Buying a car is one of the most important and often one of the most expensive decisions many of us have to make. And as tough as those choices are for adult drivers, the importance of putting a new, inexperienced driver behind the wheel of the safest, most reliable vehicle you can afford cannot be overstated, especially when money is tight.
The first ride for a new driver doesn't need to be expensive, but it's a really bad idea to think a $500 beater is a smart choice to get your child to school or work. (See our used car buying advice and ratings.)
The harsh reality is that crashes are the number one killer of teens. In 2009, about 3,000 U.S. teens in 2009 aged 15-19 years old were killed and more than 350,000 were treated in emergency departments for injuries suffered in motor-vehicle crashes, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC further states that per mile driven, teen drivers ages 16 to 19 years old are four times more likely than older drivers to crash.
We think you should stay away from trucks and large SUVs because they tend to have clumsy handling, poor fuel economy, and their high centers of gravity make them more likely to roll over. Sports cars and other especially quick cars are another dubious choice, because they have a higher likelihood of accidents than other cars and insurance rates to match. Small cars and family sedans tend to offer a good balance of controllability, safety, and visibility.
Consumer Reports strongly urges parents to make sure their child's first car has as many of the latest safety features as the budget will allow. Must haves include ABS, electronic stability control (ESC), and curtain air bags. Further, the vehicles should perform well in government and insurance-industry crash tests, as well as in our dynamic tests, such as accident avoidance, braking, and handling. The reality is that young, inexperienced drivers need all the protection they can get on today's congested and fast-moving roadways.
Last year, our automotive choices for teens generated quite a bit of interest, not all of it positive. Many readers told us that our suggestions were too expensive and unrealistic for their budgets.
Fair enough. We understand that raising a family is expensive and that the economy has created challenges for many households. But we stand by our advice. The freedom of driving is a great experience, and it enables both teens and their parents to have more independence. But the grim statistics argue for taking maximum care in the choice of cars.
The models below are readily available with the recommended safety equipment and have performed well in safety-related tests. All are Consumer Reports recommended vehicles, meaning that they scored well in our testing and have had average or better reliability. They also have sufficient acceleration to merge onto busy highways, good brakes, and scored well in emergency handling.
It's important to note that earlier model years of the same vehicles are excluded from the list because they lack one or more of those essential elements. Most often they lack stability control. While many more expensive vehicles meet our criteria, we focused here on used car choices that are readily available for less than $12,000. 2011 Best cars for teens
Visit our guide to distracted driving and teen safety.
2010 Best cars for teen drivers
2010 Best cars for teen drivers: More affordable alternatives