Today's environmentally conscious students are thinking more about the environment in the choices they make.
They still need to get around, but they may be less likely to accept the price of doing so in a car with a tailpipe spewing pollution and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Many may need to make long trips back and forth to school that will leave them carrying lots of stuff, from clothes and bedding to computers, networking equipment, microwaves, refrigerators, and hot plates.
All that calls for a car with plenty of cargo space, as well as one that dramatically reduces emissions and energy consumption. (Even high schoolers will soon enter the phase of life that involves a lot of moving between apartments and roommates.)
For those students—and their parents—we came up with a list of the best plug-in cars to take back to school this fall.
All are hatchbacks with generally generous cargo space in back (OK, maybe with one exception. But for that, read on.)
We included plug-in hybrids as well as pure electric cars, to accomplish those long drives back and forth to school. After all, not everybody can afford a Tesla and not all campuses are near fast charging routes.
Many plug-in cars aren't cheap and haven't been on the market long enough for depreciation to make them truly affordable yet on most students' budgets. so we've kept an eye toward things that are "more" affordable, but didn't rule out anything purely based on price.
Here's what we came up with:
7. Used Tesla Model S
The Model S may be an expensive luxury car, but the company has been building them since 2012, so it's possible to find a used one that's a fraction of its original cost. Tesla also produced several lower-priced versions of the Model S, starting with the 60 in 2013, through the 70D in starting in 2014. If you're in a position to afford one, the Tesla has some serious advantages for students. They get top safety ratings and have huge hatchbacks to carry stuff. The front trunk offers even more storage. And a student could hardly ask for more modern technology with the center control touch screen and live Google maps to pinch and zoom. (We won't even get into the ups and downs of Autopilot.) The 70D even offers all-wheel drive.
The cheapest Model S listed in Tesla's used inventory at the time of this writing is a 2014 S 60 in New Jersey with 42,000 miles for $47,000. That's less than the most basic Model 3 Tesla makes today. Autotrader has a couple of Model Ses listed for less than $40,000.
2013 Fiat 500e electric car, Los Angeles drive event, April 2013
2013 Fiat 500e electric car, Los Angeles drive event, April 2013
6. Fiat 500e
For today's minimalist Millennials who want to enjoy the ride rather than bring a lot of stuff, the 500e is fun on a budget. It doesn't have a long range or even fast charging, but it should be enough to get around campus. Think of it as the opposite of the Model S.
If a student cares about looking good—and what student doesn't—the 500e will light up Greek-row parties like a Roman sparkler.
The 500e is one of the cheapest electric cars you can buy, with $7,250 cash back this month or a lease for $229 a month. Fiat only sells them in California and Oregon, but used models are available anywhere in the country for under $10,000, plus shipping.
2018 Nissan Leaf SL
5. Nissan Leaf
For students looking for an affordable, roomy electric car, why not go with the original.
Leafs are affordable, with leases in California starting at $219 a month with $3,979 due at signing. That makes it $120 less per month than the Bolt EV, and current Leaf owners can get another $1,000 off.
It offers good cargo space for a small hatchback, and newer or timid drivers can get a hand from Nissan's Pro-Pilot Assist.
2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV
4. Chevrolet Bolt EV
For students who want to go pure electric, it's hard to beat the Bolt EV. It offers more range than any car short of a Tesla—and even more than the entry-level Model Ses that started off this list.
The Bolt is compact and easy to see out of, and its tall hatchback format incorporates a deep cargo well inside. As in the Volt, the Bolt EV's modern touchscreen offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to keep students' familiar apps close at hand. Act fast! If too many students buy a Bolt, GM could be the next automaker to reach the limits of its federal tax credits.
2017 Chevrolet Volt in Vancouver, BC, Canada
3. Chevrolet Volt
The Chevy Volt is the longest-range plug-in hybrid on the market, and often the most affordable after accounting for rebates and special offers. Its gas engine can get 42 mpg on the way home from school or when taking friends off-campus for a weekend away. Fold the back seats down, and the Volt offers a roomy storage area under its big hatchback.
Right now, it's available to lease for $234 a month with $0 down for 36 months. that should get a student through most of what they need to accomplish. So far it's also eligible for the federal government's full $7,500 tax credit.
2017 Toyota Prius Prime test drive, Ojai, California, Sep 2016
2. Toyota Prius Prime
When driving around campus, very few students will probably go beyond the confines of the Prius Prime's 25-mile electric range. For trips home its gas engine will go the distance and get 54 mpg doing it. Like the Tesla, it has a huge center touch screen. (OK, not quite as huge, at 11.6 inches, and only included in upper trim levels. The Prime offers plenty of space to lug a dorm room full of stuff back to school—more than the Volt. It seats only four, but that could keep students from excessive distraction as they're driving.
Unlike a used Tesla, the Prius Prime will earn a $4,502 tax credit for whomever buys it—as long as they earn enough in a year to owe that much in taxes.
2018 Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid
1. Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid
The Kia Niro may be the perfect car for students. It has plenty of electric range to get off campus or to class, while delivering 46 mpg from its gas engine. It easily exceeds both its range and mpg ratings in real world driving. It has more space inside than the Toyota Prius Prime and can seat three tall frat brothers in the back seat. It also has one of the simplest center touch-screen interfaces around that also includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The Niro comes loaded, and buyers can even opt for features to get through the winter at an Ivy League or small liberal arts college in New England, such as rear seat heaters and a heated steering wheel. No one has to know you're riding in the lap of efficient luxury in the Kia. Buyers are eligible for a $4,543 federal tax credit.