Best Used Cars for Teens, According to Consumer Reports and IIHS

Kyle Patrick
by Kyle Patrick

Surprise surprise: import cars and crossovers dominate the list of affordable and safe rides for new drivers.

A teenager’s first car is a rite of passage. It’s an early lesson in both freedom and responsibility. Statistically, it’s also likely to get dinged up. According to the American Automobile Association, 16–17 year olds are roughly 4.5 times more likely to get into a crash than people their parents’ age. Needless to say, safety is a top priority, especially as the car is likely to be bought used, for maximum affordability.

To make the selection process easier, Consumer Reports and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have teamed up to produce a short list. It’s the first time the two organizations have done so, and they’ve taken into account a variety of criteria to determine the best of the bunch. The list also features a price cap of $20,000, per Kelley Blue Book values for the lowest trim level.

Every car on the list features above-average reliability in CR’s member surveys for the majority of the model years listed, average or better scores in CR’s emergency handling tests, and a dry braking distance of less than 145 feet from 60 mph in CR’s brake tests. On the IIHS side, the cars must feature a Good rating in four of the organizations crash tests: moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraints. They also must score a Good or Acceptable in the driver-side small overlap front test, and at least four stars from the NHTSA. Finally, every one of these models feature standard stability control.

The list is broken down by size and shape: small car, midsize SUVs, etc. A lone large car makes the list in the shape of the Hyundai Genesis (before it was spun off into its own brand). We’ve combined all. Let’s take a look at the full list then, shall we?

Best Small Cars for Teens

Mazda 3

Years: 2014 or newer, built after October 2013

Price: $7,000

The Mazda 3 is the most affordable choice of any of the categories. It’s not surprising, as it’s a smaller car and one of the oldest. That doesn’t mean it isn’t safe though. The 3 remains a good-looking, practical vehicle in sedan or hatchback form, with enough power from its four-cylinder engines to get up to highway speeds quickly, without being too much to cause trouble. Plus it’s a solid handler.

Subaru Impreza

Years: 2014 or newer

Price: $8,700

Like the Mazda3, the Subaru Impreza is available in two body styles: sedan or wagon. It’s a little dearer, but the added cost does include standard all-wheel drive, which is unique in this category. If you’re in a snowier clime, the extra peace of mind might be worth it.

Hyundai Elantra GT

Years: 2018 or newer

Price: $14,000

We’re jumping way up in price, but the Hyundai Elantra GT also features more modern creature comforts. Its practical hatch body shape is a helpful plus too. A naturally-aspirated 2.0-liter engine is standard, with a 1.6-liter turbocharged engine in the higher, enthusiast-oriented models.

Kia Forte

Years: 2019 or newer

Price: $14,600

The Kia Forte received a whole model change in 2019, so this car offers everything you’d find fresh on the lot. This includes an 8.0-inch infotainment screen, standard smartphone integration, plus driver assists like lane-keep assist, lane departure warning, and automated emergency braking. Perfect for the new driver behind the wheel.

Kia Niro

Years: 2018

Price: $15,400

Kia earns a second appearance in the top five here, thanks to the Niro. Sitting somewhere between crossover and hatchback, the Niro comes in two flavors: series or plug-in hybrid. Not only is it a practical shape, but that also makes it the fuel-sipping choice of the pack.

You may also want to consider:

  • Toyota Corolla Hatchback (2019 or newer): $15,800
  • Honda Insight (2019 or newer): $17,900
  • Subaru Crosstrek (2018 or newer): $18,700
  • Toyota Prius Prime (2017 or newer): $18,700

Best Mid-Size Cars for Teens

Subaru Legacy

Years: 2013 or newer, built after August 2012

Price: $7,600

It’s not surprising to see the Subaru Legacy topping the list here. The Japanese brand’s mid-size sedan is a sturdy, reliable four-door with standard all-wheel drive. The age range here includes the final years of the fifth-generation model, but we’d suggest hunting for the more handsome, higher-tech sixth-gen.

Subaru Outback

Years: 2013 or newer, built after August 2012

Price: $8,500

Before Subaru spun it off into its own model, the Outback was a trim option of the Legacy wagon. So it’s understandable it shows up right alongside its three-box sibling. That crossover styling does command an additional premium, though.

Honda Accord

Years: 2013 or newer

Price: $9,200

The Honda Accord remains one of the best mainstream mid-size sedans out there. It gets so many things right: the size, the power, the reliability, and a driving experience that isn’t completely anodyne. The sheer number of examples out there means you should be able to find a good one for the new driver in the family.

Volkswagen Jetta

Years: 2016–2018

Price: $9,800

The Volkswagen Jetta is smaller than most of the other models on this list, but that’s no bad thing. That makes it easier to park, and the smaller 1.4-liter turbocharged engine sips fuel.

Mazda 6

Years: 2015 or newer

Price: $10,500

Who says a teen’s first set of wheels need to look dull? Even in its twilight years, the Mazda 6 remains one of the best-looking modern sedans. The understated looks hide a spacious interior, while a four-cylinder engine line up keeps gas prices in check.

