10 Cars for Graduates and Young Professionals

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CARS.COM — It’s graduation season at colleges around America, and young people with bright eyes are ready to put aside their caps and gowns and start putting those degrees to use. Sounds like it’s time for a new set of wheels to drive.

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Since cost is an important piece of the puzzle for young drivers, our price cap for this list is a starting MSRP under $30,000 (including destination). We also consider a variety of life stages: Some folks were able to work it out with their college sweetheart, and that means a family-oriented ride right out of the gate. For others, it’s the single life, where a car doesn’t need more than two seats and a big engine. Not quite sure which road you’re headed down? We’ve got you covered for both.

Here are our 10 picks for graduates and young adults:

img2088750419 1478895735048 jpg 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI | photo by Evan Sears

1. 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI

My personal favorite car under $30,000 (and even maybe $40,000, for that matter) offers an unmatched mix of practicality and fun. It is equal parts a driver’s car and, with its hatchback shape, still offers solid passenger and cargo room (22.8 cubic feet behind the backseat).

img 1803579827 1494515551643 jpg 2017 Toyota Tacoma | photo by Evan Sears

2. 2017 Toyota Tacoma

Life for new graduates and young adults especially involves a lot of moving, and there’s no better vehicle for trips to Ikea and picking up shady couches on Craigslist than a truck. The growth of mid-size trucks means that even they can fit a bunch of stuff in the bed, and for under $30,000, you can get an SR5 double-cab model. Why the Tacoma over others? Solid resale value — so if you need to upgrade or change vehicles a few years down the line, it will give you a good head start.

img1526130614 1478892468468 jpg 2017 Kia Optima | Manufacturer image

3. 2017 Kia Optima

Mid-size sedans are great for small families or those who need more passenger and cargo room than a compact can offer. The Optima’s styling still makes it stand out in this class, and it offers plenty of technology, safety systems and convenience features for its price.

img 89254991 1473865005780 jpg 2017 Subaru Outback | photo by Evan Sears

4. 2017 Subaru Outback

The Impreza hatchback is also an option here, but I prefer the added size and ground clearance (8.7 inches!) that the Outback offers. If that first job offer comes somewhere with snow and other messy weather, drivers and parents alike will appreciate the Outback’s standard all-wheel drive and robust safety features list.

img1440754491 1479230210951 jpg 2017 Honda Civic Hatchback | photo by Brian Wong

5. 2017 Honda Civic Hatch

The sedan version of the Civic won our 2017 Compact Sedan Challenge in April, but I’ve always preferred the styling and added utility of the hatchback model. But if you’re someone who likes to shift their own gears, Honda’s forthcoming Civic Si will offer more power and performance (in sedan or coupe body styles) for an attractive $24,775 with destination.

img 475591689 1472575443484 jpg 2017 Jeep Wrangler | Manufacturer image

6. 2017 Jeep Wrangler

The ultimate go-anywhere machine can be acquired in both two- and four-door versions (Wrangler Unlimited) for under $30,000, and these machines are perfect for anyone whose future includes a lot of time spent off the beaten path. A new job might also require some weekends out in the wild to decompress, and there’s no better way to get there than in a Wrangler.

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7. 2017 Mazda Miata

New cars don’t get any more fun than this two-seat roadster, which puts the joy of driving at the forefront. Pop down the top, feel the wind in your hair and toss that graduation hat right out the back.

img2054849374 1489416935702 jpg 2017 Mazda CX-5 | photo by Brian Wong

8. 2017 Mazda CX-5

The most fun-to-drive compact SUV got a big redesign in 2017 and is now one of the most refined as well, with a smoother ride and good cabin materials. And with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay being added to the multimedia system later this year (it will also be added to vehicles that have already been purchased), one of our biggest problems with the CX-5’s daily usability will no longer be an issue.

img450044959 1474924034229 jpg 2017 Toyota Prius Prime | photo by Brian Wong

9. 2017 Toyota Prius Prime

For urban dwellers, plug-in hybrid vehicles make a ton of sense. The Prius Prime has 25 miles of electric range, which should cover trips around the city, but it still has a gas engine for longer trips when needed. And remember that the Prius Prime also qualifies for a $4,502 federal tax credit, which knocks down its price even more.

img 2133219323 1478883562143 jpg 2017 Ford Edge | photo by Evan Sears

10.  2017 Ford Edge

Two-row mid-size SUVs offer more cargo space and a larger backseat than their compact counterparts, good for small families that won’t need extra third-row seating on a regular basis. This plus the fact that the Edge also offers Sync 3 — Ford’s latest infotainment system, which remade an old interface that gave our editors a headache into one of our favorites — gives it the final spot on our list.

Photo of Brian Wong
Former L.A. Bureau Chief Brian Wong is a California native with a soft spot for convertibles and free parking. Email Brian Wong

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