HENRY PAYNE

Payne: Picking best college car can be emotional ride

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Cars mark milestones in our lives: The car you got your license in as a teen. Your first family carrier when you had kids. Your mid-life crisis Camaro ZL1 that got you a fat ticket on Woodward (remember that one?).

A new car will depreciate 60 percent after four years. So get a bargain 2012 hatchback like this Ford Focus.

For many, August means finding the right car to go back to college.

After the emotional family trip your freshman year — the tears, the hugs, the goodbyes — sophomore year begins an annual routine. You’re on your own. Time to have your own car and make the trip back yourself. The car represents freedom, but also expense.

You imagine rolling up to campus in a brand new, yellow Mustang convertible — V-6 purring, shades on. But will all your stuff fit in the trunk? Will your three pals fit in the back seat? And what was that sticker price again? Thirty-three grand?

(Cough.) Not on top of what the parents are paying in tuition, you’re not.

Welcome to Econ 101. College wheels are a lesson in cost management and utility. Shopping starts in the USED section. Save the new car for later. The truth is new vehicles on average depreciate by 20 percent their first year off the lot according to Carfax.com — and 60 percent over four years.

Talk about a lousy investment. So buy used. But be reasonable about it.

My college roommate bought his first car in August 1985 with $100 he had saved from his summer job. It was an old Fiat with more miles on it that the Space Shuttle. He drove it 200 miles to Princeton University from Virginia that August, unloaded his stuff in our room, then coaxed it — wheezing and wobbling — to a nearby garage to get it serviced.

The grizzled mechanic took one look at the Italian lemon, turned to my 19-year old roomie and said: “Son, you’re lucky to be alive.”

Happily, 200,000 miles is the new 100,000. So if you can find a 5-year-old-plus car with less than 100,000 miles on the odometer, chances are you’ll get a good buy for under $10,000.

There’s a school of thought among parents that their kids should drive around in tanks for safety in the case of an accident (likely with another kid in a tank). But I come from a different school: If you’re a competent, defensive driver, a smaller car allows you to avoid contact in the first place. Case in point — at the busy Tel-Twelve interchange on the Lodge Freeway a few years back, a hulking SUV cut across three lanes (seized by a sudden Big Mac attack, perhaps?) to exit onto Telegraph Road — and right across my bow. Driving a nimble Ford Focus ZX3 hatch (ultimately the college car for both my boys), I took violent avoidance action and emerged unscathed.

If I had been in a large SUV, I would have been on my roof. Or worse.

Compact hatches are also affordable. A Ford Focus or Mazda 3 hatchback, Honda Fit, Toyota Prius or VW Golf all meet my under-100,000 miles/$10,000 ticker criteria. They are also thrifty daily drivers for tight student budgets — and will sound attractive to tuition-shocked parents when you go to them on bended knees for one more college expense.

A 2011 Honda Fit, for example, will get over 30 mpg and require minimal maintenance. Look for a used, mid-sized, 30-mpg-sipping Honda Pilot SUV for under $10K and you’d have a better chance finding a unicorn.

Yeah, I know, millennials dig SUVs just like everyone else. And, says Chevy marketing guru Steve Majoros, crossovers are no longer just for soccer moms now that a new generation of subcompact utes is peppering vehicles lots: Chevy Trax, Fiat 500X, Jeep Renegade. But good luck finding those newbies for less than $10K.

Five-door compacts offer the same utility at less cost. All you give up is a few inches off the ground. That’s right, the days of the underpowered compact are over.

I didn’t have a car in college (a West Virginia native, I was lucky to have shoes), but the future Mrs. Payne did. Her used, loaded-with-college-stuff BMW 318 sedan and its paltry 98 horses barely made it over Pennsylvania’s mountains on her way to school.

That five-door, four-year-old Honda Fit/Focus/Golf beats the Bimmer by 20-60 horsepower and will climb interstate mountains like a billy goat. It’ll also fit your belongings. And your three college pals. And go from Ann Arbor to home and back on a couple of gallons of gas.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.