Did you know that Kia makes a Jeep rival called the Seltos? Or that Toyota and Lexus aren’t the most reliable car brands anymore? It’s 2022, and car brands have never competed harder to win Gen Z patronage. Therefore, the lineups — and the overall leaderboard — are constantly changing. Plus, if you’re shopping for a car soon, you know that the stakes have never been higher. Used car prices are nuts, so you’ve got to find the right car and make it count. Where should you start your search? Who makes the best cars for Gen Z? Which EV crossover is just as good as a Tesla Model Y for half the price? And which two-seater is a surprisingly capable daily driver? Let’s investigate the best car brands for Gen Z.
How I came up with this list
This isn’t just a list of the most affordable car brands, nor just the most reliable. Sure, those metrics play a role, but the final list is the result of me rubbing my chin for weeks, carefully contemplating which brands I’d trust enough to recommend to our readers.
Who the heck am I? I’m a part-time auto writer, who’s had the privilege of testing about 200 new cars since 2016, each for at least a week. From Acuras to Alfa Romeos, Bimmers (BMWs) to Nissans, I’d say I’ve driven most new models to come out in the last few years. I’ve also personally helped a few hundred Gen Zs pick the right car — because as much as I love cars, I know how daunting the car-shopping process can be. To make this list, I factored in reports from Gen Z owners, some overarching industry metrics (Consumer Reports, J.D. Power), and sprinkled in some personal thoughts based on my own experiences. Without further ado, here’s my list of the top five car brands I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to Gen Zs, along with some honorable mentions.
Hiroshima-based Mazda is my absolute favorite car brand for Gen Z. They’re as reliable and long-lasting as a Roman aqueduct, beautiful to behold, efficient, genuinely fun to drive, filled with upscale tech, and best of all: they look way more expensive than they are. There’s simply no bad quality to a Mazda. I’ve recommended countless Mazda3s, CX-9s, and Miatas to clients, and still get “thank you” texts years later. I’d like to shine a special light on the two-seater Mazda MX-5 Miata, which starts at $27k. I sincerely believe that the Miata is one of the best daily drivers for Gen Z, because despite missing a backseat, the Miata is cheap to buy, cheap to run, and obscenely fun to drive. It’s not as impractical as it looks, either. It’ll hold a couple of small suitcases in the trunk, and if you slap a $190 cargo rack on the back, the Miata turns into a bonafide little pickup truck. Heck, I brought home nine bags of mulch in my Miata earlier today. Still, if you’re looking for something with more seats, the Mazda3 hatchback retains the joyful character of the Miata while offering triple the cargo space of a sedan. Plus, it comes in a manual transmission — which is cheaper to buy, cheaper to maintain, and provides these other benefits beyond just fun and theft protection.
Toyotas are superb investments for Gen Zs because they last forever and depreciate slowly. Camrys, 4Runners, and Tacomas especially hold their value like priceless art, so you can flip ‘em for 80% of what you paid in three to five years. Sadly, Toyota’s lineup isn’t quite a sea of uninterrupted perfection like Mazda’s; there are definitely some meh cars hiding in there. I won’t pick on anyone, but I will highlight some of my favorites:
- The Venza, which nobody talks about, is basically a Jaguar F-Pace made in Japan. It’s a gorgeous, safe, well-appointed crossover with an interior to die for.
- The Prius Prime still qualifies for the federal tax credit — plus, it’s more efficient and more fun to drive than the basic Prius.
- The RAV4 — which used to be a banal carpool wagon — has recently been redesigned to be a bonafide luxury offroader. A genuine Jeep alternative for someone looking for something a bit more reliable.
- The GR86, if you can find one without a greedy dealer markup, is the best Miata rival on the market. To me, it drives like a budget Porsche Cayman.
A Lexus? In this market? “But I’ve got student loans to pay.” Hear me out. Because although Lexus is a luxury brand with expensive cars, a new or used Lexus can still be one of the best “investments” of your life. That’s because Lexus models are essentially Toyotas built to a higher standard with better parts. That makes them insanely reliable, and much less likely to burn a hole in your pocket at 100,000 miles than their counterparts from Audi, BMW, or Mercedes. Then, even when you do have to start replacing bits around 130,000 miles, Lexus OEM parts are surprisingly cheap for a luxury brand. For example, the cost of a replacement water pump on a 2015 Lexus RX 350 crossover is just $147.89. The same part on the equivalent ‘15 BMW X5 is $423.94. So while a gently used Lexus may be more expensive to buy on the front end, it’ll last much, much longer than most alternatives. With regular checkups and oil changes, you could be riding in comfort and style for 20 years.
