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5 best used cars for teen drivers

Smart choices for safe, reliable transportation

Last updated: July 23, 2015 10:00 AM

School's out for summer, and teens have places to go. Whether heading to a friend’s house, commuting to work, or preparing for school in the fall, many young drivers need (or at least want) their own car. While there can be the temptation to buy whatever cheap model is being advertised in your neighborhood, or to provide a hand-me-down car, choosing the best used cars for teens warrants a bit more strategy.

Understandably, budget is a huge family concern when buying a car for a teen, especially with looming college costs and the realization that the car may lead a tough service life. Within that budget, we recommend buying the safest, most reliable model possible.

Teens are far more likely to be in a car accident than mature adults, thanks to their lack of driving experience and inability to accurately judge risk. Therefore, they need the best protection possible. We strongly urge you to buy a car with electronic stability control (ESC), technology that helps the driver maintain control, greatly decreasing the risk of a crash. Helpful for anyone, ESC is key for those drivers with little experience. While this limits choices to newer or more high-end vehicles, we think this technology is worth it.

Other key safety equipment includes antilock brakes, standard on any car with ESC. If you can get a car equipped with multistage advanced front air bags, plus side and head-protection curtain air bags, so much the better. The lifesaving potential assistance those systems can provide is worth every penny in an emergency situation.

For young, relatively inexperienced drivers, steer clear of pickups because they are more prone to roll over than other vehicles. Sports cars and sporty variants increase the risk of speeding and have a higher rate of accidents, and consequently, they carry tuition-sapping insurance premiums. Large old sedans or SUV "tanks" seem tempting, but newer and smaller models are actually safer, thanks to better crash structure and modern technology. Finally, avoid three-row or XL SUVs; the more passengers in a teen-driven vehicle, the higher the risk of a crash.

A small or midsized sedan is the sweet spot for safety, controllability, visibility, and affordability.

With these factors in mind, Consumer Reports maintains a list of recommended new cars and used cars for teens. Whittling these down further, we have identified five great used cars that are smart choices for a young driver. Each has met all the qualifications mentioned above across several model years. (More information on these, and other recommendations, can be found at

Keep in mind that every used car gets treated differently. The older a car gets, the more its care and maintenance history will affect its overall performance and reliability. Be sure to have the specific car you are considering purchasing thoroughly inspected by a qualified mechanic before you make the purchase.

Ford Focus (2009-2011)

A competent small car, the Ford Focus from this period has better-than-average reliability and crash-test scores. It is, admittedly, a boring car, and that helps make it perfect for a young driver. The Focus has fairly balanced handling when pushed to its limits. We zeroed-in on the 2009 model as that model year marks the introduction of stability control. Teens may appreciate that an early version of Ford’s Sync infotainment system with voice controls and USB input is available.

Hyundai Elantra (2008 or later)

We need to be a bit specific on this recommendation, concentrating on the Elantra SE from 2008-2010, or any version 2011 or newer. That is because stability control was not readily available for all trim levels—just the SE—until it became standard for 2011. Since we’re being picky, the Elantra fared better in side crash tests starting in 2010. Fuel economy improved markedly with a 2011 redesign, as did styling and packaging. These two Elantra generations are appealing alternatives to more popular competitors because relatively lower retail values make them attractive buys on the used market.

Mazda3 (2011 or later)

One of our favorite small cars, the Mazda3 has precise, responsive handling and a firm, comfortable ride. Interior quality is very good overall, although the cabin is noisy and the rear seat somewhat tight. For 2012, Mazda added a new 2.0-liter Skyactiv engine and six-speed automatic transmission that boosted fuel economy to an impressive 32 mpg. If you're shopping for an earlier model, look for one with antilock brakes, stability control, and the available curtain air bags, as the Mazda3 received a Poor rating in the IIHS side-crash test without them. Skip the zippy Mazdaspeed3.

Mazda6 (4 cyl., 2009-2013)

Stepping up to a midsized sedan brings more interior and cargo space. Redesigned for 2009, this Mazda6 is roomier, quieter, and quicker than the generation it replaced. Teens will appreciate that it is relatively fun to drive, while parents will appreciate its more practical qualities including decent reliability. Bypass the V6 and get the 2.5-liter four-cylinder, which delivers better-than-average acceleration, while returning a decent 24 mpg overall.

Subaru Impreza (non-turbo, 2009 or later)

Looking for the foul-weather capability of all-wheel drive? Consider the Subaru Impreza in either sedan or hatchback form. This small car provides nimble handling and a composed ride. Further, it has an enviable reliability and crash-test record. Fuel economy on pre-2012 models wasn't great. The 2012 makeover made a good car better, with an improved ride, responsive handling, increased interior space, and an efficient continuously variable transmission. Steer clear of the entertaining turbocharged WRX models, as they can inspire misbehavior.

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