Best used car for a daughter at a far away cold weather college

My 19 year old daughter is going back to college in Iowa (go Cyclones!) next month. We want to get her a reliable car to take back with her. She has zero car care/car repair skills, but is a careful driver.

We live in Texas. Iowa gets really cold, even below zero, and has snow often in the winter.

Other parents tell me to not buy her a new car, because it will get beat up in the parking lots at school, and will get lousy maintainance at school.

I am too far away to be the repair/maintainance guy as I am here at home.

What is safe, reliable in cold weather, good gas milage, not too expensive?


chuck in austin

How about a used Suburu Impreza with AWD. Or maybe a used Toyota 4runner. It really depends on what you’re looking to spend. Also, any decent front wheel drive vehicle would probably be fine: maybe a honda civic or accord. I always go with used because of depreciation, but I don’t know how you feel about that.

I did a few years of graduate studies at Iowa State, driving a battered old Plymouth that I picked up cheap from an exiting professor. It served me admirably. One does not really need a car in Ames. An occasional rental will get DD back and forth from home, and there is even a public bus that goes downtown. Lincoln Highway is quickly snowplowed.

That said, there is really no ideal car for a college student. Anything that runs will do nicely. Cars bought in Texas have the same cold-weather preparations as those delivered to Frostbite Falls. Why do you imagine any make/model is more suitable than another? Taint so. What works in Texas works in Iowa.

My advice is to choose a good Texas car, new or used. Favor a small hatchback for economy and extra cargo capacity. Then give DD a few lessons in basic car care.

No suggestions - just observations:

I feel your pain with regard to being too far away to care for the car. My daughter had her car towed to the BMW dealer in her university town. They burned her for about $500 more repairs than she needed, and they tried to get her for another $500 in repairs without which they said her car was unsafe to drive. My subsequent inspection showed that this was a blatant lie.

Ames is pretty close to Des Moines, which now has all the major domestic and import dealers, unlike when I was there 30 years ago.

College kids tend to drive econoboxes, so the Volvo wagon I sent first to college in California turned out to be very popular for hauling stuff for extracurricular activities and carpooling home. However, Ames is an Ag school, so lots of kids will have pickups, so an econobox is fine unless you want something a bit safer.

If she stays for the summer, make sure the A/C works. Ames is a steam bath in summer.

Any Toyota is reliable. AWD would be good. But I used rear-wheel pickups in Kansas City, MO for many years. Just weight the back end and you’re good to go.

Also, I was in school for many, many years. Parking on most campuses is no more dangerous than parking anywhere. Ask her to stay home right after a freezing rain covered by snow [which any sane person would do anyway] and she’ll be safe.

My top three recomendations … Honda Civic, Honda Civic and Honda Civic. For my money there is no more reliable vehicle on the road than the afore mentioned HONDA CIVIC.

A Chevy Prizm or Pontiac Vibe would be a better deal. Since those 2 cars are really Toyotas underneath, but have a different badge on the front of the car, they’re gonna be cheaper to buy. They don’t make Prizms anymore(2002 was the last year), but the Vibe is still being produced and a new one should run about $20k for a decently loaded model while a similarly equipped Matrix will be 2~5k more depending on the packages you want. Both the Vibe and Prizm are essentially a Toyota Carola under the hood, and the Matrix is pretty much a Carola wagon.
My 99 Civic coupe still books for about $5k. I’m sure if I put a for sale sign on it with 6 or 7k asking price, I could probably get it, whereas a 2002 Prizm will go for about the same price because it has a Chevy badge on it.

How about a Buick with the 3.8 engine. They’re not flashy but are reliable, carry a lot of stuff, get good mileage, and easily serviced if needed.
They’re also often owned by elderly people and generally driven easy while having comparatively low miles.

As with any used car, it should be given a very good look-over first.

(Since a Buick is not a flashy car this may keep the X number of thieves away from it while at school. Every college out there has a certain percentage of thieves, vandals, and careless fools who don’t think twice about throwing their 50 pound book bag on top of your car while opening the door on theirs.)

