By Russ Heaps
So your freshly minted young driver has a license. Now what? If you are launching into a search for the best cars for teens, we can help. Even if you don’t have the budget to bring home a new car, we have some helpful tips for your quest.
If you take nothing else from this, here’s the number one takeaway: safety. That’s what this list is all about and the absolute main qualifier for each of our picks.
Here’s some food for thought from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) to get you into the appropriate frame of mind. In this country, only older people drive less than teens. However, the instances of teen crashes and crash deaths are unreasonably high.
In the United States, the fatal crash rate per mile driven for 16- to 19-year-olds is nearly three times the rate for drivers aged 20 and older. The most significant risk is at ages 16 and 17. In 2020, 60% of deaths among passenger vehicle occupants ages 16 to 19 were drivers of the vehicle.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , motor-vehicle crashes are the second leading cause of death for U.S. teens. In 2019, nearly 2,400 teens age 13-19 in the U.S. lost their lives in crashes. That’s an average of roughly seven a day.
Also from the IIHS for 2020, 1,170 teen drivers between 15- and -20 years old died in crashes, taking 987 teen passengers with them.
It’s all about safety.
Choosing the best car for new drivers
Any device with an internet connection is your pathway to getting the scoop on a vehicle you might consider as one for your teen driver. If you don’t opt for one of our suggestions, it’s simple enough to do the legwork independently. It may be time-consuming, but it isn’t difficult. You’ll understand our process as we work through this story.
How much does it cost to add a teenager to car insurance?
Here’s the short answer: a lot. If you add a teenager to your car insurance, you will be paying more. It will be significantly more unless you live in Hawaii. There is practically no increase to add a teenager to your policy in our 50th state. If you live elsewhere, it can inflate your premium by 150% or more. And it’s usually more for a male teen than a female.
Of course , some cars are more expensive than others to insure . But the bulk of the new driver’s added insurance cost is liability coverage. That’s the coverage that pays for property damage and physical harm to others. There are many factors an insurance provider takes into account when calculating a premium.
It’s impossible for anyone but an insurance company representative to even ballpark what your new premium might be. Consequently, involving your insurance agent in the process as early as possible is essential to avoid any surprises.
How do you lower car insurance rates for a teenager?
There are several discounts your provider may offer to reduce that insurance burden. Progressive, for example, offers up to a 10% discount to students with a Grade B average or better. Some companies also discount if your teen driver takes a driving safety course. Ask your insurance agent.
Whether your insurance provider offers a safe driver school discount or not, you might want to enroll your new driver in a safety program. Such schools hone a young driver’s awareness and skills. Since 2003, Ford /zigman2/quotes/208911460/composite F -0.75% has operated its Ford Driving Skills for Life Academy . It’s a traveling roadshow, visiting several cities each year.
Others like Tire Rack’s Street Survival school also travel around the country. Usually, they combine classroom work with instruction by a qualified driving coach on a closed course. The AAA offers an online teen safety course.
For teen drivers, all cars aren’t equal
Here is where we discuss common sense. It’s possible you reached a point in your life when you are no longer concerned with the vehicle you drive somehow defining or being a reflection of you.
Often, that less-than-mature driver raiding your refrigerator won’t share your wisdom. Their dream car list will contain all sorts of cars, trucks, and SUVs that, whether you can afford them or not, may not be suitable or safe for them.
Going into this project, we set some standards about the vehicles we would consider the best for teen drivers. Remember that you must balance the vehicle’s cost with the safety features it includes.
While newer models will likely offer more advanced safety features and driver assists than older models, a new car’s price may not be realistic for many families. When you plan your budget for a vehicle, it may also be wise to factor in the potential cost of repair and bodywork.
If your family budget allows, 2013-and-newer vehicles come with the Big Three safety features: anti-lock brakes, traction control, and stability control, as mandated by the federal government.
In 2018, car makers had to comply with the federal government mandate for rearview cameras in all new cars, but by 2017, most already had them.
Types of cars to avoid
Tiny city cars might be more affordable and get better gas mileage than compact or midsize ones. However, in a contest with a full-size truck or SUV on the road, they will always come out second.
