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Picking the Right Car for the Graduate


Seems like it was only a few years ago you were changing the kid's diapers.

Now you're doing his or her laundry on those monthly visits home.

But soon--if not already--the child will don cap and gown, grab a diploma and be earning a regular income (after a year's vacation to determine what to do in life, because that wasn't found in the four to five years of college).

And what better way to kick the kid out--er, better make that to help the child launch a new, self-supporting career--than to buy, or co-sign for, a new vehicle?

Of course, parents may argue that after what they've just spent on the education, the kid owes them a new vehicle.

Whatever the case might be, calls and letters with the common question for this time of year--"What kind of car to get the grad?"--are accumulating.

The same kinds of inquiries come from the parents of soon-to-be high school grads, and to them we say: Look for late-model used versions of any of the below. As a rule of thumb, don't buy a really old car if Junior is going away to school--unless you relish emergency trips to help get the junker started--and don't buy new unless the budget is unlimited.

A new car, if Junior is knuckling down and studying, will spend most of its time for the kid's college career sitting in parking lots, gathering dirt. If driven a lot, of course, the car will return home well in advance of four to five years, kid attached. And then, in addition to berating yourself for having contributed to the untimely termination of Junior's academic career by providing the wheels that hastened the end, you'll kick yourself for having paid the price of a new car.

For those who have reason to shop new for a new grad, though, here's a look at some relatively low-cost vehicles that won't make Mom and Dad look cheap:

* BMW Mini Cooper: If son or daughter is graduating from Harvard, consider the remake of the British Mini. Low base price, but expect some dealer add-ons for the low-volume, high-demand car.

The trick--finding one. Waiting time at most dealerships for new orders is about four months. The lower-production Mini Cooper S is supercharged for more power. Base price: $16,300 for Cooper; $19,300 for Cooper S.

* Chrysler PT Cruiser: Supply has caught up with demand, stocks are up, and stickers are down. Nice looks, nice mileage (20 mpg city and 25 highway), good people and cargo room and a decent price.

With optional anti-lock brakes and traction control ($595), a surprisingly good performer in lousy weather. Base price: $17,000 to $20,000, depending on model.

* Ford Focus ZX3: The two-door hatchback is a high-mileage subcompact coupe, but you must add $400 for ABS or $1,625 for ABS with traction control, and $1,000 for the power group that adds power windows, mirrors and locks. Mileage: 25/31. Base price: $12,000 to $14,000.

* Ford Focus ZX5: The roomier four-door hatchback with good mileage (25/34). Expect to add options, primarily $1,225 for Advance Trac, which requires ABS at an additional $400. The sophisticated stability and traction control system is borrowed from the Lincoln LS and is unique among small cars. Base price: $15,615.

* Honda Accord SE sedan: For the practical grad. The Accord has Honda's reputation for quality and durability. Mileage is rated at 23/30 with the four-cylinder, four-speed automatic. A lot of car for the money, but soon will be replaced by a bigger, more powerful, higher-priced model. Base price: $20,850.

* Honda Civic hybrid: For the environmentalist grad. The gasoline-electric hybrid boasts a highly economical mileage rating of 48/48. It comes as a four-door sedan with ample room in cabin and trunk. Doesn't have green leaves plastered on the doors to advertise that it's out of the ordinary. Base price: $21,000.

* Hyundai Elantra GT: A good-looking compact powered by a high-mileage (24/33) four-cylinder engine. But to get anti-lock brakes you must spend nearly $1,200--which gets a power moon roof as well. Go figure. Base price: About $14,000.

* Kia Optima SE: Compact sedan with long list of standard equipment and a V-6 engine. ABS adds about $800. Pleasant ride and handling from an economy car for the budget-minded. Base price: About $19,000.

* Mazda Protege ES: A sporty compact sedan with lots of room and good mileage (25/31) from its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine linked to a five-speed manual transmission. Great safety record and a moderate sticker price. ABS is an $800 option but includes side air bags. Other options to consider, a six-disc in-dash CD changer for $500 and a four-speed automatic for $800. Base price: $15,630.

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