The best cars for teens in 2018

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

Teen with dad

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

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.