The Ultimate Student Car

1999 Ford Escort ZX2

1999 Ford Escort ZX2

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It’s been said that while other countries live in the world, Americans only live in America. If this were Europe or Asia, this article could be titled The Ultimate Car; what we call “economy” cars, they see as the smart, efficient family mainstream; they also see our choices of transport as oversized and wasteful. Europe’s best-selling vehicle is the Volkswagen Golf; ours is the Ford F-150. Maybe they have a point.

Then again, how can we trust the opinions of people who call soccer “football” and use forks and knives to eat Big Macs? On this continent, small means sissy, four cylinders amount to half an engine, and hatchbacks are for Pizza Hut. Yeah, they’re just jealous.

Even so, plenty of little runabouts can be found roaming our landscape (not all of which have Hertz placards), so someone must be buying them. Possibly someone with a four-digit bank balance, or someone whose purchasing decisions are at the mercy of parents. Yes, I’m talking about you, starving student. But if you’re to be stuck with one, you might as well stick to the right one, and I have the answer. So finish that ramen and pay attention.

Since the name of the game is affordability, the focus will be used cars. Riding on the reality TV fad, we’ll employ the elimination method. Uninvited are the Toyota Tercel and Echo, Hyundai Accent, Daewoo Lanos, Kia Rio, Geo Metro, Suzuki Swift and Esteem, and Ford Aspire. They’re not very swift, they don’t aspire to much, and driving one may take a toll on your esteem. If 0-60 mph in 17 seconds was funny in the ‘90s, it’s beneath laughing matters now.

I take the Consumer Reports philosophy of disqualifying any entry with sub-par reliability (below 3 on their 5-point scale), because campus life provides enough troubles as standard equipment. Right off the bat, we can nix the Volkswagen Jetta and Golf (averaging 2.6 over 1996-2003), Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire (2.5), Volkswagen Beetle (1.7), Dodge/Plymouth Neon (1.6), Ford Focus (1.5), Hyundai Elantra, Kia Sephia, and Daewoo Nubira (insufficient data). With the exception of the Volkswagens, none feels like much of a loss.

That was easy: ten down in one fell swoop. On to the remaining nine. As the Martha Stewart case demonstrates, it’s fun to use overrated icons as target practice, so let's take aim at the sales leader. It's the first name that comes to everyone’s mind: the one, the only, the Honda Civic. Remind me why it’s famous again? Is it quality? A repair record averaging 4.4 out of 5 is nothing to scoff at, but that spells little advantage over six other cars in this discussion. Is it gas mileage? Civic takes the gold here, but at direct cost to torque--defined as that which makes you go when you step on the go-pedal--which scrapes the bottom of the field. Since in this class, gas mileage is abundant and speed is wanting, Honda’s efforts were arguably misdirected. Is it driving pleasure? With middling power and one of the slowest steering ratios around, how could it be? Also consider Honda’s reputation as a maker of less-than-silky-smooth automatic transmissions--a claim I can verify as a disappointed co-owner. And don't forget these things get stolen, A LOT. I alone was told three anecdotes of Civic thefts on my campus; blame its popularity as well as Honda’s multi-model parts interchangeability. Topping it all off, the Civic's near-invincible resale values translates to the loftiest used market prices. In summary, to buy a used Civic is to pay top-dollar for a car that’s slow among a group known for slowness, offers an average driving experience, and may one day disappear from where you last parked it. Overhyped and undeserving, the Civic, in my opinion, is the Sony of the economy car world. Hasta luego, Honda.

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