Ten Smart Choices for a Teen's First Car

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Published August 29, 2011

| Bankrate.com

In the past, the conventional wisdom may have been to pass down your old clunker to your kid. But today, an even better choice is to find an affordable new car that takes advantage of the latest safety technology, which is important for inexperienced drivers.

The vehicles you consider for your teen's first car should have an antilock braking system, working air bags and strong reviews in crash tests, says Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor the for the car research site Edmunds.com.

"You also want them to have electronic stability control, or ESC, which prevents a car from skidding during bad weather or at high speed," Reed says.

With that in mind, here is Bankrate's Top 10 list of cars for teens. These cars have the safety specs as well as fun features, such as a stereo system with AM and FM radio, a CD player and an MP3 input. Note that dealers are now making room for next year's models, so you may be able to find incentives to buy the 2011 versions.

Kia Forte 2.0L LX

Starting car price: $14,995

Fuel economy: 25 city and 34 highway mpg

Engine specs: 2-liter, four-cylinder

The Kia Forte has one of the more affordable car prices in our roundup, yet the 2011 sedan has also been selected as a Top Safety Pick in its category by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or IIHS.

This award is given to vehicles that earn the organization's highest ratings in front, side, rollover, and rear crash tests. Cars also must have electronic stability control to be considered.

The Kia Forte boasts dual front seat-mounted, side air bags, and full-length side-curtain air bags. Generally, side curtain air bags help protect front and rear occupants in a side crash.

In addition to safety features you'll want in your teen's first car, this vehicle aims to please younger drivers with an advanced audio system that's compatible with Sirius satellite radio (subscriptions are extra). It also includes Bluetooth wireless technology as a standard feature.

Honda Accord

Starting car price: $21,380

Fuel economy: 23 city and 34 highway mpg

Engine specs: 2.4-liter, four-cylinder

The Accord has long been a favorite for a teen's first car because of its safety and its affordable car price, and 2011 models are no exception.

This year, the four-door sedan received the highest overall rating -- five stars -- from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, which tests cars and measures them based on crash and rollover safety.

This accomplishment is especially noteworthy because beginning with 2011 models, NHTSA updated its tests to make them more stringent.

The Accord's safety features include stability control, traction control, which helps regulate wheel spin during acceleration, and a four-wheel antilock braking system. It also has electronic brake-force distribution, which helps keep the car stable when the driver brakes.

The Accord has front, front-side and side-curtain air bags, and it's also designed with active front head restraints, which help passengers reduce the chance of whiplash in a rear impact crash.

Young audio enthusiasts can enjoy a six-speaker sound system with AM and FM radio and a CD player, which come standard.

Ford Focus S Sedan

Starting car price: $16,500

Fuel economy: 26 city and 36 highway mpg

Engine specs: 2-liter, four-cylinder

The Focus Sedan S is one of the more fuel-efficient among our choices for a teen's first cars. It also has Ford's MyKey safety system, which allows parents to put speed and audio limits on the vehicle.

Additional standard safety features include electronic stability control, and front, side, and side-curtain air bags. Consider the 2012 model, which is already available. It's an IIHS Top Safety Pick in its class and scores better than previous models on side-impact tests.

Ford Fiesta S Sedan

Starting car price: Around $13,000

Fuel economy: 29 city and 38 highway mpg

Engine specs: 1.6-liter, four-cylinder

The Fiesta has the smallest engine in this group, but it is the most fuel efficient of all of our top 10 choices for a teen's first car. The Fiesta is also the most affordable; it has the lowest manufacturer's suggested retail car price of the group.

The 2011 Fiesta received an IIHS Top Safety Pick award in the minicar category. The vehicle's features include electronic stability control and seven standard air bags, including one for the driver's knees.

Teen drivers will love the color selection, with nine choices that range from a funky lime squeeze to a sharp tuxedo black.

Hyundai Sonata GLS

Starting car price: $19,395 for 2011 models, $19,695 for 2012

Fuel economy: 24 city and 35 highway mpg

Engine specs: 2.4-liter, four-cylinder

The 2011 model Sonata is an IIHS Top Safety Pick in its class, with good scores in front, side, rollover and rear tests. This midsize car boasts front seat-mounted air bags as well as front and rear side-curtain air bags. The later releases of the 2011 Hyundai Sonata four-door, front-wheel-drive model also earned a five-star rating from NHTSA.

Electronic stability control comes standard, and other safety features include antilock brakes and daytime running lights.

Along with an fully loaded stereo system including AM and FM radio, a CD player, an MP3 input and six speakers, the Sonata comes with a complimentary three-month subscription to XM satellite radio.

Volkswagen Golf

Starting car price: $17,995

Fuel economy: 23 city and 33 highway mpg

Engine specs: 2.5-liter, five-cylinder

This hatchback is an IIHS Top Safety Pick. Features include electronic stability control and antilock brakes as well as a crash-optimized front end, which helps absorb the impact of a frontal collision. The car also has six air bags with side-curtain protection features.

While the safety specs should be pleasing for parents for a teen's first car, the VW Golf's audio features should be pleasing to teens. Its sound system comes standard with eight speakers, a CD player, AM and FM radio and an MP3 input.

Ford Fusion I4 S

Starting car price: $19,850

Fuel economy: 23 city and 33 highway mpg

Engine specs: 2.5-liter, four-cylinder

The Fusion is another IIHS Top Safety Pick. This midsize sedan has dual front air bags, front-seat side air bags, and side air curtains in the first and second rows. In addition, all models come with electronic stability control and a four-wheel, disc antilock brakes.

The Fusion also has Ford's MyKey system, which is designed so parents can program speed and audio controls for the vehicle. The entire Fusion line has 10 colors to choose from. Teen drivers might try to convince parents to spring for Red Candy or Steel Blue for their first car.

Volkswagen Jetta S

Starting car price: $16,495

Fuel economy: 24 city and 34 highway mpg

Engine specs: 2-liter, four-cylinder

This teen car has an antilock braking system as well as electronic stability control. It also boasts an automatic door-locking feature that kicks in when the car hits 8 miles per hour.

The Jetta also comes standard with front and side air bags as well as side-curtain air bags for the front and rear. In addition, this sedan boasts technology to automatically unlock doors if an air bag is deployed.

The starting MSRP is for a manual transmission. Automatic transmissions start at $17,595.

Toyota Camry

Starting car price: $20,195

Fuel economy: 22 city and 33 highway mpg

Engine specs: 2.5-liter, four-cylinder

The Camry has brake-assist technology, which means it can detect when your teen (or any driver) makes a panic stop, or moves their foot from the gas to the brake pedal quickly. When this happens, the system will add extra brake pressure to help decrease the stopping distance.

This car comes standard with stability control, traction control and antilock brakes. In addition, it features front, side and side-curtain air bags and electronic brake-force distribution, which helps keep the car from going out of control when the driver brakes.

The Camry's sound system is XM compatible (though it requires a subscription to the satellite radio company).

Toyota Rav4

Starting car price: $22,475

Fuel economy: 22 city and 28 highway mpg

Engine specs: 2.5-liter, four-cylinder

The Rav4 is the only sport utility vehicle on the list. As a general rule, SUVs are not a good choice for a teen's first car because high-performance vehicles are usually too difficult for inexperienced drivers, says Reed.

However, if you're intent on buying one, the Rav4 does offer some impressive safety features, including antilock brakes, vehicle stability control, electronic brake-force distribution and brake-assist technology. In addition, SUVs generally provide good visibility, Reed says.

The RAV4 sound system has MP3 compatibility and is also XM radio compatible (a subscription costs extra).

 

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