Sports cars might look cool, but they may tempt your teenager to drive beyond his or her skill. Big SUVs or pickup trucks will surround your teen with more metal, but they may be too big for your teen to handle. They are simply more challenging to park. And then there is the fuel-economy issue.
High-horsepower cars will be high on the must-have list for some teen drivers, but even experienced drivers can over-drive their skills on rain-soaked pavement. Increased horsepower translates into higher insurance premiums and more potential for trouble.
Safety features for teen drivers
Let’s face it: Safety technology gets expensive. It’s one of the factors relentlessly pushing up the sticker cost of new cars. As car makers pursue driverless cars, all manner of new technology to help the driver is seeping into the standard and optional features list of nearly every model.
If you and your family can afford to buy a new car for your teen, look for a vehicle with all of these features. If you are looking at a used car, you may not find all of them. The newer the car, the better your chances. We highly recommend you research a car at Kelley Blue Book before buying to see if these features are available. If they are available, they may not come standard, which may mean shopping for a mid- or upper trim level.
Advanced safety and driver-assist features
Anti-lock brakes are the backbone of the next two systems. They automatically modulate the brakes to maximize stopping power while allowing the driver to steer around problems.
Traction control promotes controlled acceleration through the anti-lock brakes slowing a spinning drive wheel.
Stability control uses the anti-lock brakes to apply braking to the appropriate wheel or wheels to help correct a slide.
Forward-collision warning with front automatic emergency braking is a system employing sensors to monitor what’s in front of your car, along with your car’s speed. If it thinks a crash might be imminent, it sounds a warning. If you don’t respond, the system can automatically apply the brakes.
Blind-spot monitoring uses sensors, and sometimes cameras, to detect vehicles in adjacent lanes that may not appear in your side mirrors. A visual warning on the side mirrors, A-pillar, or elsewhere will then illuminate.
Although we believe this shortlist of advanced safety/driver-assist technologies is the foundation for the ideal best cars for a young driver, several more common features help every driver safely operate a vehicle.
You may not think of some of these as safety features. However, many factors collaborate to optimize a car’s safe operation while minimizing driver stress. In the next section, we have noted some of these in our brief vehicle descriptions.
Other features to consider
Outboard mirrors with turn-signal indicators
Power-adjustable driver’s seat
Tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel
Automatic climate control
LED headlights and taillights
Automatic high beams
Adaptive cruise control
Infotainment system with voice recognition
Air bags, at least six
Auto on-off headlights
In addition, several car makers, including Lexus, Volkswagen /zigman2/quotes/204431732/composite VWAGY -1.19% , Chevrolet, Toyota /zigman2/quotes/200537742/composite TM -1.47% , Kia /zigman2/quotes/206019389/delayed KR:000270 +0.15% , Ford, and Hyundai /zigman2/quotes/204364212/composite HYMTF -0.03% offer some type of programmable driving monitor to help keep track of and set limits for your teen driver.
For example, Ford has MyKey, and Chevy uses General Motors’ /zigman2/quotes/205226835/composite GM -1.99% Teen Driver Technology to help parents monitor their teen’s driving habits. They can even set certain limitations, like maximum speed, into the system.
How important are crash-test ratings?
We take crash-test scores seriously, which is why we incorporated them into the qualifiers for our picks. Our research is based on data from third-party crash-test organizations such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, along with the government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Their approaches and testing parameters work differently.
Six test areas for IIHS
Automotive insurance companies support the IIHS, a nonprofit organization. Not only does it perform and score crash tests, but it also uses other data and qualifiers to issue its annual Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ awards. Currently, it scores “Good,” “Acceptable,” “Marginal,” or “Poor” in six testing areas.
Driver’s-side small-overlap front
Passenger-side small-overlap front
Head restraints and seats
Three areas of testing for NHTSA
NHTSA performs three tests, scoring each using a system of stars. The best score is 5 stars, and the worst is 1 star. NHTSA scores each test individually and then also issues an overall score.
The best cars and SUVs for teens
Here’s how we broke down our selections. If your budget allows for a new car, you can visit Kelley Blue Book to research the trim level that comes with the greatest number of safety features. But for most people, buying used is the most cost-effective way to go. That’s why we focused on vehicles that are broken down by price, from below $20,000 to those that cost less than $5,000.
