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What Every Parent Should Know When It Comes to the Best Cars for Teens

Sweet little Brice was playing with Hot Wheels only yesterday—now he’s getting ready to hop behind the wheel of his first car! Brice is jonesing for a Jeep, but to you that screams unsafe—and expensive.

But what car would be better? Safer? More reliable and less expensive in case he crashes it but still cool enough he won’t be embarrassed to drive it to school and hate you forever? Just breathe, and we’ll go over the best cars for teens.

How Much Are You Able to Spend (in Cash)?

Whether it’s their 16th birthday, graduation day or Tuesday, handing your teen the keys to their first car is a big moment. But don’t let the desire to make your kid’s dreams come true take over your good sense. Going into debt to give your teen their first set of wheels is never a good idea.

Unless you’ve purposely lived under a rock, you’ve known this day was coming, and hopefully you’ve been saving up. Maybe Junior has even been saving up too (yes!). Depending how much cash you’ve stashed, your choices will be different, but don’t worry—there’s plenty out there. Or, at least there will be as soon as Taiwan starts making car computer chips again (more on that later).

Here’s a good rule of thumb for figuring out how much to spend on a vehicle: The total value of your vehicles should never be more than half your annual income. So if this is your third vehicle purchase, your annual income is $62,000, and your other two vehicles are worth $23,000 together, your spending limit on Junior’s car would be $8,000 (unless Junior’s going to contribute!).

Should You Go With a Used or New Car?

If you’ve hung around us any length of time, you’ll know the answer to this one: Should you buy used or new? Um, used—duh. But in case you haven’t been around, let’s break it down.

A new car loses about 10% of its value the moment you drive it off the lot. Ten percent. So if you bought a new Jeep worth $35,000, you just lost $3,500 in under a minute. That’s pretty good (aka terrible!).

After Brice has been driving it around for a year, it will have lost around 20% of its original value. So you’re down $7,000 in the first year! Say Brice keeps the car for five years. After that time, it’ll be worth 60% less than it was the day you bought it.[1]

Unless you can afford to throw away that kind of money year after year, let someone else eat the depreciation on a new car and stick with your plan to buy a used car. Another good reason? Newer used cars can be more reliable because any kinks (recalls, engine issues, etc.) have been worked out and you know what you’re getting. With a brand-new model, there’s no way to know what problems it might end up being notorious for.

How Old Should the Car Be?

At the end of the day, how old the car should be is up to you and your budget. A five-year-old car is usually a good option, but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. As we saw above, the older the car, the cheaper it’ll be, so keep that in mind.


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A bigger age-related consideration is the number of miles the car has. The more miles, the more likely is it to break down. But that can depend on the make of the car. Some brands, like Toyota and Honda, are known to last for many years (and many miles), while others generally fall apart sooner.

Usually you can expect a car to start having issues after it reaches 100,000 miles. Dad wisdom says anything over that is on the high side for a used car.

To figure out whether the car you’re looking at has high mileage for its age, you can start by dividing the total mileage by how old the car is. Then compare that to the number of miles the average American drives per year: 13,476 miles.[2]

For example, say you’re looking at a five-year-old car that has 89,340 miles on it. A car that old should have roughly 67,380 miles on it if it was driven the average amount per year. So that’s pretty high mileage for a car of that age.

Is the Car Safe?

Let’s face it, teens aren’t known for their stellar decision-making. Even if you’ve got the best teen in the world, their lack of experience behind the wheel automatically means they’re at a higher risk of crashing.

Roughly 2,800 American teens died in car accidents in 2020.[3] That’s about eight fatalities a day. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), male teen drivers, teens who just got their licenses, and teens driving with other young passengers have the highest risk of dying in a car accident.

So, yes, safety matters when you’re looking for a car for your teen.

risks for teen drivers

Data From the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)[4]

Vehicle Models With Top Safety Ratings

Some cars out there are definitely safer than others. Since you’re probably thinking about buying a five-year-old used car after all that talk about depreciation, here are some of the safest vehicles from 2018:[5]

