The Best Cars for Teen Drivers

By Des Toups Features


The best car for your teenager is a 2008 Audi A3.

Go tell him or her the good news. We'll wait here.

If only it were that easy. Teenagers know which cars they want. It's the parents who ask which one is best for their new driver. Teenagers picture themselves on a highway with friends. Parents picture a smoking ruin and a frantic midnight call.

Every car for young drivers is a compromise of teen want and parental fear.  And “best” largely depends on how deep your wallet is and where you want to put your money.

The good news is that a safe newer car doesn't cost much more to insure than a less safe older car, and that there isn't a huge difference in rates from car to car.

The bad news is that they all cost a lot to insure, because it's your child the insurance company is afraid of, not his or her car.

Whittling the list: Safety first

Because parents put a priority on safety, we did too. Our used-car candidates include only those models on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's 2008 Top Safety Picks list.  

You may want something older or something newer, but we suggest starting your search from a list of cars with proven crash-test records and up-to-date safety equipment. (You'll find lists of IIHS Top Safety Picks dating back to 2006 here.)

We chose the 2008 Top Safety Picks as a starting point for used cars for the same reason the IIHS chose them when new: These cars have passed crash tests with flying colors, and, more importantly, come with electronic stability control, a technology that for 2012 is now required on every new car. (See “The biggest safety advance since the seat belt.”)

Penny Gusner,'s consumer analyst, says if you are choosing between cars with or without added safety features, go with a car that has the extras.  “Safety features should give you discounts, and every little bit off helps.”

The 20 best cars for teens

To help you narrow down your choices from the IIHS list of 65 Top Safety Picks, we've included information on pricing, reliability and fuel economy from three expert sources who gather real-world data. uses actual transaction prices to determine True Market Value for used cars. TrueDelta uses reports from more than 75,000 members to track frequency of repairs and dealer visits. Fuelly uses a similar community-based approach to offer real-world gas mileage numbers. Because all these numbers can encompass several different engines, body styles and trim levels, it's best you explore the information on these sites further once you have a car you're interested in.

Lastly, we've run insurance quotes for each, using a hypothetical Washington family, to see the impact each has on the family insurance bill compared with handing your  newly licensed teen a bus pass. Insurance where you live may cost much more or much less.

You'll have your own thresholds for price, reliability and fuel economy.  Our list includes those with likely price tags of $15,000 or less, average or better reliability, and gas mileage of 20 mpg or higher. That brings the number of candidates down to 20.

From there we looked at insurance costs.  Let's be clear about one thing: Adding the teenager to your policy is what causes your bill to soar. (See more about your options below.) After that jolt, the blow to your insurance bill from adding another vehicle is comparatively mild, with our top 20 choices increasing your premium anywhere from $392 to $872 a year.

We've got the list below ranked by  the additional cost of insuring a particular model for five years. In your case, the purchase price or gas mileage might matter more.'s top 20 used cars for teens

Rank Make and model Price Repair trips per 100 cars MPG 5-year added insurance cost
1 '08 Audi A3 $14,995 48 26.7 $1,960
2 '08 Honda Accord 4-door $12,899 31 24.7 $2,040
3 '08 Mercury Sable w/ESC $12,636 61 20.8 $2,610
4 '08 Ford Taurus w/ESC $12,137 61 22.1 $2,670
5 '08 Subaru Forester w/ESC $13,282 11 24.3 $2,750
6 '09 Mercury Milan w/ESC $12,976 28 28.8 $2,790
7 '08 Scion xB $10,453 17 25.3 $2,790
8 '08 Nissan Rogue $14,015 46 23.3 $2,900
9 '09 Honda Civic 4-door w/ESC $11,078 25 31.6 $2,970
10 '09 Ford Fusion w/ESC $12,570 28 22.3 $2,980
11 '08 Hyundai Santa Fe $13,614 59 21.2 $3,050
12 '08 Saturn VUE (built after 12/07) $12,075 62 21.4 $3,180
13 '08 Saab 9-3 $12,174 84 25.2 $3,350
14 '09 Volkswagen Jetta $12,084 61 36.7 $3,480
15 '09 Subaru Forester $14,691 31 24.2 $3,600
16 '09 Volkswagen Rabbit 4-door $11,620 61 25.6 $3,630
17 '09 Mitsubishi Lancer w/ESC $9,315 23 23.5 $3,980
18 '09 Ford Escape $13,595 65 21.4 $4,120
19 '08 Subaru Legacy w/ESC $12,222 48 23.6 $4,320
20 '08 Subaru Impreza w/ESC $10,620 13 23.7 $4,360

It's your kid, not the car

From an insurance perspective, your child's car doesn't really matter. It's the fact that he or she is driving at all that's expensive. Gusner says teenagers' lack of experience, dramatically increasing the odds of a crash, is what primarily drives up your premium.

We dreamed up a hypothetical couple, Don and Darla, to compare insurance quotes. This Washington family drives a 2011 Honda Accord and a 2009 Chevrolet Traverse, with no tickets or accidents, generous liability limits (100/300/50) and full collision and comprehensive coverage with a deductible of $500 each. Without a teen driver on their policy, we found quotes as low as $1,536 a year. 

Then we ran through the options we see many parents considering as their teen joins the ranks of the newly licensed. Note that we're using the cheapest quotes we found, but you'll find huge differences as you shop.

Assign the new driver to the cheapest-to-insure car. We added Don and Darla's teenage son, Dan, and assigned him to the family SUV. The least expensive quote nearly tripled to $4,406 a year.

Buy the new driver a beater car. We bought Dan a 2002 Ford Taurus and added it to the family policy with liability-only coverage. The cheapest quote actually went down, to $4,376 a year. (In this instance, removing the riskiest driver from a pricier car made its collision coverage cheaper, but that's not the case in every state.)

Insure the beater separately and exclude the teen from the family policy. We found liability-only coverage for Dan at $4,656 a year. Add that to his parents' $1,536 bill and they come out about $1,800 in the hole compared with simply adding Dan to the family policy. (Note: Even if excluding your teen driver somehow winds up being much cheaper, not all states will allow a teen to be excluded from a family policy.)

Buy the new driver a late-model used car. If you have the scratch to buy your child one of the 2008 IIHS Top Safety Picks, the difference between the most expensive and least expensive to insure is less than $600 a year.

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The best cars for teen drivers