Car Buyer Labs

Car Buying Advice, Tips, and Reviews

A silver 2015 Mazda CX-5 is shown from the rear at sunset.

Utility and Frugality Are Key for Used SUVs

So, you want to buy a used SUV? Now, there’s a fine idea. Spacious with high capability and great visibility can be tough to beat. But, especially if you’re a college student looking at used SUVs for sale, there’s a lot more to the story than that. What about the up-front cost, the efficiency, and the real estate that an SUV takes up? All worthy of consideration when trying to pick your next ride.

The tough thing about buying a vehicle as a student is that you’re usually tight on cash and on space. At the same time, if you do need a vehicle, it has to be safe and have the capacity to handle all your belongings when you move from place to place. Then there is, of course, the cool factor – while it shouldn’t be your sole criteria, you’ll definitely prefer a vehicle that looks good and is fun to drive. Taking all of these things into consideration leaves a handful of crossover SUVs that we think would be excellent finds, all offering SUV capacity with a budget-friendly dash of fun mixed in.

2012 Toyota RAV4

Any model year of the Toyota RAV4 is a great pick for any driver under any circumstances. However, we think the 2012 model is one of the company’s greatest achievements in terms of reliability, practicality, and performance. Approaching 10 years of age, the 2012 RAV4 can be found for $10,000 or less, yet it boasts some of the highest reliability scores of the decade – easily checking two boxes off our “must-haves” list for student-friendly SUVs.

But the 2012 RAV4 is so much more than a bargain. It was the last RAV4 to offer three-row seating. However, you shouldn’t necessarily count on a 7-seat model to transport yourself and 6 friends around, as the back row is more suitable for children. Fold-flat seats that can slide forward and backward provide excellent cargo versatility, with a maximum of 73 cu.ft. exceeding the modern RAV4’s maximum 69.8 cu.ft. The only thing you need to be wary of is the tailgate, which swings out instead of up, so keep this in mind if you often need to parallel park in your area.

This was also the last RAV4 to offer a V6 engine. With 269 hp and 245 lb-ft of torque, the 2012 RAV4 V6 was Toyota’s fastest vehicle in the US with a sub-7-second 0-60 mph time. Despite the muscle car-like powertrain, though, the RAV4 still achieved roughly 19 MPG city, 26 MPG highway, and 22 MPG combined, which is great for its size and age. Factor in the AWD system, which will reward drivers in every climate with superb control under poor traction conditions compared to FWD counterparts, and you’ve got a virtually perfect SUV for college living.

A silver 2012 Toyota RAV4 is driving on a sunny neighborhood street.

2015 Mazda CX-5

The CX-5 is another reliable crossover at a good price. Though it lacks the RAV4’s stellar reliability ratings, it delivers better fuel efficiency and an effortless ride quality, which demonstrates that “zoom, zoom” was more than just a sales pitch. Compared to the 2012 RAV4, you’ll pay more for the newer CX-5 – roughly $15,000 most likely – but with fuel efficiency ratings of at least 24 MPG city and 29 MPG highway, your weekly gas expenses will be significantly reduced.

The better fuel efficiency comes with a drop in power, as the CX-5 only offers 4-cylinder engines with no more than 184 hp, but that bears no influence on the outstanding handling, cornering, and overall comfort of the ride. Comfortable seating for 5 adults, with 34 cu.ft. behind the 2nd row and a maximum 64.8 cu.ft. of storage space overall makes the CX-5 a perfectly capable crossover for moving people and boxes on a regular basis. Plus, unlike the 2012 RAV4, the 2015 CX-5 has a liftgate for easier access in tight quarters.

While perusing the market for used CX-5s, keep an eye out for a couple of features: AWD and a manual 6-speed transmission. Learning to drive a manual transmission is a challenge, but a surmountable and satisfying one that can lead to seriously fun driving. However, nobody could blame you for wanting to keep it simple, and the CX-5’s manual transmission was only available with FWD, so if having AWD is critical for you (and it really doesn’t need to be, unless muddy mountain roads or New England/Midwest winters are the norm for you) then consider a manual transmission to be a sign to look elsewhere.

From another angle, the CX-5 is the best crossover you can buy: with the best collision safety scores for its class, it was a 2015 IIHS Top Safety Pick+ and earned 5/5 stars overall from the NHTSA. Now-common driver assists like a blind spot monitor and rear parking sensors were optional, so ask about safety features like these, and rest assured that whichever CX-5 you get, you’ll be well protected in the event of an accident.

2014 MINI Cooper Countryman

A red 2014 Mini Cooper Countryman, a popular used SUV for sale, is driving on a tree-lined road.

We know, we know. A MINI probably isn’t what you had in mind when you thought of a used SUV. But preconceptions aside, the Cooper Countryman is classed as a subcompact SUV, competing with the likes of the Buick Encore (another excellent option) for your inner-city parking spot. In fact, early-10’s era Countryman models consistently rank high in the class for reliability, safety, and cost of ownership ratings, so don’t count it out just yet.

Its MINI DNA ensures that its handling capabilities are incomparable to anything in its class. If your location puts space at a true premium, subcompacts like the Countryman are the way to go, with small turning circles and even smaller footprints. Get one with a turbocharged engine, and it’ll have all the pep you should expect from a MINI as well, whether it has the standard manual transmission or a 6-speed automatic. AWD was available on non-base engines as well, so all-season performance remains accessible to this sportiest of sport utility vehicles.

Like the 2015 CX-5, you’re likely to spend about $15,000 for a 2014 Cooper Countryman, and fuel efficiency is similar, with the worst rating being 23 MPG city and 30 MPG highway for the automatic/AWD configuration. Interior spaciousness takes a hit as well. You can still handle 5 adults, but cargo capacity is a more pedestrian 16.5/42.2 cu.ft with the rear seats up/down. That’s what you get when you buy an SUV that’s a full 17” shorter than the CX-5 – it’s up to you to figure what’s worth more, raw volume for moving objects and people, or the ability to slip into small spaces with ease. Fortunately, you need not sacrifice in other areas like safety – the Countryman was a 2014 IIHS Top Safety Pick in its own right, competing well with other small SUVs.

Perhaps the MINI’s most significant offering is the cool factor. MINI design is distinctive as anything on the market inside and out; pulling up in a Cooper Countryman is always a statement. Not only that, even the 2014 Countryman had a 6.5” touchscreen with smartphone integration features via the MINI Connected Infotainment System. A final note is that with the plethora of individualizations that are always offered for MINI vehicles, the used market for the Countryman is as diverse as they come, so shop around to find one that speaks to you!


Buying a car as a student (or on a student’s budget) is difficult. As always, the best choice for you is personal and could depend on what’s available in your area. Consider this a guideline and if you do look at other models, see how they compare against these top-notch selections, and above all, be sure to test drive any vehicle before you buy it. With an emphasis on keeping costs low, and reliability and safety high, while still seeking out a fun factor that you’ll love, we recommend the 2012 Toyota RAV4, 2015 Mazda CX-5, or 2014 MINI Cooper Countryman.