Small Cars

Hyundai Elantra four-door sedan

Subaru Crosstrek four-door wagon

Kia Forte four-door sedan

Midsize Cars

Toyota Camry four-door sedan

Subaru Outback four-door wagon

Hyundai Sonata four-door sedan

Small SUVs

Hyundai Kona four-door SUV

Mazda CX-5 four-door SUV

Toyota RAV4 four-door SUV

Top Safest Used Cars by Year
  2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
  • Acura ILX
  • Honda Civic
  • Subaru Crosstrek
  • Chevrolet Volt
  • Mazda 3
  • Toyota Prius
  • Hyundai Elantra
  • Kia Forte
  •  Subaru Crosstrek
  • Honda Insight
  • Kia Forte
  • Subaru Crosstrek
  • Honda Insight
  • Mazda 3
  • Subaru Crosstrek
  • Honda Accord
  • Mazda 6
  • Toyota Camry
  • Honda Accord
  • Toyota Camry
  • Volkswagen Jetta
  • Hyundai Sonata
  • Subaru Outback
  • Toyota Camry
  • Hyundai Sonata
  • Mazda 6
  • Toyota Camry
  • Honda Accord
  • Nissan Altima
  • Toyota Camry
Small SUV
  • Honda CR-V
  • Hyundai Tucson
  • Toyota RAV4
  • Honda CR-V
  • Nissan Rogue
  • Toyota RAV4
  • Hyundai Kona
  • Mazda CX-5
  • Toyota RAV4
  • Hyundai Tucson
  • Mazda CX-5
  • Toyota RAV4
  • Mazda CX-3
  • Mazda CX-5
  • Subaru Forester

Data is a sampling from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Top Safety Picks.[6]

Other Safety Systems and Features to Consider

Keep in mind, when buying a car for safety, the size of the car often does more to keep you safe than all the newfangled safety features known to man. So if a small car has a high safety rating, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll keep your teen safer than a large vehicle with a lower safety rating will. The guy driving the F-150 will almost always come out better than the guy in the Prius if they crash.

Many vehicles come with optional add-ons that improve safety, like specific headlights and collision prevention features. Here are some of the most common features that could help keep your kid safe:

  • Forward-collision warning (FCW)
  • Lane-centering assist (LCA)
  • Lane-departure warning (LDW)
  • Pedestrian detection
  • Automatic emergency braking (AEB)
  • Rear automatic emergency braking (RAEB)

Some cars can even sense when you’re not looking at the road (aka texting) and issue a warning!

Safe Driving Smartphone Apps
Drivemode Dash Silences calls, texts and alerts when driving over 15 mph and sends out autoreplies
OnMyWay Disables texts and app alerts when driving over 10 mph (music and GPS will work if started before driving)
SAFE 2 SAVE Awards points for undistracted driving which can be redeemed at local businesses
TrueMotion Family Safe Driving Gives feedback through a rating scale on how often you drive while distracted by your phone
I’m Driving Shows when friends are driving (so your teen doesn’t text them) and lets them know when your teen is driving (so they don’t distract your teen)
Life360 Tracks driving habits and sends alerts for hard braking and high speeds

Safest Car

When it comes to picking the best car for teens, safety just might be the number one factor. The safest car would probably be a tank. But those aren’t practical for a teenager just starting to drive—or anyone on the highway.

When it comes to picking the safest car, there’s no real way to choose one above the rest. But you can do your research about which cars have the best safety ratings. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are both reputable agencies that rate cars every year based on multiple crash scenario tests.

When it comes to getting high ratings, the more safety features the car has, the better. So an expensive car with all the latest safety technology will, of course, get a higher rating than a cheaper, older one with less tech.

The safest cars are loaded with safety features like forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning and blind-spot monitoring.

Cars are getting safer and safer with each passing year as manufacturers invent and add new safety technology. So generally, the newer the car, the safer it’ll be.

safest cars

Some car brands whose vehicles have consistently gotten high scores for safety include:

  • Volvo
  • Honda
  • Toyota
  • Subaru
  • Mazda

When buying a used car, it’s always a good idea to research the specific model and year and look at more than just safety.

If we had to pick a car based on safety though, it’d be the 2018 Subaru Outback. Because larger cars offer more protection, this midsize hatchback will protect your teen better than a small car.

IIHS gives the 2018 Outback the highest marks on everything from crash avoidance to crashworthiness. Keep in mind, different trims (extras and features a specific model comes with) can change the rating. For example, to get the safest vehicle, you’d want to make sure your Outback has the safest trim—including the front crash prevention system and specific headlights.

2018 Subaru Outback
Styling J.D. Power Reliability Rating[7] Insurance Institute for Highway Safety[8] Kelley Blue Book Value[9] MPG[10]
4-door, midsize SUV 81/100 Top Safety Pick $16,100–18,100 25 city/32 highway

Most Affordable Car

Like with safety, it’s impossible to pick the most affordable car. Affordability really depends on your budget! And prices change depending on the year and condition of the vehicle. For example, a 2020 version of the car you’re interested in with low miles might be out of your budget. But one with higher-than-average miles might be affordable.

