|Car for the Long Haul||MSRP||Qualities|
|Honda Civic||$15,010-$22,460||Sexy design, quality features|
|Toyota RAV4||$21,500-$27,070||Good safety scores, all-wheel drive|
|Mazda6||$19,220-$28,930||Powerful engines, sharp exterior, large trunk|
|Ford Escape Hybrid||$21,880-$27,445||Good gas mileage, roomy cabin|
|Honda Element||$18,980-$23,575||Unique style, flat cargo bed, good safety scores|
|Acura TSX||$28,960-$32,060||Upscale features, solid reputation, good safety scores|
|Kia Rio5||$12,915-$14,715||Low MSRP, good safety features, great gas mileage, long warranty|
The Honda Civic's quality record, youthful style and fully-equipped cabin put it on anyone's short list of cars for an evolving life. Its sleek profile leaves a stealth impression whether on the campus quad or the highway, and its power, crisp handling and precise brakes will serve you well in an urban setting. On the downside, not much of your IKEA furniture will fit in the Civic's tiny cabin, especially without 60/40-split rear seats. But you'll have enough room to carry your kids and a few toys. When it's finally time to part with the Civic, its high resale value will boost your down payment for a new ride.
It's been more than a decade since the RAV4 was first introduced in the U.S., and this compact SUV is still among the best of its class for its solid combination of comfort, safety and performance, all backed by a strong reliability record. The same seats and space that's perfect for carting you and your friends to the next kegger -- ahem, study hall -- will still work well when carting your tots around to play-dates. In addition, the SUV's all-wheel drive and electronic stability control systems will help you navigate your way to day care and work on snowy days.
The redesigned 2009 Mazda6 is a good choice from college to career because it offers the snazzy styling co-eds recognize from the little Mazda3 along with the size, power and practicality you'll need in a family car. Either its four-cylinder engine or optional V6 are strong enough to keep the drive to work interesting, and cabin extras like a DVD-based navigation system or 333-watt 10-speaker Bose sound system will keep you on the cutting edge. Fold down the 60/40-split rear seats and you'll find a 10 percent increase in cargo capacity from the previous generation -- making its 16.6 cubic-foot cargo area one of the largest for a midsize car.
Ford Escape Hybrid
If you're eyeing this green SUV, you're thinking of the bigger picture. The Ford Escape Hybrid's trump card is providing some of the utility associated with a larger vehicle while limiting your trips to the gas station. It has a cocky stance that will shame the Jettas and Corollas littering the student parking lot, but its high mpg rating will keep you from getting the evil eye from the environmentally-conscious campus groups.
Years later, you can enjoy the privilege of zipping by unenlightened commuters as you cruise in the carpool lane, and the money you'll save in gas (or with your hefty tax credit) can go toward your first apartment's security deposit. The Escape Hybrid's battery pack eats up some rear cargo room and the SUV doesn't have sliding rear seats like some rivals, but it still has roomy seating and enough space in back for a stroller and several bags of groceries.
The Element's unusual design and rear suicide doors will help you hold onto the alterna-rep you nurtured in college. In terms of utility, its rear seats can fold flat into the floor, fold up into the sides or be removed altogether -- perfect for lugging your stuff out of mom and dad's house. The seats aren't the only thing that maneuvers well. The Element has handling characteristics normally associated with smaller cars, and it should please any urban dweller weaving between cars on city streets. If that's not enough, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety designates the 2008 model as a "Top Safety Pick,," so you won't mind putting your first little one in the back.
If you're in the market for a car that can go the distance, then you shouldn't be swayed by the Acura TSX's inflated price. Instead, take pride in Acura's quality and treat yourself to some of the TSX's upscale extras. The optional navigation system comes with Zagat restaurant reviews (to help you pick the best place to wine and dine your new boss) along with real-time traffic (to ensure you get to work on time in the first place). You won't be able to carry very much in the TSX's smallish trunk, but there's plenty of room for your most precious cargo and his or her car seat in the back.
Before you scoff at a Kia, check out its strong safety scores, long warranty and smart price. What the Rio5 lacks in convenience features it makes up for in safety equipment and 49.6 cubic feet of cargo room -- because let's face it, that mini-fridge is a lot larger than it looks. The Rio5 also has useful and unusually-shaped storage slots good for keys and toll passes. Best of all, Kias are distinguished by their five-year/60,000-mile basic warranties and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain coverage -- which means you'll have a well-running car well into your post-college life.
For a closer look at these cars that will mature with you, see our slideshow.