The Graduate: What to buy when out of school and on their own
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The Graduate: What to buy when out of school and on their own

It’s been almost twenty years since my wife and I marked our son’s college graduation with the purchase of a then-new ’98 Honda Civic. We didn’t buy it all, electing to prepay the first 24 months of a 48-month loan.

We still can’t find fault with the decision to gift him two years, or our selection of a Honda product. We had vacillated between the Civic hatch and Hyundai’s Elantra wagon, but the Civic had vault-like build quality and bank-on-it reputation for reliability, something Hyundai may have today, but didn’t have then. The Honda also had established resale, and as transportation needs change and incomes hopefully go up, getting your money out of a purchase becomes almost as important as putting your money in.

We've created a list of vehicles that should be good for grads this commencement season. We capped our hypothetical investment at $25,000. With 20 percent down plus tax, title and license, that leaves a finance balance of $20,000. And that, over 60 months, gives us payments of approximately $370/month. Although that isn’t a small amount, and you’d be hard-pressed to make that payment while earning $10/hour, within the context of college graduation and two years without payments we’re hoping it’s a formula that would work.

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Chevy Cruze hatchback in orange
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Chevy Cruze Hatchback

You know ‘real people’ like it, and there is a lot to like in the Cruze’s efficiency and, in its new hatchback form, utility. The newish Cruze is cheap enough if you're light enough on options. Chevy’s lease programs are tempting, but given the reliability of today’s product we’re inclined to buy it – and then drive the ever-loving wheels off of it. (Or pay it off and get a Colorado!)

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Fiat 500 Abarth
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Fiat 500 Abarth

Yeah, we know… (Fix It Again) Tony is still in the building, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from what is arguably the most fun you’ll find in a new car for under $25,000. The 500-based Abarth offers the perfect footprint for the city, while supplying ample fun on those weekend trips to the country. We’re taken with the Cabrio (500c), and while that will cost you more, on a spring day you’d never regret the decision.

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Ford Focus ST
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Ford Focus ST

With a cap of $25,000 we thought the Focus ST would price itself out of consideration. But with $3,250 available (as this is written) in regional incentives, our net out-of-pocket is $22,400 plus taxes, title and license fees.

For less-than-$25K, your grad will enjoy a dynamic platform, more than enough horsepower and the very real capability of taking a weekend’s worth of camping gear in the car – and not on top of the car. And while the hotter Focus RS will be a temptation, the surcharge is almost $15,000. Don’t do it, unless the kid already has a medical degree.

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Honda Civic Si
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Honda Civic Si

The Civic Si has been a sweet spot in the hearts and minds of 20-somethings since people first calling them 20-somethings. And while the footprint has grown, so has its performance and utility. Equipped with a 1.5 liter turbo connected to a 6-speed manual transmission, there’s a lot to like in this quasi-dynamic platform.

Like the Focus ST, its performance won’t relocate your brain to the backseat, but certainly works within the context of the daily drive or an outbound, weekend getaway. And like the ’98 Civic referenced earlier, Civic resale can’t be beat. With a $23,900 MSRP (plus destination), it just squeaks under our pre-imposed limit.

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Hyundai Elantra Sport
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Hyundai Elantra Sport

Under the radar of a typical enthusiast (Hyundai simply doesn’t get the hatchback love, in part because the higher-spec Sport hasn’t been offered as a hatch), the Elantra Sport is deserving of a grad’s consideration. Not only is the 4-door affordable, we like the turbo’s 1.6 liter four, and find the dual-clutch automatic the way to go if confronted with a regular dose of daily stop-and-go. It’s under $25K, and with end-of-the-year incentives already underway, actual transaction prices might be closer to $20,000.

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Kia Niro
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Kia Niro

Our initial thought was that buyers should sign up for Kia’s Soul Turbo. Then, remembering it’s the 21st century, we decided to vote for Kia’s new hybrid crossover, the Niro. With a right-sized footprint, useful utility and, in ‘Sport’ mode at least, a responsive hybrid powertrain, the Niro might be the nicest way to achieve 50 miles per gallon.