Where you live and what’s available there will impact car prices around you too. Also, keep in mind, it’s cheaper to buy a used car from a private party instead of a dealership.

Another aspect of affordability—especially when it comes to used cars—is how expensive they are to maintain. That 2001 Mercedes might look cool and be cheap, but it costs much more to fix and maintain a Mercedes than a Toyota because parts are harder to get and more expensive.

Here are the top five brands that are most affordable to maintain over a 10-year period:

  • Toyota
  • Mitsubishi
  • Honda
  • Mazda
  • Nissan[11]

How often you have to repair your car is another factor of affordability. If you buy that Mercedes but it’s not reliable (aka it breaks down a lot), you’ll end up paying even more in the long run.

most affordable cars

Here are the top five most reliable car brands over the last 23 years:

  • Toyota
  • Lexus
  • BMW
  • Mazda
  • Honda[12]

Toyota, Mazda and Honda make both lists. This is a good sign a car made by one of these companies will be a good value.

Affordability is different for everybody, but if we’re going to name one, it’s the 2018 Mazda3 four-door sedan. You can find one for around $14,000, and what you get for that cash is pretty great. It receives a Top Safety Pick rating from IIHS and has good fuel economy. Mazda makes the lists for most reliable and most affordable to maintain, so it’s a good bet you won’t have to pour a lot of cash into it immediately.

2018 Mazda3
Styling J.D. Power Reliability Rating[13] Insurance Institute for Highway Safety[14] Kelley Blue Book Value[15] MPG[16]
4-door, small sedan 82/100 Top Safety Pick $13,400–15,000 28 city/38 highway

Best Overall Car

If there was one best car, why would others even exist? Well everybody has different needs, likes and budgets, so it’s pretty impossible to name one best car for every teen.

What you can do is look at brands that consistently get the highest marks across the board and then look for specific models within your price range. Looking at our lists for safety, affordability and reliability, you can see Toyota, Honda and Mazda make all three. These manufacturers have a history of making good cars, so you can be pretty confident going for one of these whether you’re looking for a newer or older car.

best overall car

But if we had to name one best car for teens, we’d go with the 2018 Toyota Camry. This make and model gets great scores all around. IIHS made it a Top Safety Pick+, and as a midsize vehicle, it offers more protection than a small car.

It holds its value well and earns an 85 out of 100 from J.D. Power for reliability. With a sporty-looking front grill, this four-door still has enough cool factor for your teen. And because it’s five years old, it’s already taken its biggest hit in depreciation.

2018 Toyota Camry
Styling J.D. Power Reliability Rating[17] Insurance Institute for Highway Safety[18] Kelley Blue Book Value[19] MPG[20]
4-door, midsize sedan 85/100 Top Safety Pick+ $14,100–15,500 29 city/41 highway

Best Cars for Teens Under $15,000

Fifteen thousand may sound like a big number to spend on your teen’s first car, but with the ongoing chip supply chain kerfuffle, car values have shot through the roof. This means you may need to be prepared to part with a little more of the green stuff to get a decent car. Just remember: It’s never a good idea to take out a car loan.

Keep in mind, the location you’re buying in, who you buy from (dealer or private party), and the condition of the vehicle will affect the value. We’ve put together a list of Kelley Blue Book car values for different models based on a car with average mileage in very good condition.

best cars under 15k

2017 Toyota Corolla

As a compact car, the Corolla will be easy to drive for a teen just starting out, especially if they live in an urban area. Because it’s such a common car, it won’t be a problem finding someone to repair it. It gets great marks for safety, and it’s pretty dang reliable with an 87 out of 100 reliability rating from J.D. Power.

2017 Toyota Corolla
Styling J.D. Power Reliability Rating[21] Insurance Institute for Highway Safety[22] Kelley Blue Book Value[23] MPG[24]
4-door, small sedan 87/100 Top Safety Pick+ $12,800–14,500 30 city/40 highway

2016 Honda Accord

This four-door sedan comes with a few options for your teen to choose from, including engine size. Choose a four-cylinder engine for fuel efficiency and safety (in case they think they’re in Fast & Furious). It comes with Bluetooth connectivity and a rearview camera. With high marks for safety and reliability, this midsize sedan is a good choice for a young driver.