Whatever car you choose, make sure the car has good all season tires and consider getting a new battery for the vehicle, which will be under warranty for the duration of her being at ISU. Get the battery up in Iowa since some manufacturers have Northern and Southern versions. Have her identify a mechanic thru either recommendations or Cartalk home page Mechanics files, and make sure she uses him for all the work. There is good reason to get battery and tires at Walmart since they are open seven days for battery replacement, diagnosis and tire repair.

Come winter, she needs a good winter kit that would include a small shovel, sand, insulated jacket or coveralls, flashlight, coffee can, waterproof matches and candles (although we don’t usually do the candles) and maybe some basic tools. I also armed my kids with a motor club membership, for tows and car lockouts. Daughter used up her allocated tow/lock out service every year. The first year she should be fairly cautious in driving in snow, until she gains some experience.

I let my daughters drive my 1998 Buick Regal with the 3.8L engine. It serves them well. OK4450 made some good observations concerning them. If you want something small, consider a VW New Beetle. They get good mileage, especially if they have the TDI engine. And a Texas car will be highly desirable in Iowa when she graduates. I’d go with a used car, too. The depreciation’s mostly out of it after about 4 years; it will still decrease in value, but not at nearly the initial rate. Both of you should drive a few and see what you like.

If she won’t do a lot of driving in snow, a FWD car with good tires would be fine. My vote is for a three-year-old Honda Civic, although used Hondas and Toyotas do have higher prices due to their reputation.

If you don’t mind my saying this, I’m a little concerned about the “zero car care” and “lousy maintenance” comments. It sounds like you’re paying for this car. If I were in a situation like this, I’d be insisting that the proper maintenance be done. At a minimum, that would include checking the oil, checking and adjusting tire pressures, knowing what to do if any warning lights come on or if a tire goes flat, and going to a touch-free car wash from time to time (especially in winter).

Come winter, make sure she has a snow brush and winter washer fluid. A small folding snow shovel wouldn’t be a bad idea in case she gets plowed in when they do the parking lots.

You do NOT need AWD. Iowa doesn’t get that much snow to warrant AWD or 4WD. Any good fwd vehicle will be fine. Her problem is going to learn how to drive in snow. It’s a lot different then driving on dry pavement.

Find her a good used Honda/Toyota/Scion fwd vehicle. Have a local mechanic check it out before she heads off to college. Every time she comes back home take it out for a ride and see how it’s running. Take car of any issues before she goes back to college.

Getting maintenance done at home worked well for our kids. Each car was put on a 5K oil change interval, coinciding with a zero and 5 odometer reading in the thousands column. That way I could tell instantly if a service was due. Rotate tires at same time. Do 30/60/90K maintenance when it comes due, when they are at home. That is easy to track. If you go with synthetic oil, then the oil change can be extended to 7.5K miles and probably be a semi-annual event.

If that doesn’t work, I also found that a quarterly oil change schedule (for my mother in law, who never paid attention to maintenace) worked well.

My husband and I are from Wisconsin and both went to school at UW Madison. I drove a Honda Civic and my husband had a Prizm. We were fine in the winter. Make sure you have a front wheel drive car and that it has tires that rate well in the snow. Also, make sure you get the car washed whenever the weather gets above freezing in the winter at a place that has the underbody flush to get the salt off of the car… Otherwise any dings will start to rust a lot sooner than on cars in the south. Many people live here in the midwest and don’t have all wheel drive or 4- wheel drive and do just fine in winter. The key is to drive slow and stay off the roads when it’s really bad weather. We have loved the Civic and Prizm here in Wisconsin and they both get great gas milage!

Any Honda Civic EX made in the last 10 years gets my vote. It’s superbly reliable, needs little maintenance, is fun to drive, and gets 36mpg. Additionally it falls under the “cool car” list with college kids.

I agree with the A/4wd thing. If there is a time where you NEED it, you don’t want to be on the road to begin with.