Best Cars for Teens: Vehicles That Are Safe, Reliable, and Affordable
Last updated May 24, 2021
Used car prices are soaring—18 percent higher than this time a year ago, according to Kelley Blue Book—making it more challenging for parents to find safe and reliable cars for their teenagers at prices they can afford.
Consumer Reports and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) have combined their data to create an updated list of recommended used cars for teens. Some of the models on last year’s list are now more expensive, even though they’re a year older.
“This list is intended to point buyers toward vehicles that excel in performance and reliability ratings from Consumer Reports’ tests and survey data and earn high marks for crash protection and crash avoidance from IIHS while staying with a very defined budget,” said Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at Consumer Reports Auto Test Center.
Sports cars or other vehicles with excessive horsepower did not make the list because they can tempt teen drivers to put themselves in high-risk situations. In addition, there are no minicars, or vehicles that weigh less than 2,750 pounds.
“Minicars, even those that are brand new, can’t keep their occupants as safe in a crash when compared with larger vehicles,” said IIHS President David Harkey.
The recommended list includes 61 vehicles—small, midsize, and large cars; small and midsize SUVs; and minivans—that should be available for around $20,000 or less (at the lowest trim level). The list is divided into “Good Choices” and “Best Choices” (vehicles with a slightly higher level of safety). Vehicles on both lists have:
- Standard electronic stability control
- Above-average reliability, based on Consumer Reports’ member surveys
- Average or better scores in Consumer Reports’ emergency handling tests
- Good ratings in four IIHS crashworthiness tests
- Good dry braking performance
- Four or five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (if rated)
There’s also a separate list of 29 new models that provide state-of-the-art safety protection, but cost between $20,000 and $39,000.
“Parents looking for a safe vehicle for their teens have a lot of options, and we encourage them to purchase as much safety as they can afford,” Harkey told Checkbook. “It’s an investment that will pay you back many times over.”
An old clunker or hand-me-down vehicle may not have modern safety features, such as sufficient airbags or structural design, to protected occupants in a crash, Harvey noted. And young drivers are more likely to be in an accident, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While developed with teen drivers in mind, the list of recommended vehicles is a good resource for anyone who wants safe, reliable transportation that won’t break the bank.
For those who choose to buy a new vehicle, let Checkbook’s professional shoppers at CarBargains find the best price for you. You can start online or call 800-475-7283. CarBargains has helped more than 100,000 car buyers save money, and guarantees it will obtain the best possible price.
Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He is also the consumer reporter for KOMO radio in Seattle. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.