2016 Honda Accord
Styling J.D. Power Reliability Rating[25] Insurance Institute for Highway Safety[26] Kelley Blue Book Value[27] MPG[28]
4-door, midsize sedan 84/100 Top Safety Pick+ $14,900–17,000 27 city/37 highway

2018 Toyota Camry

We already talked about this one earlier, but we’ll mention it here too. Toyota is one of the best makers around for economical, safe cars. This 2018 Camry gets top marks all around and comes with keyless entry and either a four-cylinder or a V-6 engine.

2018 Toyota Camry
Styling J.D. Power Reliability Rating[29] Insurance Institute for Highway Safety[30] Kelley Blue Book Value[31] MPG[32]
4-door, midsize sedan 85/100 Top Safety Pick+ $14,100–15,500 29 city/41 highway

2016 Honda Civic

This four-door sedan is a good smaller option. Compared to earlier models, the 2016 has a sporty, sleek design (which could appeal to your teen) and great safety ratings (which could appeal to you).

2016 Honda Civic
Styling J.D. Power Reliability Rating[33] Insurance Institute for Highway Safety[34] Kelley Blue Book Value[35] MPG[36]
4-door, small sedan 74/100 Top Safety Pick+ $13,900–15,600 31 city/42 highway

2016 Mazda6

This car screams graduation present. While it probably isn’t for every teen, the Mazda6 is a great choice for some. The stylish design will appeal to teens who have a thing for sports cars. It also handles well and has a responsive 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. With high marks for safety and reliability, this car is a good choice for a level-headed teen who won’t let the lively driving experience tempt them into reckless driving.

2016 Mazda6
Styling J.D. Power Reliability Rating[37] Insurance Institute for Highway Safety[38] Kelley Blue Book Value[39] MPG[40]
4-door, midsize sedan 81/100 Top Safety Pick+ $11,700–13,700 26 city/38 highway

2015 Honda CR-V

This small SUV is a good option for a teen who needs a tough all-wheel drive car that still has a high safety rating. The CR-V is great for teens driving in harsh conditions or needing a larger vehicle to haul sporting equipment.

2015 Honda CR-V
Styling J.D. Power Reliability Rating[41] Insurance Institute for Highway Safety[42] Kelley Blue Book[43] MPG[44]
4-door, small SUV 80/100 Top Safety Pick+ $12,900–15,000 27 city/34 highway

Best Cars for Teens Under $10,000

If $15,000 is stretching it for you, don’t worry. There are still plenty of good cars for teens that are under the $10,000 mark.

best cars under 10k

2013 Honda Civic

You can’t really go wrong with a Honda. Known for going forever, they have some of the best reliability and safety ratings. The 2013 Civic isn’t flashy, but it’s affordable, gets great gas mileage, and handles well.

2013 Honda Civic
Styling J.D. Power Reliability Rating[45] Insurance Institute for Highway Safety[46] Kelley Blue Book Value[47] MPG[48]
4-door, small sedan 86/100 Top Safety Pick+ $6,600–8,000 29 city/41 highway

2015 Mazda3

If you’re looking for a sportier car that’s a little bit more fun than a Honda Civic, this could be the car. You can also look for used models that include a collision detection system.

2015 Mazda3
Styling J.D. Power Reliability Rating[49 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety[50] Kelley Blue Book Value[51] MPG[52]
4-door, small hatchback 79/100 Top Safety Pick+ $8,800–10,600 30 city/41 highway

2014 Subaru Legacy

This could be a great car for a teen who lives in an area where all-wheel drive is helpful—like a state with bad winters or elevation. It gets excellent points for safety and spaciousness.

2014 Subaru Legacy
Styling J.D. Power Reliability Rating[53] Insurance Institute for Highway Safety[54] Kelley Blue Book Value[55] MPG[56]
4-door, midsize sedan 84/100 Top Safety Pick+ $7,300–9,100 24 city/32 highway

2014 Mazda CX-5

Maybe you need something a little bigger for hauling sports gear around or your teen is into hiking and wants something that’ll get them to the trailhead. If that’s the case, the 2014 Mazda CX-5 could be a great choice. And for a compact SUV, the CX-5 has great fuel economy.

2014 Mazda CX-5
Styling J.D. Power Reliability Rating[57] Insurance Institute for Highway Safety[58] Kelley Blue Book[59] MPG[60]
4-door, small SUV 82/100 Top Safety Pick+ $9,300–12,000 26 city/35 highway

Best Cars for Teens Under $5,000

If your budget’s tight, that’s okay. The best cars for teens are the ones you can afford!

