Maybe you're heading off to college in the fall, or perhaps you just graduated and are finally living on your own. Or maybe you just got that long-overdue raise.
You're a guy just starting out and you need to buy your first car -- and dad isn't going to help you pay for it. It's all up to you, big guy. You want it to look hot, have a low price tag and save you money on things like gas and insurance. Here's a list of some cars you'll want to check out. They're all 2004 models, so you'll likely be shopping secondhand. Original MSRPs are provided to give you a sense of the price range.
1- 2004 Mazda3
Manufacturer's retail price: Between $13,680 & $17,105 US
Mazda introduced this car to replace the Protege that it had manufactured under Ford's name (a model with a reputation for not having much in the guts department). The Mazda3 gives the driver plenty of zip for his buck, with a standard engine offering 148 horsepower. Thankfully, that power won't cost you at the pump. The Mazda3 gets a more than adequate 28 to 35 miles per gallon.
Why it's a good first buy: Space is always a concern with your first car. You'll want a big trunk because you'll be moving stuff around, but you don't have the cash to spring for a mid- or full-sized model.
While the Mazda3's hatchback design doesn't give you the largest trunk in the compact class, it does have a back seat that can be flipped forward rather easily, giving you some versatility that will make all the difference. A flip-forward backseat lets you haul stuff around during the day and take your girlfriend out at night, all in the same cost-effective car.
What sets it apart: Some small cars feel like tin cans on the road, leaving you feeling like a sardine. That was the rap on the Protege, but a new frame fixed all that.
This Mazda is a very responsive small car, with tight handling that hugs the road. The comfortable ride makes it a pleasure to drive, which isn't always the case with smaller cars.
If you're going for pure pleasure with your driving experience, Mazda lets you go the full nine yards. For $590, you can add a leather seat option. That's a nice way to spiff up your first car. No, it won't compete with a Mercedes or a BMW, but it tells the ladies that you're a man on the move.
2- 2004 Saturn ION
Manufacturer's retail price: Between $10,430 & $19,820
Estimated KBB Retail Price: $11,765* | Find this car near you
This is a four-door sedan that seats five comfortably, so it's the perfect car for taking the crew out for a night on the town. This sedan also offers a sporty look that won't make you feel like you're driving your father's car.
The ION has a 2.2 liter engine that generates 140 horsepower -- not overpowering, but more than enough to get the job done. At 26 miles per gallon in the city and 33 on the highway, this model's not going to set any records, but it won't break your wallet at the pump either. In short, you'll be getting a touch of style, a dash of efficiency and maximum practicality, all at an affordable price.
Why it's a good first buy: It looks like a small sedan, but it's actually one of the larger cars in the sub-compact class, giving you a big cargo area. Since you won't be walking or taking public transit anymore, it'll be nice to have a trunk that can handle more than a few bags.
You can load up your car and head cross-country for that new job, and then see the sights of your new home in style. At this price, you'll be able to afford the other expenses (food, rent, girlfriend) that come with life on your own.
What sets it apart: Unlike other car manufacturers that pass off their low-end inventory as "ideal for first-time buyers," Saturn is a company that actually focuses on the first-time buyer. So everything in the design is tailored for you, the guy without a ton of cash to spend, but who still wants a sweet ride.
One great feature on the Saturn is its dent-resistant paneling. No, that doesn't mean you won't have any damage in an accident, but it does mean that you won't spend a bundle fixing the minor dents and scrapes that come from parking lot mishaps. This is a car that keeps itself looking sharp even if you don't have the money to detail it once a month.
3- 2004 Honda Civic Hybrid
Manufacturer's retail price: Between $19,008 & $20,800
Estimated KBB Retail Price: $20,745* | Find this car near you
If you're looking for a car that emphasizes fuel efficiency, this is the one for you. How does 51 miles per gallon on the highway sound? You'll also get 46 miles to the gallon driving in the city.
Honda's accomplished this great fuel economy by using a hybrid design, which means that the car is powered by both gas and electricity. But unlike electric cars, you don't have to plug it in because the battery recharges itself.
Why it's a good first buy: Cost was the primary factor driving all the choices on this list, but the Honda Civic Hybrid is the only car that gives you gas mileage this good. It does have competitors in that there are other electric cars on the market, but the Civic is one of the only ones that doesn't look flimsy. You'll get the chassis of a regular sports sedan with the conveniences of an eco-friendly car.
What sets it apart: Honda has been pumping out the Civic since 1973. While it's not generally considered a classic, the length of its run should tell you everything you need to know.
Yes, there are a lot of compact sedans that imitate the Civic, but this model is the real deal. What sets the Honda apart is its great combination of comfort, pep and reliability at a good price. That's hard to beat.
4- 2004 Toyota Corolla
Manufacturer's retail price: Between $13,680 & $17,455
Estimated KBB Retail Price: $14,675* | Find this car near you
The Toyota Corolla consistently ranks as one of the top sedans on the market for affordability and reliability. It may not be as stylish as the Mini or the PT Cruiser, but it's not as expensive either.
Still, the Corolla's lines aren't completely devoid of style. Its looks might not be top-tier, but they won't disappoint.
Where the Corolla does excel is on economy. The 1.8-liter engine delivers 130 horsepower, but you'll still get great mileage: 32 miles per gallon in the city and nearly 40 on the highway. If you're looking for an upgrade on power, you can spend a little more and step into XRS, which offers a slightly sportier look and takes you from 0 to 60 in 8 seconds.
Why it's a good first buy: It's roomy, comfortable and reliable. Chances are, you'll keep your first car for a while, which makes the Toyota Corolla a good buy. It prides itself on the ability to deliver the same kind of experience in its fifth year of ownership as it does in year one, saving you even more money on maintenance.
What sets it apart: If you just buy the basic Toyota Corolla CE, you won't have to haggle over options that will leave you debating between paying your rent or getting a CD player. Even the basic model comes standard with the goodies you've come to expect, like a CD player, air conditioning and a tilt-steering column. Most cars don't give you much with the standard option, which makes the Toyota Corolla a unique buy.
5- 2004 Volkswagen Golf
Manufacturer's retail price: Between $15,580 & $19,320
Estimated KBB Retail Price: $15,085* | Find this car near you
This version of the Golf is the model's fourth generation. The Golf, designed by Volkswagen engineers to replace the Beetle, is considered by industry insiders to be the car that pioneered the hatchback into the American market, where compacts were traditionally looked down upon. But here in the U.S., and the world over, the Golf does more than hold its own -- it excels.
Why it's a good first buy: The price might be a little steep, but the Golf offers plenty of value in exchange. All models come with standard safety features that other car makers charge extra for, like three-point seatbelts for every seat and airbags.
The standard model gives good gas mileage, but, if you're willing to pay a little extra, the diesel option could save you a bundle -- it gets nearly 50 miles to the gallon on the highway. Combine these goodies with a solid reputation for reliability, and the Golf looks like a pretty good first buy.
What sets it apart: A lot of people describe small cars that have a little power as "peppy," which is often shorthand for, "enough juice to surprise you, but nothing to write home about." But that's not really a fair description of the Golf, which features the same turbo-charged engine that comes standard in other Volkswagen cars like the larger Passat.
It only delivers 115 horsepower, but it has good torque, so the juice won't taper off a few seconds after you open the throttle. In fact, the people at Volkswagen like to boast that the Golf's four-cylinder engine, which allows it to go from 0 to 60 in 8.2 seconds, is as powerful as many of the six-cylinder engines available on the market today.
*Estimated KBB retail pricing reflects 2004 model with 36,000 vehicle miles and popular equipment options.