Teens and cars don’t always mix well, so conscientious parents considering the first set of wheels for their first-time drivers tend to weigh three main factors in deciding what to buy: the cost of insurance, a vehicle’s safety record and the price. So what are the best new and used cars out there for the newest generation of U.S. drivers?
“We chose the all-new Nissan Versa Note as our No. 1 Back-to-School Car this year because it not only checks the requisite boxes of low price and high fuel economy, but the Note also stresses good looks as a key portion of its value story,” said Jack Nerad, editorial director at automotive pricing and reviewer Kelley Blue Book. “It’s an attractive five-door hatchback, featuring plenty of new-tech offerings inside.”
The Versa Note ranks high for the hatchback segment in government crash tests, with five stars on side impacts, and the sub-$15,000 price tag means lower premiums for drivers who cost a bundle to insure under the best circumstances.
Most of the new and used cars for young drivers recommended by KBB, Motor Trend magazine and others tend to be compact sedans thanks to their lower new and used prices. This year’s list of top recommended new and used cars tends to lean toward that segment, though it is possible to find deals on used crossover SUVs and slammer trucks, like the Subaru Forester or Ford Ranger.
Here are the most recent top five new and used cars for first-time drivers based on well-known car reviewers, balancing the three main considerations for parents: insurance, safety and price.
2013 Honda Civic
The 2013 Civic subcompact sedan came after Honda was slammed for an uninspiring redesign in the ninth generation of its popular compact in 2011. The Civic is one of Honda’s trinity of best sellers along with the Accord full-sized sedan and the CR-V crossover, and the compact gets high praise for its dependability and fuel economy if not for its ability to excite, which for responsible parents worried about reckless driving from their offspring should be considered a bonus. At well under $20,000, a new, dependable Civic could wind up with a grandchild’s baby seat in the back before it gets traded in. The four-door civic gets four out of five stars for front collisions and five stars for side crashes in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests.
The third-generation Mazda3 hatchback has received positive feedback on its interior features for a car in its category, albeit with less legroom than its competitors the Volkswagen Golf and Hyundai Elantra GT. But this hatchback comes with all the features teen drivers would want, like auxiliary stereo inputs (audio jack and USB) and a solid four-speaker audio system. The car was ranked No. 1 in affordability in U.S. News and World Report, and Mazda’s “Soul of Motion” design has garnered some accolades. Priced at about $1,000 under the Civic, the Mazda3 is also a little more fuel-efficient than Honda’s compact. The NHTSA gives the Mazda3 five stars for front collisions and three stars for side impacts.
2013 Chevrolet Sonic
Critics praised the four-door 2013 Sonic’s smooth ride and spacious interior, important qualities for smaller, cheaper subcompact sedans. It's a low-priced Chevrolet -- it can be bought new for as little as $13,000 – so don’t expect a lot of high-tech bells and whistles or high-grade interior features. This is a basic starter car with high safety ratings and above-average performance grades from reviewers. Compared to the other cars on the list, the Sonic ranks relatively low in fuel economy, but at 31 miles combined it has some of the highest miles per gallon compared to other segments. The Sonic is one of the safest cars in its category, earning five stars for both front and side collisions.
2013 Ford Focus
It’s the largest sedan on the list of best new and used cars for first-time drivers, but the Ford Focus four-door is relatively inexpensive – priced about the same as the 2013 Honda Civic – and gets an impressive 38 miles per gallon on the highway (31 mpg combined with city driving). Critics have given the Focus high marks for its handling, especially on corners. Also, Ford didn’t scrimp on interior space, putting it on par with the Volkswagen Jetta. Young drivers used to Apple products might sniff at Ford’s infotainment interface, but 10 interior speakers is unusual in a car in this class. And parents will love the standard backup camera and rear parking sensors. Both the four-door and five-door models get four stars for front collisions and five for side impacts.
2014 Nissan Versa Note
Car & Driver magazine critics slammed the 2013 Nissan Versa sedan as a car they couldn’t wait to get out of, but they were far more forgiving of the 2014 Versa Note, the newer five-door hatchback version of a vehicle aimed at used-car buyers who might be lured to a new car with a $14,000 sticker price. The Versa Note gets the best fuel economy of the cars in this group at 35 miles per gallon of combined highway and city driving. The car has the lowest frontal crash rating of this list, at three stars. But it gets five stars on side collisions. The Versa Note also gets high praise for maximizing interior space and its 60/40 split center row that provides more than 21 cubic feet of interior space. It’s not a hauler, but for a hatchback it can carry a lot of college dorm accessories.
2012 Volkswagen Beetle
The Beetle has been a favorite of young drivers since before the hippy-dippy 1960s and “Herbie” films of the '70s. And even after the Type 1 VW Beetle (1938-2003) was retired, the car is still relatively popular, especially among women who are attracted to the style and price. The car went to five cylinders in 2006, and in 2012 Volkswagen bolstered the car’s design, boosting its side crash rating. The 2012 Beetle gets four stars for front collisions and five for crashes from the side. The car received kudos for its turbo engine and handling, which is no surprise for a Volkswagen. The car gets thumbs down for interior space compared to other hatchbacks in this segment. It’s a Volkswagen, so the resale value is a bit high, but for fans of German engineering, one can be had for less than $20,000.
2007 Lexus ES
There aren’t many options for luxury-class cars in the price range of a starter, and all of them will be used. There are used recent-year Lexus ES sedans out there for well under $20,000, and one of the reasons why this is a good pick for a used four-door luxury compact is the attention the vehicle received when it was introduced for its smooth handling. The car is as well-equipped as you would expect in an “executive class” vehicle. Some teens might not find the car exciting, but they would someday look back on it and recall mom and dad’s foresight.
2008 Volvo C30
Way back when Volvo was still with Ford, it created the C30 as an attempt to appeal to young hipsters, and it failed, ending production in 2012. The C30 received praise for its design and powerful turbo-charged engine, but those features came at a cost that was too dear for cars in this segment. At above $25,000 the hatchback was well into the price point of larger sedans. Now that the C30 has come and gone, there are used ones out there for less than $15,000 with fewer than 50,000 miles. It’s cool and it’s Swedish.
2008 Volkswagen Rabbit
There was a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when it seems every parent (at least in the Midwestern United States) was buying Volkswagen Rabbits, as they were called at the time, for their high-school and college-aged daughters. Now known as the Golf, recent models of this hatchback have that Volkswagen feel and German engineering. With five cylinders it’s also one of the better performing small cars that can be had used for less than $15,000, or even under $10,000 depending on mileage. The 2008 model got a performance boost. The car gets accolades for interior comfort.
2010 Subaru Forester
Suabaru’s Outback is generally considered the automaker’s best-known car, and the Forester crossover over the years has often been overshadowed by the station wagon. There’s no real reason for that. The Forester is a solid choice for compact crossovers, and one of the few SUVs that would fit the category of a practical, affordable and safe used first car. It gets praise for visibility, and easy handling and all-wheel drive give extra traction in slick road conditions. Since 2009, the Forester has had many of the interior features expected in a modern cabin, including keyless entry and an option backup camera. The ample cargo space is great for the college-bound, and while the 2010 model was criticized for an outdated four-speed transmission, parents can rest easy that it’s gearbox does not encourage reckless driving.