What we like most is its handling dynamic, in combination with sheetmetal which looks relatively benign and not – like the new Prius – ‘other worldly’. And while wishing Kia equipped the Niro with all-wheel drive, a good set of winter tires should pull you through whatever zip code you happen to find yourself. Buy in for about $25,000, or lease for around $250 a month, with a purchase option of roughly $16,000 after 24 months.

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Mazda3 hatchback
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Mazda3 Hatchback

Had my wife and I been shopping for a hatchback in ’08 rather than ’98, the Mazda3 would have been it. With a tidy footprint wrapped in Eurocentric sheetmetal, the first Mazda3 came very close to an Asian take on Volkswagen’s Golf, without the drama associated with Volkswagen ownership. Almost a decade later, the Mazda3 delivers on that same type of goodness, while interior appointments are decidedly upscale. Finally, with Mazda’s SkyActiv menu of design and technology, the Mazda3 remains a lot of fun to drive while delivering far better efficiency. Fully loaded examples can nudge $30,000, but you’ll find well-equipped examples on your side of $25,000.

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Mini Cooper
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Mini Cooper

With the more responsive Cooper S starting at just under $25,000, you can certainly have your 189 horses and stay within our budget… but you won’t have anything else but that horsepower. No metallic paint, no JCW interior – nothing.

Or go with the ‘cooking’ Cooper, with a base of just $22,000, and add almost-mandatory British Racing Green, the $2K ‘Sport’ package, white stripes and the JCW interior bits and hit our $25,000 budget squarely on the head! It’s a beautiful thing, and, despite the Mini’s less-mini dimensions, should still be ample fun when equipped with the manual box.

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Nissan Frontier
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Nissan Frontier

If shopping for a new truck and capping your investment at $25,000, you have three choices in these United States: A Chevy Colorado or Toyota Tacoma with a four-cylinder, or a V6-equipped Nissan Frontier. While many would argue a four-cylinder Tacoma is all you’ll ever need, we’ll opt for a Frontier SV King Cab with V6 power to propel it and alloy rims to dress it up.

The Frontier’s MSRP, with destination, is almost $26,000, but with $750 in factory cash we’re confident you can keep the purchase at $25,000.

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Subaru Crosstrek
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Subaru Crosstrek

It’s small enough to easily park, but large enough for an extended holiday. Unlike many crossovers, Subaru’s Crosstrek offers credible handling, almost in spite of its 8+ inches of ground clearance. And with one of the best resale histories in the industry, if your kid’s needs change he’ll get most of your money back. What’s not to like in this $25,000 (Crosstrek Premium with optional CVT transmission) scenario?

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Toyota Corolla iM
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Toyota Corolla iM

This isn’t your mother’s Corolla; it is, instead, the Scion iM, reconfigured as a Toyota with the closing of the Scion franchise. As such, there’s a tad more ‘youth’ within the iM DNA if compared to the historically staid Corolla. The iM offers a clean, contemporary look, along with the added functionality of its five-door configuration. And despite Toyota build quality and a reasonable drivetrain, it’s cheap. With mats, the NAV/Audio upgrade and TRD lowering springs(!), we’re in for just $21,000.

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Volkswagen GTI
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VW GTI

Here we’ll splurge. But just slightly. Volkswagen’s Golf, with a base of around $20,000, is a compact hatch any grad would be glad to have. But this is your grad, and with a cap at $25,000 we’ll extend that by about a $1,000; with that small bump you can take delivery of the GTI, with its surplus of power and pride of ownership. And while this is the base S GTI, there’s nothing to suggest a stripper. Instead, it delivers all the goodness and goods we’ve come to love over the VW’s 35+ years of US availability. The standard Golf is good, but we want to make America great, right? Buy the GTI.

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