We based pricing on the Kelley Blue Book Fair Purchase Price range. Where a model offers both a sedan and hatchback, we used pricing for the sedan.
All of our picks for the best used cars for teens under $20,000 come with the advanced safety and driver-assist features listed above. They all have at least a “Good” rating in at least five of the IIHS crash tests, but almost all the vehicles here are a Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+. Also, these vehicles get lauded for their reliability, as well as their fuel economy.
Older vehicles are often not available with all of these features, but the ones we selected have many of them and performed very well in NHTSA and IIHS testing. And generally speaking, the higher the trim level you can find, the more safety features the car is likely to have. If you aren’t sure which trim level to look for, you can always refer to Kelley Blue Book’s Expert Reviews for more detailed information.
Car shopping for your teen in today’s market: If you began shopping for a car, you may be keenly aware that new and used car inventories look ridiculously tight. The semiconductor chip shortage, supply-chain disruptions, and other factors have hamstrung car manufacturers, reducing production and strangling inventories.
The trickle-down effect even crippled the inventory of used cars, though it’s beginning to ease up some. Without new cars to sell, dealers don’t generate trade-ins. Consequently, used and new car prices skyrocketed higher than usual, and dealers are less likely to bargain on price.
What all of this translates into for you as a shopper is that you must work harder, research more, remain patient, and be willing to compromise. The odds of finding exactly what you want at the price you want to pay are not in your favor. In other words, any feature, including color , that isn’t a basic need is something you should be prepared to trade off. When you find that vehicle for your teen that you can live with and afford, buy it. Chances are good that it won’t linger on the lot for long.
Best used cars for teens under $20,000
2017 Toyota RAV4 Earning the IIHS accolade of Top Safety Pick+, the 2017 Toyota RAV4 offers a range of advanced safety technology. Look for at least an SE model, which will get you the most safety features. That will also get you LED headlights, dual-zone automatic climate control, fog lights, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high beams.
2018 Mazda CX-5 If you choose the 2018 Mazda CX-5 in Touring trim, it comes loaded with advanced safety and driver-assist features. Additionally, it provides LED headlights, auto-leveling headlights, dual-zone automatic climate control, automatic high beams, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, and adaptive cruise control. It aced all the crash tests. It also offers excellent reliability.
2017 Honda CR-V The 2017 Honda CR-V is very young-driver friendly. This is the first model year that benefits from Honda’s /zigman2/quotes/207173990/composite HMC -0.38% complete redesign of the CR-V. The EX model has our recommended driver assists and advanced safety features. It also has fog lights, dual-zone automatic climate control, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, and automatic high beams.
2020 Toyota Corolla Toyota has packed the Corolla compact sedan with loads of standard equipment. It’s a TSP and earned NHTSA’s 5-Star rating. To get advanced safety, look for at least an LE trim level with the Convenience Package. Other worthwhile features for the young driver are hill-start assist, heated mirrors with integrated turn signals, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, traffic-sign recognition, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high beams. Its 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine and CVT deliver 38 mpg on the highway.
2019 Mazda3 Pound for pound and dollar for dollar, it’s tough to beat the Mazda3 /zigman2/quotes/206326885/composite MZDAY +1.90% in its segment. It achieves a government-estimated 35 mpg on the highway and earns excellent scores in every crash test from IIHS and NHTSA. In addition to advanced safety, the Select comes with LED headlights and taillights, outboard mirrors with integrated turn signals, adaptive cruise control, dual-zone automatic climate control, eight air bags, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, driver-attention alert, and automatic high beams.
2017 Honda Accord The IIHS rated the 2017 Honda Accord as a Top Safety Pick+, and NHTSA gave it a 5-Star rating. Look for an EX or higher trim level equipped with the optional Honda Sensing suite of advanced safety features. This suite includes adaptive cruise control, collision-mitigation braking, lane-keeping assist, and more. The EX also comes with the LaneWatch blind-spot camera and monitor.
