By Russ Heaps
Safety is king. If your budget allows, 2013 and newer vehicles come with the Big Three safety features: anti-lock brakes, traction control, and stability control.
So your brand new young driver has a driver’s license. What now? If you’re looking for the best cars for teens, we can help. Even if you don’t have the budget to take home a new car, we’ve got some helpful tips for your quest.
If you get nothing else out of this, here’s the most important 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 put you in the right frame of mind. In this country, only the elderly drive less than teenagers. However, the number of teenage crashes and fatalities is unreasonably high.
In the United States, the fatal crash rate per mile driven for 16 to 19 year olds is nearly three times higher than for drivers 20 and older. The greatest risk is at the ages of 16 and 17. In 2020, 60% of deaths among passenger car occupants aged 16 to 19 were vehicle drivers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle accidents are the second leading cause of death for American teens. In 2019, nearly 2,400 teenagers aged 13-19 were killed in accidents in the US. That is an average of about seven a day.
Also of the 2020 IIHS, 1,170 teenage drivers between the ages of 15 and -20 died in accidents, taking 987 teenage passengers.
It’s all about safety.
Choosing the best car for new drivers
Any device with an internet connection is your way to get the scoop on a vehicle you might consider a teen driver’s vehicle. If you don’t opt for one of our suggestions, it’s easy enough to do the leg work on your own. It can be time consuming, but it is not difficult. You will understand our process as we go through this story.
How much does it cost to add a teen to car insurance?
Here’s the short answer: a lot. If you add a teenager to your car insurance, you pay more. It will be considerably more unless you live in Hawaii. There’s practically no raise to add a teen to your policy in our 50th state. If you live elsewhere, your premium can rise to 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 additional insurance costs is liability coverage. That is the coverage that covers damage to property and personal injury to others. There are many factors that an insurer takes into account when calculating a premium.
It’s impossible for anyone but an insurance company representative to even estimate what your new premium might be. It is therefore essential to involve your insurance agent in the process as early as possible to avoid surprises.
How do you lower car insurance rates for a teenager?
There are several discounts your provider can offer to reduce that insurance burden. For example, Progressive offers up to a 10% discount to students with a Grade B average or better. Some companies also give a discount if your teen driver takes a driving safety course. Ask your insurance agent about it.
Whether or not your insurance company offers a safe driving school discount, you may want to enroll your new driver in a safety program. Such schools sharpen the awareness and skills of young drivers. Since 2003, Ford (F) has managed its Ford Driving Skills for Life Academy. It is a traveling roadshow that visits several cities every year.
Others, such as Tire Rack’s Street Survival School, also travel the country. Usually they combine classroom work with instruction by a qualified driving coach on a closed course. The AAA offers an online safety course for teens.
Not all cars are created equal for teenage drivers
Here we are talking about common sense. It is possible that you have reached a point in your life where you no longer worry about the vehicle you are driving and that it defines you in some way or that it is a reflection of you.
Often, that immature driver who robs your refrigerator doesn’t share your wisdom. Their list of dream cars will include all kinds 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 established some standards for the vehicles that we would consider best for teenage drivers. Remember, you have to balance the cost of the vehicle with the safety features it contains.
While newer models will likely offer more advanced safety features and driver aids than older models, the price of a new car may not be realistic for many families. When planning your budget for a vehicle, it may also be wise to consider the potential repair and bodywork costs.
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, automakers had to comply with the federal government’s mandate for rear-view cameras in all new cars, but by 2017 most already had them.
Types of cars to avoid
Small city cars may be more affordable and have better gas mileage than compact or medium ones. However, in a race with a full-size truck or SUV on the road, they will always come second.
Sports cars may look cool, but they can tempt your teen to drive beyond his or her skills. Large SUVs or pickup trucks will surround your teen with more metal, but they may be too big for your teen to handle. They are just more challenging to park. And then there’s the fuel economy.
High-powered cars will be high on the must-have list for some teenage drivers, but even experienced drivers can overdo their skills on rain-soaked pavement. Increased wealth translates into higher insurance premiums and a greater chance of problems.
Read more: 4 types of cars your teen should never let you buy, and why a Tesla might be among them
Safety features for teenage drivers
Let’s face it: security technology is getting expensive. It’s one of the factors that relentlessly drives up new car sticker costs. As automakers strive for driverless cars, all sorts of new technology to help the driver seep into the list of standard and optional features 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. When you look at a used car, you may not find them all. The newer the car, the better your chances. We strongly recommend that you research a car at Kelley Blue Book before purchasing it to see if these features are available. If they are available, they may not be standard, which may mean shopping for a mid or higher trim level.
Advanced safety and driver assistance features
While we believe this shortlist of advanced safety/driver assistance technologies is the foundation of the ideal car for a young driver, several more general features help any driver to drive a vehicle safely.
You may not see some of these features as safety features. However, many factors work together to optimize a car’s safe operation and minimize driver stress. In the next section, we noted some of these in our short vehicle descriptions.
Other Features to Consider
In addition, several automakers including Lexus, Volkswagen, Chevrolet, Toyota (7203.TO), Kia, Ford, and Hyundai offer some sort of programmable driving monitor to keep track of your teenage driver and set limits.
For example, Ford has MyKey and Chevy used General Motors (GM) Teen Driver Technology to help parents monitor their teen’s driving. They can even set certain restrictions, such as maximum speed, in the system.
Learn more: Using Telematics to Track Your Teen’s Driving
How important are crash test ratings?
We take crash test scores seriously, which is why we’ve included them in the qualifiers for our picks. Our research is based on data from third-party crash testing organizations, such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Their approaches and test parameters work differently.
Six test areas for IIHS
Auto insurance companies support the IIHS, a non-profit organization. It not only conducts and scores crash tests, but also uses other data and qualifications to present its annual Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ awards. Currently, it scores “Good”, “Acceptable”, “Marginal” or “Poor” in six test areas.
Three test areas for NHTSA
NHTSA is conducting three tests, each using a star system. The best score is 5 stars and the worst is 1 star. NHTSA scores each test individually and then also gives 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 second-hand is the most cost-effective way to go. That’s why we focused on vehicles that are broken down by price, from less than $20,000 to vehicles costing less than $5,000.
We have based the prices on the Kelley Blue Book Fair purchase price range. Where a model offers both a sedan and a 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 assistance features listed above. They all have at least a “Good” rating in at least five of the IIHS crash tests, but almost all vehicles here have a Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+. These vehicles are also praised for their reliability and their fuel economy.
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