You may also want to consider:

  • Volkswagen Passat (2016–2018): $11,000
  • Toyota Prius v (2015–2017): $12,600
  • Lincoln MKZ (2016 or newer): $13,300
  • Volvo S60 (2017–2018): $15,300
  • Nissan Altima (2019 or newer): $17,000
  • Audi A3 (2017, 2020): $18,300
  • BMW 3-Series (2017 or newer, built after November 2016): $18,600

Best Small SUVs for Teens

Mazda CX-5

Years: 2014 or newer, built after October 2013

Price: $8,200

The Mazda CX-5 takes all the good bits of the 3—great handling, smooth engines, attractive styling—and raises them a little further off the ground. We continue to rate the CX-5 as one of the best models in the class, and its discount price solidifies its place at the top of the pile here.

Buick Encore

Years: 2016 or newer

Price: $10,700

Smaller than anything else here, the Buick Encore is a pint-size slice of near-luxury. It’s great for city-dwellers, thanks to those tidy dimensions and equally diminutive engine. Teens will also appreciate the added creature comforts.

Chevrolet Equinox

Years: 2016 or newer

Price: $12,100

Chevrolet sells more Equinox models than anything else in its lineup not named Silverado. That means you’ve got lots to choose from, and parts are readily available if anything gets dinged. 2016 models offered a range of naturally-aspirated four- and six-cylinder models; 2017 and onward are all-turbo, all the time.

Honda CR-V

Years: 2015–2016, 2019 or newer

Price: $12,200

In 2019 the CR-V was the second-best-selling crossover in America. That should tell you just how popular Honda’s main SUV is. It’s easy to see why: it offers traditional Honda values of a smooth ride, fuel-efficient engines, and low cost of ownership in the hugely desirable crossover shape.

Mazda CX-3

Years: 2017 or newer

Price: $12,300

Want something smaller than the Buick for your kids, but with less of a pipe-and-slippers image? The Mazda CX-3 is the answer. Feeling even closer to a car than anything else here, the CX-3 is a little hatchback with a few SUV styling cues. That means it’s just as easy to drive as a sub-compact car should be, while offering a higher driving position to help new drivers see more of the road.

You may also want to consider:

  • Subaru Forester (2016 or newer): $12,500
  • Nissan Rogue (2017 or newer): $13,400
  • Toyota RAV4 (2015 or newer, built after November 2014): $13,800
  • Honda HR-V (2017–2018, built after March 2017): $14,000
  • Hyundai Kona (2018 or newer): $14,500
  • Audi Q3 (2016 or newer): $17,300

Best Mid-Size SUVs for Teens

GMC Terrain

Years: 2014, 2016 or newer

Price: $9,400

The GMC Terrain’s blocky styling helps it stand out in a sea of softer SUV shapes. It offers a lot of space for less than anything else in the mid-size segment, so can double as the family hauler too.

Kia Sorento

Years: 2016 or newer

Price: $13,400

Kia’s Sorento offers a reasonable amount of safety features in a big and affordable package. In a break from tradition, we’d recommend the larger engine here: while the four-cylinder is marginally more fuel efficient, its lack of power can be a problem when merging onto highways. Stick to the V6.

Nissan Murano

Years: 2015 or newer

Price: $13,800

Nissan has kept the Murano’s swoopy styling as a standout feature since the model debuted almost 20 years ago. It’s now quite large, but still only sits five, allowing for a huge amount of storage space behind the seats. Make sure the Murano features the Technology package, with the usual raft of driver assists like automated emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert.

Hyundai Santa Fe Sport

Years: 2017–2018

Price: $15,800

The Santa Fe Sport was the smaller of the two Sante Fe models a few years ago. Since then, Hyundai has reverted the Santa Fe to just one five-seat model; the seven-seat Palisade now sits at the top of the SUV lineup. Like the Sorento, we recommend getting the V6 instead of the four-pot.

Hyundai Santa Fe

Years: 2017 or newer, built after March 2016

Price: $17,800

The latest Santa Fe is a technological powerhouse, with a whole suite of driver aids to keep new drivers safe. The previous generation offers most of them as well—though some were optional—and we’d recommend hunting down a model with as many as possible.

You may also want to consider:

  • Mazda CX-9 (2017 or newer, built after November 2016): $18,400
  • Lincoln MKX (2017–2018): $19,600

Best Minivans for Teens

Toyota Sienna

Years: 2015 or newer

Price: $11,900

The Toyota Sienna is the stalwart of the minivan trio here. The current generation is a little long-in-tooth, and a new hybrid-only model is on the horizon for 2021. But that’s a good thing for your teen driver! The Sienna offers a studio apartment’s worth of interior space for them and their friends, high safety marks, and a reliable, powerful—but not too powerful—V6 engine.

Honda Odyssey

Years: 2015–2016

Price: $12,400

Maybe you’re more of a Honda family. No problem, the Odyssey is a solid people-hauler. It too offers a standard V6, plenty of safety features, and of course, tons of room. Practicality is a big deal for teens, even if they won’t admit it: a minivan will get more of them and their friends where they need to go in comfort than anything else in the market.

Kia Sedona

Years: 2016–2017

Price: $12,600

Kia’s Sedona is an often-overlooked entry in the minivan segment. Along with the usual virtues of its shape, the Sedona also offers a strong infotainment setup. Kia’s driving assist suite isn’t standard however, so make sure to budget for a model with it equipped.

Kyle Patrick
Kyle Patrick

Kyle began his automotive obsession before he even started school, courtesy of a remote control Porsche and various LEGO sets. He later studied advertising and graphic design at Humber College, which led him to writing about cars (both real and digital). He is now a proud member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), where he was the Journalist of the Year runner-up for 2021.

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 1 comment
  • J J on Jun 15, 2022

    Maybe next time y'all can put in a sports car section