Purchasing a first car for your teenager is certainly one of the more crucial decisions that parents can make. It’s a decision that requires a lot of thought — as inexperienced drivers, what would you prioritize? Price? Safety? Reliability? There are factors that older, more experienced drivers take for granted, that can make or break the buying decision when the primary user can’t even legally buy tobacco.
Fortunately, Consumer Reports offers some insights into the best cars to purchase for your teen. CR set a ceiling of $15,000 on the vehicle, though it urged buyers to ”purchase as many safety features — and electronic stability control in particular — as your budget allows.” The prices reflected here are provided by Consumer Reports, though a quick search through Edmunds found the same vehicles for a bit less.
Notably, the list did not include large SUVs or full-size trucks, as in the hands of inexperienced drivers, these vehicles have a significantly higher chance of rolling over under certain conditions. Sports cars increase the risk of speeding and have a higher rate of accidents, and consequently, they carry tuition-sapping insurance premiums, so those are not included as well.
The oldest models on the list hail from 2008, while the youngest models were made in 2010. CR also indicates that vehicles from 2008 will generally have 66,000 miles, 2009 models around 51,000 miles, and 2010 about 40,000 miles.
This all being said, here are 10 highlights from the list that Consumer Reports surmise would make a great first car for your road-bound teenager.
1. 2009 Chevrolet (NYSE:GM) Malibu
With an average starting price of $12,925 (a 45 percent drop in the retail value over the MSRP), the 2009 Malibu has a four-cylinder engine equipped as standard, with the option to trade up to a more potent V6. More importantly, the Malibu earned five stars (the highest rating possible) in both frontal- and side-impact tests. In the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety frontal-offset crash test, the Malibu scored a “Good” rating, again the highest possible.
2. 2009 Ford (NYSE:F) Focus
The 2009 Ford Focus will run a bit less than the Malibu, coming in at $10,388 or so, a 38 percent drop in value from the MSRP. The Focus sports a sensible 2.0 litre four cylinder, good for about 24 miles per gallon in the city and about 35 on the highway. Six airbags are standard on all Focus models, including front-seat side-impact airbags and side curtain airbags for both front- and rear-seat occupants. Antilock brakes and stability control are optional on all trim levels. The sedan earned four stars (out of a possible five) for the protection provided to those in front in head-on collisions, five stars for protecting front occupants, and four stars for protecting in the rear during a side impact collision.
3. 2008 Hyundai Elantra
The Hyundai isn’t likely going to offer the flash and pizazz that all teens hope for out of their first car, but with good mileage and a no-nonsense approach (simple, easy to maintain, affordable), it’s an ideal candidate for first-time or early drivers. Coupled with a top five-star rating in frontal-impact collision protection and a four-star rating for side collisions from the NHTSA — and offered at a 47 percent discount to the MSRP at $9,450 — the Elantra is all that parents can ask for in a first car for their offspring.
4. 2010 Kia Optima
Like its Korean sibling listed previously, the $13,320 (38 percent down from the MSRP) Kia Optima will provide all the bare essentials, but nothing extraneous or frilly. The Optima earned the highest possible rating of “Good” in the frontal-offset test, and a second-best “Acceptable” rating in the side-impact test from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Affordability and a quality warranty are the primary selling points for the Kia — and both are crucially important while your newly minted teenage driver earns their stripes.
5. 2009 Mazda 6
Edmunds has (almost) only good words for the Mazda 6 sedan, which is arguably one of the sleeker and more sensual-looking cars listed here. While the fuel economy isn’t steller (although still impressive for a midsize), the Mazda 6 earned a perfect five out of five star rating for frontal and side impact protection for all occupants. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also had high marks for the car, giving the 6 its highest score of “Good” for frontal offset impacts. At $10,800, the Mazda can offer good looks at an affordable price — something your kid will probably appreciate greatly.
6. 2008 Nissan Rogue
As the only crossover on this list, the Nissan Rogue has barely changed since the 2008 model year, perhaps with good reason. The Rogue sports a five-star rating for frontal impact, four stars in the rollover test (a big concern with taller crossovers and SUVs), and five stars all around for its side impact. The $13,125 price tag — about 36 percent of its MSRP — puts it among the pricier models on the list, but that price will certainly buy the driver more space and utility than smaller compacts.
7. 2010 Scion xB, a subsidiary of Toyota Motors (NYSE:TM)
Unlike most of the other cars on this list, the genre-bending Scion xB has the advantage of being designed with the younger set in mind. A simple setup and easy customizability make the Scion a favorite among those with little money but the desire to work on their own vehicles (like high schoolers). Toyota didn’t skimp on structural integrity, either: government crash tests yielded four stars for both driver and passenger in frontal impacts, and five stars for side impacts. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the xB its highest rating of “Good” for both frontal-offset and side impact crashes.
8. 2008 Subaru Legacy
Subaru did an exceptional job of pairing sporty good looks with a quality car that can handle just about anything you throw at it. Subaru’s all wheel drive system is among the best in the industry, making its cars a favorite in colder climes and offbeat conditions that one might not find everywhere. At 43 percent off the MSRP value — about $12,175 — the Subaru is a bargain, and many have found their way north of 200,000 without breaking a sweat. The car is no slouch in the safety measures either: in IIHS crash tests, the 2008 Subaru Legacy received the Gold Award (its highest honor) after the car earned “Good” ratings (the highest) in frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests, and for its head restraints’ ability to prevent whiplash in rear-end crashes. The NHTSA rates the Legacy very highly as well; the vehicle has a perfect five-star rating for both frontal and side-impact crash protection, according to Edmunds.
9. 2010 Toyota Corolla
The Toyota Corolla is one of best-selling (if not the best-selling) vehicles on a regular basis, and for good reason. Easy and cheap to maintain, the ubiquitous Corolla has proven itself through reliability and user-friendliness. While it’s not a car one would take to the track, the Corolla has good, dependable mileage, and four out of five stars for its protection of occupants in frontal collisions. Side impact testing resulted in a perfect five stars for front occupants and four stars for rear passengers. In IIHS testing, the Corolla scored the top rating of “Good” for its performance in both frontal-offset and side impact collisions.
10. 2009 Volkswagen Jetta
As the only European vehicle on this list, the Volkswagen has a lot riding on it, and fortunately it doesn’t disappoint. Though the mileage on the VW will suffer, buyers have a plethora of engine options to choose from, which your anxious, road-going teen will certainly appreciate. The car has four out of five stars for frontal impact, and a perfect score for side impact from the NHTSA. The IIHS gave the Jetta the highest rating of “Good” for frontal offset and side crash protection. While maintenance can be more expensive, the $13,831 price target — 39 percent of the MSRP — makes the Jetta highly worthy of consideration.
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