Keep in mind, a car for under $5,000 will probably be pretty old. And most cars this old will likely have quite a few miles. If a 2010 vehicle was driven an average number of miles every year, the odometer would read 175,188 miles. You can always look for one with low mileage, though—they’re definitely out there!

best cars under 5k

2010 Honda Civic

If your teen needs a car that’s easy to maneuver, this compact car could be a great choice. The 2010 Honda Civic earned the second spot for best compact car for its year from J. D. Power For an old car, this car rates well for fuel efficiency, reliability and safety. A couple issues to look out for in this year model are bad engine mounts and the power window switch failing.[61]

2010 Honda Civic
Styling J.D. Power Reliability Rating[62] Insurance Institute for Highway Safety[63] Kelley Blue Book[64] MPG[65]
4-door, small sedan 83/100 Top Safety Pick $4,400–5,800 26 city/36 highway

2010 Subaru Forester

Subarus give that “I’m outdoorsy” vibe for any teen who loves to be one with nature. The Forester is also all-wheel drive, so it’s a good choice for a teen behind the wheel in harsh weather. This hatchback gets great marks for safety and reliability too. Although owners of Foresters this old report having to replace their catalytic converters and head gaskets.[66]

2010 Subaru Forester
Styling J.D. Power Reliability Rating[67] Insurance Institute for Highway Safety[68] Kelley Blue Book[69] MPG[70]
4-door, small SUV 84/100 Top Safety Pick $3,600–5,600 20 city/27 highway

2010 Subaru Legacy

If your teen needs all-wheel drive for rough conditions but doesn’t want a car that has that “outdoorsy” look, the 2010 Subaru Legacy could be a great fit. It scores well with J.D. Power for reliability and quality as well as safety, and comes with Bluetooth calling. One downside is there are vehicles this old with better fuel efficiency.

2010 Subaru Legacy
Styling J.D. Power Reliability Rating[71] Insurance Institute for Highway Safety[72] Kelley Blue Book[73] MPG[74]
4-door, midsize sedan 79/100 Top Safety Pick $3,800–5,200 23 city/31 highway

What Does Car Shopping for Your Teen Look Like in Today’s Market?

Do you remember the days of finding handwritten notes on your car that said, “I want to buy your car. Here’s my number . . .”? Thankfully, things aren’t that bad anymore, but the used car market still looks very different than it did only a few short (long) years ago.

You’ve probably gone deaf to the cries of supply chain shortages and disruptions, but those remain the key factors impacting the car market you’ll be entering with your teen.

Basically, computer chip suppliers haven’t caught up with the demand for chips that go in literally every car. And that’s slowed production of new cars—which means people have been hanging on to their used cars. So, shortages all around!

Those shortages have caused the price of used cars to shoot up higher than Dolly Parton’s hair. The good news is, used cars will probably get a little cheaper soon! Experts expect used car prices to go down by 2.5–5% this year as the inventory of new cars slowly catches up.[75]

These days, dealerships have more used cars available than they did a couple years ago, and you can find a fair amount for sale by owner on places like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. But you should still be prepared to pay more for a used car than you would’ve three years ago (or get less car for your buck if that’s what the budget demands).

Understanding Car Insurance for Teen Drivers

Thankfully, car insurance rates haven’t experienced quite the same wild ride car prices have. That said, teen car insurance rates are way higher than anyone else’s.

Let’s look at an example. Because 16-year-old Amy just started driving, she has no experience. Her prefrontal cortex also isn’t fully formed, so she doesn’t have adult-level decision-making skills. These things—and the stats that show teen drivers are more likely than anybody else to get in a crash—mean insurance companies will charge Kilimanjaro-level premiums to insure Amy.[76]

Whether you or your teen will be paying the premiums, you want to make sure you get the best deal possible—and the right amount of coverage.

After all, the real goal behind insurance is protection. You want to make sure your teen (or you) and their car are covered if the worst (or even just something bad) should happen.

Along with collision and comprehensive coverage, make sure you have enough liability—it doesn’t cost much more to push it from $100,000 to $500,000. Then if your teen hits someone, you’ll have the coverage you need in case the other person decides to sue you.

When it comes to saving money, the best route (in most cases) is for your teen to join your family car insurance policy. Get ready though—this is still probably going to at least double your rate!

Here are a few other ways to save on car insurance for your teen:

An independent insurance agent works for you rather than a specific insurance company, so they can get you the best rate around. A RamseyTrusted local insurance pro can help you figure out the right coverage for you and your teen while making sure you’re not overpaying.

If you’re in the market for auto insurance for your teen, get in touch with a RamseyTrusted independent insurance agent today!

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