2017 Toyota Prius The Toyota Prius is a purpose-built hybrid that’s known for its reliability and safety. Starting in 2017, the Toyota Safety Sense-P suite of driver assists and advanced safety features came standard. This bundle includes adaptive cruise control, lane departure alert, and pre-collision with pedestrian detection. To get the blind-spot monitor, shop for a Prius Four or a Prius Four Touring. Other key features are Bi-LED headlights, automatic high beams, and automatic climate control. The government estimated fuel economy is as good as an impressive 58 mpg city, 53 mpg highway, and 56 mpg combined.
2018 Kia Sportage The 2018 Kia Sportage compact SUV scored well in crash tests and has impressive reliability. In EX trim with the Technology Package, it provides our recommended safety features. It also features automatic high beams, fog lights, and a windshield wiper de-icer. And while it probably won’t save your teen’s life, the navigation system might help them get where they are going.
2018 Honda Civic The Honda Civic is a spacious, fuel-efficient sedan that offers plenty of tech and safety features. Look for a 2018 Honda Civic EX with Honda Sensing, the suite of advanced safety features. This was an option when the car was new. It includes adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, and automatic high beams. Honda offered the 2018 Civic as a coupe and hatchback, in addition to the sedan priced here.
2019 Chevrolet Equinox With the 2019 Chevrolet Equinox , your search should start with the LT trim level. It came standard with Teen Driver Technology, forward-collision warning with emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, and automatic high beams. However, we recommend you find one with the Custom and Convenience Package. That adds blind-spot monitoring and rear traffic alert, along with heated front seats and heated mirrors with turn-signal indicators.
Best used cars for teens under $15,000
2018 Kia Soul
The Kia Soul has a cool mix of bold style, value, and practicality that make this 5-door appealing for people of all ages. The 2018 Soul was chosen as a Top Safety Pick+. While the Soul comes standard with a lot of safety, we recommend shopping for a + (Plus) or ! (Exclaim) that includes the optional blind-spot monitoring, forward collision warning, and rear cross-traffic alert.
2017 Toyota Corolla The Toyota Corolla has been a mainstay in the compact segment for decades. This sedan is known for great durability and reliability and is a Top Safety Pick. It also comes standard with Toyota Safety Sense (TSS-P), a full suite of advanced safety features.
2018 Mazda3 We love the styling on the Mazda3 hatchback, which is sleek and sporty. It matches well with the car’s handling. Mazda also offers a more traditional 4-door sedan for those not sold on the hatchback’s utility. This Top Safety Pick comes standard with a blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert. Still, upgrading to the Grand Touring premium equipment package adds lane departure warning, lane-keep assist, and adaptive cruise control.
2015 Honda CR-V A perennial favorite among compact SUVs, the Honda CR-V is one of the models that started the segment. The CR-V has sharp styling, comfortable seating for five, and boasts good cargo space and fuel efficiency. The 2015 CR-V is an IIHS Top Safety Pick+.
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2016 Mazda CX-5 If you want a sporty compact SUV that can also accommodate your family and their gear, the Mazda CX-5 may be the perfect fit. The CX-5 rides and handles like a car. It also offers excellent fuel economy and plenty of advanced safety features and is a TSP+ vehicle. If you find a Touring, you will benefit from a blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, and a rearview camera.
2015 Toyota Prius The Toyota Prius is a 5-door hatchback that pairs a gasoline engine with an electric motor. Excellent fuel economy and plenty of cargo space are along for the ride. While many of this hybrid’s safety features come standard, if you shop for a Prius 5 with the Advanced Technology Package, you’ll get adaptive cruise control, a pre-collision system, and lane-keep assist. This Prius is a TSP+ winner.
Best used cars for teens under $10,000
2013 Honda Accord The Honda Accord is a frequent winner of KBB’s Best Buy Award in the Midsize Sedan category. This Top Safety Pick+ offers good handling and plenty of room for people and their belongings. Shop for an EX-L or Touring to get forward collision warning, lane departure warning, and the Honda LaneWatch blind-spot display.
2013 Toyota Camry One of Toyota’s bestselling models, the roomy and comfortable Toyota Camry boasts great quality and reliability. While this is a TSP vehicle with a lot of standard safety, shop for an XLE to add a blind-spot monitor.
