— 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.
Since affordability is an important piece of the puzzle for young people, 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 Used 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 professionals:
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).
2. 2017 Toyota Tacoma
Life for new graduates 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.
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.
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, you'll appreciate the Outback's standard all-wheel drive and robust safety features list.
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.
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.
7. 2017 Mazda Miata
It doesn'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.
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.
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 Used 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.
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.