Automotive Research

The best cars for teens in 2019

Teen poses with his new AAA membership card as he gets ready to drive

It's a highly anticipated (and scary) time in a parent’s life: Your son or daughter has just turned 16 and is about to get their driver’s license.

Or maybe they're going off to college and will need their first vehicle. But what's the best car for a teen driver? Will you let them use the family vehicle or buy them a new one? New cars have more and better safety features, warranties, and are likely to be more reliable than cars even just a few years old. So if you’re in the market for something new, how do you pick the safest car that meets your needs and budget?

Your teen might want a fast sports car or a big SUV. That’s understandable, but those aren’t the best match for new drivers. For one thing, teens may struggle to control their impulses, and buying them a sporty car is an invitation to drive aggressively. Insurance costs are likely to be much higher, too. And big SUVs are harder to control and more prone to rolling over at their handling limits.

What should you buy for your teen driver?

AAA recommends a midsized sedan or crossover with a 4-cylinder engine, automatic transmission, and high crash-test scores. 

  • A midsized car—based on EPA interior volume classification—is big enough to protect occupants in a crash but small enough for a new driver to handle easily.

  • A crossover can be a good alternative to a midsized car. With their higher seating position, crossovers afford a better view of the road.

  • A 4-cylinder engine limits a car’s acceleration (and hopefully a teen’s desire to show off) and generally provides better fuel economy and a smaller carbon footprint.

  • Cars with automatic transmissions are easier to drive, allowing teens to focus on steering, proper speed, and braking.

  • Traffic crashes are the leading cause of teen deaths. A car with a high crash-test score could reduce the chance of your teen being killed or seriously injured in a crash.

Our list of best first cars

The Automotive Research Center, operated by the Automobile Club of Southern California, has developed the following list of 2018 midsized cars and crossovers, all of which meet the above criteria. Crash-test scores come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA); we chose only vehicles with the maximum 5-star overall rating at the time our list was compiled and a base price (MSRP) limit of $40,000. Finally, we used criteria from the EPA’s 2018 Fuel Economy Guide to determine that a vehicle met the definition of a midsized sedan or small crossover.

The manufacturer’s suggested retail prices listed are for 2018 base-model vehicles with automatic transmissions, including destination charges. You may want to consider all-wheel drive for your teen’s new car, especially if you live in an area with a lot of rain and snow, because it improves traction in poor weather. Finally, avoid cars with too many electronic gadgets or complicated controls, as they can distract teens from the task at hand.

Make Model MSRP (including destination charge)
Buick Encore

$22,990

Buick Envision AWD $35,870
Buick LaCrosse $29,565
Chevrolet Cruze Hatchback $20,445
Chevrolet Malibu $21,680
Chevrolet Trax

$21,000

Ford Fusion $22,840
Ford Fusion Hybrid $25,390
Ford Edge

$28,950

Ford Escape $23,850
Ford Focus Hatch $20,540
GMC Acadia AWD $29,995
Honda Civic $18,940
Honda

CR-V

$24,250
Honda

Pilot

$31,450
Hyundai Sonata Hybrid $23,500
Hyundai Santa Fe Sport $25,000
Hyundai Tucson $20,050
Kia Forte $17,690
Kia Optima Hybrid $25,995
Kia

Sorento

$25,990
Kia Sportage $23,750
Lexus NX 300 $36,185
Lexus NX 300h $38,535
Lincoln

MKZ

$35,605
Lincoln MKZ Hybrid

$35,605

Mazda 3 5-Door $19,345
Mazda 6 $21,950
Mazda

CX-5

$24,150
Mazda

CX-9

$32,130

Mitsubishi Outlander AWD $23,945
Nissan

Altima

$23,260
Subaru Legacy $22,195
Subaru Impreza $18,495
Subaru Forester $22,795
Subaru Outback $25,895
Subaru Crosstrek

$21,795

Toyota Avalon Hybrid $36,500
Toyota Camry $23,645
Toyota Camry Hybrid $27,950
Toyota Corolla

$18,600

Toyota Highlander $31,230
Toyota

Prius

$23,475
Toyota RAV4

$24,660

Toyota

RAV4 Hybrid

$27,385
Volkswagen

Atlas

$30,750
Volkswagen Passat

$22,995

Safety features worth considering

Back-up cameras

A recent Automotive Research Center study showed that both factory-installed and aftermarket rearview cameras work well, increasing visibility in blind zones by an average of 46%.

Blind spot monitoring

Even with properly adjusted mirrors, blind spots still exist beside and behind a car. Monitoring systems use radar to alert drivers to vehicles in the lanes on either side, from about the rear half of the car to half a car length behind.

Lane departure warning

Teen drivers sometimes make minor driving mistakes, like drifting from their lane. Lane departure warning and lane-keeping assist systems read ordinary road markings and warn drivers when they’re drifting over the line.

Rear cross traffic alert

This technology uses radar to detect objects crossing behind a vehicle when it’s in reverse. When a possible collision is detected, audible and visual alerts warn drivers not to proceed.

Pedestrian detection & braking

These systems use radar and cameras to help drivers avoid hitting pedestrians and other vehicles (including motorcycles and cyclists) in low-speed situations such as urban intersections.

A final note

Driver-support systems can be a great boon, especially to inexperienced drivers like teens, but as with any electronics system, they’re not infallible. Remind your teen driver that driver-support systems are no substitute for safe driving.

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