Best Cars for Teens Under $20,000

Safe, reliable used cars and SUVs that are well-suited for young drivers

Teen driver adjusting rear view mirror. Photo: iStock

Parents choosing a car for their teen driver have a tough decision to make because they need to strike a balance between cost and safety.

The temptation—often born of necessity—is to buy a less expensive, bare-bones model or to pass down an older family car. But because the car will be transporting their children, we feel that parents should pick the best and safest car their budget allows.

Teenagers are among the riskiest drivers because of a combination of immaturity, inexperience, and social pressures. Consequently, teens have crash rates that are almost four times those of drivers 20 and older. Choosing the right car can help teens stay safe, but it can be challenging to balance all the factors that make a vehicle ideal for inexperienced drivers.

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Consumer Reports and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have joined forces, combining expertise and data, to create a simple list of cars, SUVs, and minivans that balance accident avoidance, crash protection, performance, and reliability. The vehicle recommendations are ideal for teens, but they can serve any shopper looking for a vehicle that excels in those areas.

“In compiling these lists, we found that some of the same models that were on last year’s lists are actually more expensive now even though they’re a year older,” says Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at Consumer Reports Auto Test Center. “As the same amount of money may not be going as far, it’s even more important to make it a safe and reliable choice.”

A lot has changed in the past year, with the pandemic driving up used car prices by 18 percent, according to vehicle valuation company Kelley Blue Book. For some families, this may mean that buying a new car is the right move. Not to worry, we have a list for that.

Even in this tight market, it’s possible to find some good options for young drivers. CR and IIHS identified 61 used vehicles ranging from $6,400 to $19,800 that meet the groups’ stringent safety and reliability criteria.

We present two tiers of recommendations: Good Choices and Best Choices.

Good Choices

To make the cut to be a Good Choice, the vehicles must have:

  • Electronic stability control. ESC has important crash prevention and lifesaving potential. It became standard on all passenger vehicles in 2012, and it was standard on many models prior to that year. All vehicles have this important feature as standard equipment for the years listed.
  • Above-average reliability for the majority of the years listed, based on CR’s member surveys.
  • Average or better scores from CR’s emergency handling tests.
  • Dry braking distances of less than 145 feet from 60 mph in CR’s brake tests.
  • Good ratings in four IIHS crashworthiness tests — moderate-overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraints.
  • Four or five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (if rated).

Best Choices

The Best Choices also factor:

A good or acceptable rating in the IIHS driver’s-side small-overlap front crash test, which was launched in 2012. The test replicates what happens when the front left corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object such as a tree or utility pole.

Insurance claim rates. The Best Choices list excludes vehicles that have substantially higher than average insurance claim rates under medical payment or personal injury protection coverage. Both coverage types pay for injuries to occupants of the insured vehicle. The Highway Loss Data Institute, an IIHS affiliate, collects and publishes insurance loss data by make and model every year. The results are adjusted for driver age, gender, and other factors that could affect risk.

These recommendations focus on “Goldilocks” models that provide the best all-around protection for inexperienced drivers. Ultimately, the goal is to select a reliable car with as much safety as you can afford. Increasingly, active driver assist systems (ADAS) are becoming widespread and are now available in many late-model used cars. Features such as forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection, and blind spot warning are proven features that can help avoid collisions and are worth considering, if your budget allows.

All vehicles in this list are used cars and have a starting price of $20,000 or less. (Higher-trim models may cost more.) They are ranked within the car size by the starting price.

The starting price listed is the least expensive version in the range of years, assuming that the vehicle is in good condition with typical mileage and that it’s sold via private party. The prices were provided by Kelley Blue Book.

For complete road tests, reliability, owner satisfaction, pricing, and much more, click on the model names below.

Good Choices for Teens

Model (Year Range)Starting Price
Mazda 3 sedan or hatchback (2012-13)$6,400
Toyota Prius (2011-13)$6,700
Honda Civic sedan (2012-15)$6,900
Toyota Corolla sedan (2014 or newer)$10,300
Toyota Prius V (2012-14)$8,300
Toyota Camry (2012 or newer)$9,000
Honda Accord sedan (2012)$9,300
Ford Taurus (2011)$6,700
Hyundai Tucson (2012)$7,100
Toyota RAV4 (2013-14)$12,164
Toyota Venza (2009-15)$8,000
Toyota Highlander (2008 or newer)$8,200
Acura RDX (2013-16)$13,661
Ford Edge (2014-15)$11,104
Lexus RX (2010 and newer)$11,092
Toyota Sienna (2011-2014)$8,300

Best Choices for Teens

Model (year range)Starting price
Mazda 3 sedan or hatchback (2014 or newer; built after October 2013)$8,100
Toyota Prius (2014 or newer; built after November 2013)$8,600
Hyundai Elantra GT (2018 or newer)$15,200
Subaru Crosstrek (2017 or newer)$17,900
Honda Insight (2019 or newer)$18,200
Toyota Prius Prime (2017 or newer)$18,200
Toyota Corolla Hatchback (2019 or newer)$18,300
Kia Niro (2019)$18,600
Subaru Impreza (2019)$19,400
Subaru Legacy (2013 or newer; built after August 2012)$8,800
Mazda 6 (2014 or newer)$10,100
Lincoln MKZ (2013, 2016, 2018 or newer)$10,300
Honda Accord sedan or coupe (2013 or newer)$10,900
Volkswagen Passat (2016-17)$11,400
Toyota Prius V (2015-18)$11,600
Volkswagen Jetta (2017)$12,900
Volvo S60 (2016, 18)$14,100
BMW 3 Series 4-cyl. (2017 or newer; built after November 2016)$17,900
Ford Taurus (2014)$9,600
Hyundai Genesis (2016)$18,700
Mazda CX-5 (2014 or newer; built after October 2013)$9,300
Nissan Rogue (2014, 2016-18, 2020)$10,100
Subaru Forester (2016 or newer)$13,500
Honda CR-V (2015 or newer)$14,800
Kia Sportage (2017, 2018, 2020)$14,800
Toyota RAV4 (2015 or newer; built after November 2014)$14,900
Honda HR-V (2017 or newer; built after March 2016)$15,400
Hyundai Kona (2018 or newer)$15,800
Buick Encore (2018-19)$16,300
Hyundai Tucson (2018 or newer)$16,800
Mazda CX-3 (2019 or newer)$17,800
Volvo XC60 (2017)$19,200
Subaru Outback (2013 or newer; built after August 2012)$8,700
Chevrolet Equinox (2017, 2019)$13,700
Nissan Murano (2015 or newer)$14,800
GMC Terrain (2017, 2019)$15,100
Lexus NX (2015-16, 2018 or newer)$16,000
Kia Sorento (2017-18)$16,500
Hyundai Santa Fe (2017-19; built after March 2016)$18,700
Ford Edge (2018 or newer)$19,600
Mazda CX-9 (2017 or newer; built after November 2016)$19,600
Audi Q5 (2016-19)$19,800
Toyota Sienna (2015-16)$13,900
Honda Odyssey (2016)$15,400
Kia Sedona (2017)$15,600