003-’08 Toyota Corolla
With more than 35 million Corollas sold since it first appeared in 1966, Toyota’s unassuming little economy car is the world’s best-selling automobile, and for good reason: it’s as reliable as a hangover after frosh week.
The ninth-generation redesign for 2003 brought a welcome 14-cm increase in wheelbase compared to the previous model, resulting in a more commodious cabin. The white-faced instruments, decent plastics and uniform seams are Lexus-like qualities on a mac-and-cheese budget. Unfortunately, the steering column doesn’t telescope, owners note.
Under the hood hums a chain-driven DOHC 1.8 L four cylinder, good for 130 hp. It gained a redesigned intake manifold and a larger-diameter throttle body, along with Toyota’s variable intake-valve timing. Although dull to drive, the engine is stingy with fuel and wears like a hardwood library table.
Mechanical complaints are largely minor in nature and centre on loose weather stripping, fussy door locks, short-lived wheel bearings and an ECU that requires updating. Proudly home-schooled (and assembled) here in Ontario, this one can take you through grad school and beyond.
2008-’11 Ford Focus
Rather than import its second-generation Focus from Europe on a student visa, Ford gave its economy model yet another refresher for 2008. The reskinned body was made more aero-efficient and quieter, thanks to added bracing, while the suspension was retuned and the brakes were enhanced.
The Focus was available as a four-door sedan and, for the first time, a two-door coupe. The seats received more lateral and lumbar support, while the ambient cabin lighting was configurable in seven hues and Microsoft’s Sync provided voice control of some cellphone and MP3-player functions.
The lone engine choice was a DOHC 2.0 L four-cylinder, tuned to make a competitive 140 hp. Buyers could choose between a five-speed manual transmission and an utterly conventional (and old) four-speed automatic. Ford’s powertrain proved to be downright miserly with a tank of fuel.
The UAW-built Focus may exhibit suspension problems; reportedly, tires may not last more than 40,000 to 50,000 km in some cases, particularly the rear pair. Other setbacks include a few troublesome automatic transmissions, bad engine mounts (causing vibration), broken door latches, short-lived wheel bearings and a bevy of rattles.
2007-’10 Nissan Versa
As a new nameplate, the Mexican-built Nissan Versa aimed to differentiate itself in the hotly contested econobox league. An expansive cabin that could seat five rugby players quite comfortably, an optional continuously variable transmission (CVT), and big-car quiet were all game-winning strategies.
Available as a five-door hatchback or four-door sedan, the Versa was the first subcompact to offer a standard six-speed manual transmission. Buyers could also choose between two automatics: a conventional four-speed unit and the CVT. Front side airbags and curtain side airbags were standard, but antilock brakes were optional.
A DOHC 1.8 L four-cylinder making 122 hp provided the power. Engineered to be especially compact, the MR18 motor featured mini spark plugs and narrow bore spacing between the cylinders. The base sedan also offered a smaller, more frugal 107-hp 1.6 L four, beginning in 2009.
Owners report a malfunctioning fuel pump might make the Versa hard to start. Other deficits include frequent brake service, alignment issues, recalcitrant power windows and plastic hubcaps that regularly fly off (a bead of silicon works wonders).
2005-’09 Kia Spectra
Cribbing is allowed in automaking if the two manufacturers are related. Kia turned to corporate parent Hyundai and borrowed its well-sorted Elantra front-drive platform to underpin its wallflower Spectra.
Compared with its predecessor, the 2005 Spectra was wider by 2 cm, with a corresponding broader track for stability, while the wheelbase was stretched 5 cm. Interior space was accommodating, thanks to a raised roof. The cabin was nicely finished in good-quality plastics molded into mildly pleasing shapes.
The sole engine was the Elantra’s iron-block DOHC 2.0 L four-cylinder, good for 138 hp. A ropey five-speed manual transmission was standard, with a four-speed automatic optional. The Spectra5 hatchback/wagon soon joined the model lineup, also dispatched from South Korea.
Mechanical setbacks have been relatively few in number. The Check Engine light may illuminate due to a faulty terminal connected to the front oxygen sensor. The engine may hesitate or stall due to problems with the evaporative control system or a slipping timing belt. Other faults include: underperforming air conditioners, loose window seals, malfunctioning power door locks and easily chipped paint.
2007-’10 Suzuki SX4
For students who have to traverse Ontario’s snowbelt, an all-wheel-drive car can provide sure-footed confidence in inclement weather — combined with winter tires, of course. Initially sold only as a five-door hatchback, the SX4 made good use of its lofty roof by mounting all the seats at chair height, a boon to comfort.
Although base models made do with front-wheel drive, AWD models are coveted for their electric solenoid-operated clutch pack, which can switch between locked four-wheel drive, computer-engaged AWD, or strictly front-wheel drive (for fuel economy) at the touch of a button.
Power is supplied by an all-aluminum DOHC 2.0 L four-cylinder making 143 hp, tied to the standard five-speed manual transmission or four-speed automatic. A four-door sedan joined the hatchback for 2008, using the same engine but offering only front-wheel drive.
Assembled in Japan, the SX4 has garnered little criticism in terms of its quality and dependability. There is a smattering of comments regarding the Check Engine and Airbag lights (often false), some interior rattles and the odd bad alternator and fuel pump. The air conditioning may stop working because the electromagnet compressor clutch failed.
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