As the end of summer draws near, we face the inevitable: back to school. If your kids are tired of riding the school bus—or are headed to college—transportation may be one of the items on your back-to-school list.

Most people want a student’s car to be just the right size, while being safe, affordable and maybe even a little fun. Dodge’s new Dart ticks all those boxes. Based on a Fiat design, the Dart has been adapted to fit the American market and does so quite well.

Dr. Steve Rosenberger of Woodland Dental Care recently purchased a Dart for his daughter, who’s starting college this fall. “My daughter thought the Dart was really cute, and the 39 mpg on the highway made me take a second look,” he says. “The Chrysler Uconnect touch screen controls really won us over. My daughter especially likes the turn-by-turn navigation that can be displayed in the driver’s console. I like the long list of safety features, such as blind-spot monitoring, rear backup camera, electronic stability control and active head restraints.”

The Dart is stylish, probably thanks to its Italian heritage (Chrysler is now owned by Fiat). It’s also a nice size; small enough to park and maneuver easily, yet big enough on the inside to carry four adults in comfort.

Available heated power leather front seats are most comfortable. A clever unique feature of the Dart is a front passenger seat with a seat bottom that folds up to reveal a small, hidden cargo area—perfect for a laptop, purse or other item you want handy but sometimes out of sight. Dual automatic climate control, remote start, automatic headlamps, an 8.4-inch touch-screen display, an integrated garage-door opener and even a heated steering wheel are amenities you’d expect to find on a car costing thousands of dollars more. The gauges are actually digital, but speedometer and tach readouts look analogue, and the gauge screen can be configured to display the driver’s desired information. Radio controls on the back of the steering wheel allow you to change volume, radio station and other audio inputs without taking your hands off the wheel, a nice safety feature. Rear-seat room is decent, and the 60/40 rear seat folds down to expand trunk capacity, which is pretty large for a ‘small’ car.

The limited special edition I test-drove had a 1.4-liter turbo engine with a 6-speed dual dry clutch automatic transmission, good for 160 horsepower to the front wheels; and mpg of 27 city, 37 highway. A 6-speed manual transmission is a welcome option. Good brakes, adequate power and a sporty suspension make it a fun driver.

According to Lawrence Wilhite, sales manager of Marty Cancila Dodge, “The Dart is economical, fun to drive and has good handling, and with 10 airbags—it’s safe.”

Prices for the Dart start around $16,500 for the SE and rise to $21,500+ for the GT.

Another great student vehicle is the Honda Civic. A long time student car favorite, the Civic offers fun, economy, practicality and legendary reliability in an attractive package at an appealing price.

The Civic has been redesigned for 2013. The coupe, in particular, is a real knockout. Its sharply raked windshield and rear window give it a very sleek profile. A sport version called the Si adds a more powerful engine and sportier suspension.

Honda took some criticism over the previous version’s interior, but all the problems seem to have been addressed in the new Civic. Materials are not fancy, but nice, especially the cloth that envelops the mildly bolstered seats. Dash, door panel and other interior materials also are of good quality. Power windows and mirrors are standard. An interesting bi-level dash—with analog tach below and digital speedometer above--dominates the driver’s view. Audio and HVAC controls are simple and easy to use; but the radio display by the gauges doesn’t show what station it’s on unless you’re manually changing stations, even on scan. A standard back-up camera and radio controls on the steering wheel are really nice features in a ‘basic’ car. The only complaint is headroom in the back seat. Leg room is decent though, so kids should do fine; and the rear seat folds to expand the trunk, which is of generous size already.

The standard engine in the Civic is a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder that pumps out 140 horsepower to the front wheels via a 5-speed automatic or manual transmission. Mileage is 28 city, 39 highway. McPherson struts up front and a multi-link rear suspension give the Civic a sporty ride, with good handling and brakes, though the power-steering is slightly over-boosted. Power is sufficient to be fun and safe but not so much that a student could get in trouble with it.

Michael Kingsbury of Honda of Frontenac says, “The Civic is a great student car. It’s safe, with standard features such as a back-up camera, and reliable and easy to maintain with great gas mileage.”

Prices for the Civic coupe start at about $19,000; about $24,000 for a loaded model with leather. A high-mileage hybrid version also is available.

Robert Paster ( also is an attorney in private practice, concentrating in estate planning and probate.

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