University students are a lucky bunch these days; there’s a kaleidoscope of decent, affordable second-hand cars that’ll be ideal for the heady days of lectures, loans and loafing.

If you’re buying for your fledgling academic offspring, the priorities probably start with safety and end with affordability, but if you’re buying your own uni wheels then having something that doesn’t look like your nan’s orthopaedic shoe is also likely a concern.  Fear not, you don’t have to settle for boring to get safe and good value; there are fun options out there, so here’s a rundown of the best used cars for uni students:

VW Up! (2012 onwards)

Price: £3000 – £13,000

The Volkswagen Up! does absolutely everything you could want of a learner or university car. It’s safe, with airbags and the essential driver aids included as well as good results in crash tests. It’s easy to drive but also fun, and it looks cool and is remarkably roomy for a small car. 

Get the five-door version and you can easily get all your mates in for those occasional roadtrips, and then you can drop the seats to make a spacious area to stuff all your worldly belongings when you head home for the holidays. Early ones don’t have a USB input, and they didn’t all come with nav, settling instead for a smartphone dock which should suit most uni students today. There is Bluetooth and a conveniently-placed 12V socket, so you can charge your phone up with an aftermarket 12V-to-USB charging device easily and audio-stream your music.

Volvo V40 (2012 onwards)

Price: £4000 – £20,000+

This isn’t a classic student or learner driver choice as the VW Up! is; the V40 is a little bigger, at roughly VW Golf or Ford Focus-sized for a start. However, safety is often a critical deciding factor if you – or the one you’re buying for – doesn’t have a huge amount of experience behind the wheel, and the Volvo V40 is way safer than any small car, even brand new ones. It gets airbags all round, including a driver’s knee airbag and even a pedestrian airbag. Not only that, but there’s autonomous emergency braking around town, so the car will brake for you if it thinks you’re going to have an accident. 

Go for SE or up if you can, as that gets cruise control, or SE Lux trim adds a bigger nav screen and xenon lights as well. A USB-input and Bluetooth also makes it easy to listen to your music, but the Volvo’s system is a bit fiddly to get used to. 

All the engines are good and there’s a great range of petrol and diesels on offer, although the D2 diesel is a little gutless but very economical. Try to avoid the six-speed automatic gearboxes in earlier cars if you can; the eight speed introduced in later cars was much smoother, while all the manual gearboxes are fine. The only big caveat is that insurance could be a bit higher on the Volvo than on the other cars here, so do get a quote before you buy.

Hyundai i10 (2008 onwards)

Price: £1200 – £10,000

This is a fairly classic option for first-time drivers or uni students, and for good reason. We know – it isn’t as cool to look at nor quite as fun to drive as the VW Up, but it is cheaper to insure, bigger inside yet still compact enough to be easy to park on awkward campus car parks. There have been two generations of the Hyundai i10 since 2008, but both are great, so if your budget is really tight then don’t be afraid to go for a higher mileage, older car since they have a good reputation for reliability. 

If you can afford a bit more, the latest model is also brilliantly comfortable, sweet to drive and better equipped than the earlier model, and it gets a five-year, unlimited mileage warranty so there’s every chance you can get a car with a useful amount of warranty left. The 1.2 engine is a little smoother and punchier than the 1.0-litre, but both are frugal and fine even for motorway stuff, and the 1.0-litre is a little cheaper to insure so both will be great uni cars. If you can’t live with the looks, do look to the Kia Picanto, which shares many parts with the i10 including its engines, but was introduced later and is a bit more expensive. It’s available in loads of bright colours and looks appealingly cute and chunky, plus comes with an even longer seven year, 100,000 mile warranty, so will make for equally excellent student transport.

Fiat 500C (2009 – onwards)

Price: £2500 – £10,000

Right, you want a cool, compact and affordable? This is it. The Fiat 500C has the sort of style appeal that makes Gucci do partnerships with it (no, you really can get a Gucci version of this car but it’s fashionably expensive…) and it’s also a doddle to drive, will seat four adults at a squeeze and comes with a scrolling fabric roof for ultimate sunny-day fun. It doesn’t have the same safety value as the Volvo, the same space and kit as the Hyundai, nor is it as a good to drive as the VW Up, but just look at it… 

The 0.9 TiwnAir three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine is great fun to drive but isn’t as economical as you’d expect – think more like 30-35mpg than over 40mpg. The 1.2 petrol is very common and does the job perfectly, while it’s worth avoiding the noisy 1.3 MultiJet diesel unless fuel economy is an absolute priority. 

Lounge trim also has most of the basic kit you want, but the media system in early Fiat 500s was pretty dire – you may even want to consider a decent aftermarket radio (they’re not expensive or hard to fit) if you value having your own music or podcasts in your car, as most of us do. Later cars improved on this front, so make sure you take your phone and a USB cable to try it out when you view the car, and don’t be afraid to ask the owner or dealer for advice on how it works.

Other than that, do try and find a car with good service history and lower mileage, as reliability isn’t as bulletproof as it is on the Hyundai. Check for funny engine noises, make sure that the owner lets you start it up from cold, and take it for a drive to feel how good the clutch is and whether the gearbox feels okay (the shift was always a bit sloppy but it shouldn’t crunch or be difficult to engage a gear).

From a common sense perspective, the 500C isn’t as recommendable as the others here. But for a convertible it’s cheap to insure, and as far as ‘want one’ factor goes, it’s pretty much off the charts. 

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