2014 Mazda3 With the Mazda3 , you won’t go wrong with either the comfort of a sedan or the flexibility of a hatch. It earned both a TSP+ pick and NHTSA’s 5-Star rating. This Mazda comes standard with six air bags, ABS with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist, stability control, traction control, and hill launch assist. The Touring adds blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, and you may be able to find one with a rearview camera. Look for an s Grand Touring equipped with the Technology Package to add lane-departure warning.
2013 Toyota Corolla The reliable Toyota Corolla comes standard with a wide range of advanced safety features, including anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control, and brake assist. Look for this Top Safety Pick in LE-or-higher trim to get cruise control. The Corolla is comfortable and easy to drive, and you may be surprised by how roomy the rear seats are.
2015 Honda Civic The Honda Civic is available in a variety of body styles with a choice of engines and transmissions. Better yet, Civics are known for safety, comfort, and fuel efficiency. The Civic is a TSP that comes standard with ABS, a rearview camera, stability control, brake assist, and more.
2009 Toyota RAV4 The comfortable 2009 Toyota RAV4 is available as a 5- or 7-passenger compact SUV, and you can get a frugal 4-cylinder engine or a powerful V6. This generation RAV came standard with a rearview camera that uses a monitor in the rearview mirror. It also had traction control and enhanced stability control, and its ABS used electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist.
2011 Honda Element Based on the same platform as the CR-V, the Honda Element pairs an easy-to-reconfigure, weather-resistant interior with unique styling. A Top Safety Pick, the 2011 Element came standard with ABS with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist, stability and traction control, and tire-pressure monitoring.
2011 Toyota Avalon The Toyota Avalon is a reliable, posh ride you might expect from the automaker’s Lexus luxury line. It also has a fuel-efficient V6 and plenty of room for shuttling around a small family in style. A Top Safety Pick that earned a 5-Star rating from NHTSA, the Avalon came standard with an array of safety features.
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Best used cars for teens under $5,000
2006 Honda Civic Considered by some as the gold standard for compact cars, the Honda Civic can seemingly do no wrong. Refined with a good fit and finish and a comfortable ride, this sedan handles well and is known for reliability. It’s also an IIHS TSP Gold pick — their top tier for safety in 2006 — and earned a 5-Star NHTSA rating. Note: the sedan performed better than the coupe in IIHS testing.
2007 Toyota Corolla With a reputation for great reliability, fuel economy (with an average of 29 mpg), and resale value, the Toyota Corolla tips the scales like few others. Parts are plentiful, as are the technicians who know how to fix them. This Corolla scored well in IIHS and NHTSA tests. Shop for an LE to get all available safety features, including additional air bags.
2005 Toyota Avalon The full-size Toyota Avalon offers a generous interior packed with so much luxury that many owners consider the car to be almost Lexus-like. It’s a modern, front-wheel-drive sedan with an impeccable history of excellent service, outstanding quality, and best-in-class resale. The Avalon also offers a powerful yet fuel-efficient V6 engine and a huge and easily accessible trunk. In 2005, stability control was optional, as was adaptive cruise control. Shop for an XLS or Limited to get the most advanced safety features.
2006 Honda Pilot The Honda Pilot has earned a reputation for reliability, comfort, and performance. Its silky-smooth V6 engine delivers strong performance coupled with good fuel economy. If you want all-wheel drive, Honda’s innovative VTM-4 system provides automatic engagement when needed and a manual locking mode for dealing with those tougher situations. The Pilot performed well in IIHS and NHTSA testing. Shop for an EX or higher trim level to get stability control, electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist, stability control, and tire pressure monitoring.
2004 Toyota Prius The first mainstream hybrid car, the Prius, is backed by Toyota’s famous reliability, comes with a spacious interior and large cargo area, and fuel economy as good as 49 mpg. While it came standard with ABS with electronic brakeforce distribution, dual front air bags, and traction control, look for a model equipped with the optional side-impact air bags. This Prius performed well in safety testing when equipped with the extra air bags.
2002 Toyota Highlander The Toyota Highlander is one of the most popular crossover SUVs on the market. It embodies the handling and safety of a car while providing the interior room and versatility of a big SUV. The Highlander offers a good balance between people and cargo space. Despite the older age of this model, its excellent long-term service history makes it a worthy investment. This generation Highlander performed well in IIHS and NHTSA testing.