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Best New Cars for New Grads

Slide Show >>The beginning of May marks the start of graduation season around the country. For the fourth year in a row, employment figures for new grads are expected to improve. One recent survey predicted a 14.5% jump in graduate hiring in mid-2006.

And, for the first time in a long while, employers are increasingly competing with one another to sign on qualified candidates. When that's the case, starting salaries climb. This season, new earnings will likely grow 4% to 9% over last year's, according to the spring salary survey from the National Assn. of Colleges and Employers.

FIRST THINGS FIRST? More than ever, that means students can celebrate graduation with a new set of wheels. Sure, personal-finance gurus might suggest servicing student loans and postgraduation credit-card debt first, but with the proliferation of low-interest auto loans and manufacturers climbing over one another to offer rebates, it's never been more tempting to buy new.

Varied model choices abound. Domestic and foreign manufacturers now offer autos suitable for every new grad, from the first-year financial analyst to the future public-school teacher. Flash and performance come in every price range, from Mazda's bargain-priced hatchback with zip to BMW's new incarnation of a stalwart luxury model, the 3 Series (see BW Online, 4/26/06, "First Sight: Turbocharged BMW 3 Series Coupé").

Other notable manufacturers include Subaru, which despite taking flak for its unconventional B9 Tribeca design, continues to churn out safe, reliable all-weather vehicles for the young and sporty. Additionally, General Motors' (GM) Saturn is reaching for younger customers with two hands, borrowing design elements from forward-looking European Opels.

JAPAN FIGHTS BACK. The staples are there, too -- i.e., safe, inexpensive sedans from Toyota (TM) and Honda (HMC). But with U.S. manufacturers trying hard to regain lost ground, the competition for affordable, reliable vehicles has never been fiercer. Both Ford (F) and GM are leveraging shared platforms to bolster offerings, drawing on successful models in other markets. Ford especially is attempting to regain its former glory in the midsize sedan space with the new Fusion.

But the Japanese aren't taking it lying down. Honda's hybrid offerings have taken off, and the new performance-oriented Civic Si's racing looks are drawing positive attention. Toyota, meanwhile, has fought back that insurgency, developing the street-credible Scion splinter brand, aimed squarely at the youngest buyers. Both of Scion's flagship models made BusinessWeek's list.

Some manufacturers have dug into their pasts for inspiration and refreshing ideas. The Ford Mustang oozes classic, cool confidence. Volkswagen, in turn, just announced at this year's Geneva Auto Show that it's ditching the Golf badge to resurrect the Rabbit, which executives say reflects the upcoming hatch's performance heritage (see BW Online, 5/1/06, "The Geneva Convention").

To see which new car is right for you -- or the grad in your life -- see our slide show.

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