I still remember the look of disappointment in my mom’s eyes when she realized she’d mistakenly booked a Hyundai, not a Honda, on a trip to see my grandparents in ‘03. Boy, how times have changed. While yesteryear’s Hyundais were indeed rental fleet dreck, today’s Hyundais are truly superb little imports. They’re reliable, well-appointed, and offer impressive value for what you’re getting. I’m an especially big fan of Hyundai’s hybrids. My wife and I took a Sonata Hybrid to Asheville and back and were both shocked at how quiet, comfortable, and dignified the cabin was for a car that costs just a tick over $27k. It didn’t hurt that I averaged 53mpg, too, despite some eccentric canyon carving. For something with a sportier flavor, I’d heartily recommend the Elantra N or Veloster N. Both cars were born at Hyundai’s Namyang racetrack, honed to perfection by Albert Biermann — former chief engineer at BMW’s M division. BMW M3 engineering with Hyundai price and reliability? Yes, please.
Though technically owned by Hyundai, Kia is definitely still its own thing with a totally different appeal for Gen Z. The Soul, Seltos, and Niro are all terrific little crossovers, and each can be had for well under $25,000. I like the Soul especially for its comfortable, upright driving positions and amazing 360-degree visibility. The Seltos is a RAV4/Jeep Renegade alternative: a plucky offroader that also doubles as a grocery-getter. And if you live up north where the roads can get a little icy and dicey, you should know that the Seltos is one of the cheapest all-wheel-drive cars you can buy new. Finally, the Niro is the best hybrid crossover you’ve probably never heard of. It’s one of the cheapest cars to come with a smooth and refined dual-clutch transmission, and thanks to an electric motor it gets 46mpg highway. If you go for the Niro EV, you’ll get the no. 1 most satisfying mass-market EV, according to J.D. Power, for around $33k post-credits — that’s about half the price of a Tesla Model Y.
Many folks liken Honda to Toyota in terms of value and reliability, and I don’t disagree. I know plenty of happy Honda owners and am personally a huge fan of the Odyssey minivan. That thing floats down the road like a Rolls Royce. Also, major kudos to Honda for keeping the manual transmission alive. The handsome Civic Si comes with a six-speed and a premium Bose stereo as standard for under $28k.
Subaru didn’t quite make the list because of their penchant for using CVTs (continuously variable transmissions), which many drivers find slow, drony, and of questionable reliability. Similarly, another thing holding Suby back from the pantheon of best Gen Z brands is that they’re just above average in terms of reliability. That being said, I know countless under 30s who are inseparably happy with their go-anywhere, do-anything Crosstreks.
Affordable used Fords are everywhere. You can get a gently used, top-trip Ford Fusion Titanium for well under $25k, and you’ve got yourself a full-size luxury sedan for half the price of a Bimmer. They also come in hybrid. Don’t write off a used Mustang, either. They’re the best-selling sports car in the world for a reason, combining reliability, comfort, power, and — dare I say — European handling characteristics in a classic American body style.
What should Gen Zs specifically be looking for in a car?
When you’re young and still building up your finances, the two most important qualities you should look for in a car are value and reliability. You want a car that gives you all the bells and whistles you want without falling apart in three years and burning a hole in your pocket.
What’s the no. 1 mistake I should avoid when buying a car?
Picking a car that you can afford to buy, but can’t afford to own. A used 2016 Range Rover Evoque may only cost $32k to buy but costs an eye-watering $11,000 in repairs, maintenance, and depreciation each year to keep on the road. Always check the Edmunds True Cost to Own® (TCO®) of a car before buying it.
How do I determine my budget for a car?
With our car affordability calculator! A good car budget is 25% of annual pre-tax income. Meaning if you make $60k, try to find a car around $15k.
Where can I go to test drive multiple cars at once?
Carmax. I never hesitate to send clients to Carmax since the sales reps are chill, the environment is friendly and welcoming, and Carmax will let you test drive three to five cars in a single visit without pressuring you to buy one.
What questions should I ask the dealer?
The only question you should ever ask a dealer is: “What is the lowest out-the-door price you can offer me?” For all other car-related questions, I’d consult impartial third-party resources like Edmunds, Car & Driver, and Consumer Reports.
I may have my favorites (Miata and Sonata roll off the tongue) but there really aren’t any losers inside the lineups of the top five car brands for Gen Z. These brands are holistically value-driven, customer-centric, and will give you the keys to a car you can trust — and love — for a long, long time. For more on getting the right car for the right price, check out our full car buying guide for 2022. Featured image: Nestor Rizhniak/Shutterstock.com