The Best Car For a Teen Driver Is the ‘Safest Car You Can Afford’

The Best Car For a Teen Driver Is the ‘Safest Car You Can Afford’

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There are two big things to know about teen drivers: they cost much more to insure and they are far more likely to be involved in a serious car crash than older drivers.

While there isn’t much you can do about the high cost of insuring a teen driver, you do have some control over the safety of the car you put them in. We talked to experts about what to look for in a car, and learned you don’t need the latest, greatest (and most expensive) automotive technology to maximize the safety of your teen driver.

One thing parents might not realize is the importance of vehicle size, multiple experts told us. Teen drivers are safer in cars that are neither too small (more dangerous in crashes) nor too large (more difficult to maneuver, plus longer braking time).

“We recommend that parents stay away from micro or mini cars because bigger cars do offer more protection for occupants when they’re involved in a crash,” says Jessica Cicchino, vice president of research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Engine size is another important factor to keep in mind: cars with 4-cylinder engines are generally safer for teen drivers than vehicles with larger engines that are capable of higher speeds. “As much as you may think it would be fun to get your kid a high-performance car, stay away from the sports cars with the high horsepower,” says Pam Shadel Fischer, a senior director with the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA).

Since many teens are driving hand-me-down or other used vehicles, age is another important safety factor to keep in mind. In general, newer cars — and the newer features that come with them — are safer. But plenty of used cars can be safe for teen drivers. The experts we talked to recommend cars between 3 and 5 years old, though any car made after 2012 — when electronic stability control became standard — offers key modern safety features.

We made a short list of the best vehicles we recommend for teen drivers, based on our conversations with insurance and safety experts, as well as research on leading industry safety ratings. The cars we recommend consistently earn top safety ratings and have not had any major reported safety issues. They also come with standard and optional upgrade safety features and technology, like forward collision warning, lane departure warning, and even smart braking systems that can help avoid collisions.

Honda is known for making reliable vehicles that run well for a long time. Belonging to the compact or subcompact class, the Honda Civic is the smallest car on this list, but its strong and consistent safety ratings over the years offer a body of evidence to support its inclusion. Most Honda Civic models also get well over 30 miles per gallon, making this a good car for fuel economy as well.

The Hyundai Sonata is a mid-size sedan. Hyundai is also known for having some of the best extended warranty coverage you can get, with certain systems covered for up to 10 years or 100,000 miles — many other automakers cut warranty coverage at as little as 3 years or 36,000 miles. 

The Kia Optima got a full redesign and rebrand for 2021, and will be known as the Kia K5 going forward. But the mid-sized Optima is a solid choice for safety, and along with the Sonata is on the lower end of the price scale among the cars on our list. This car has a great warranty as well, with some coverage lasting up to 10 years and 100,000 miles.

The Mazda6 is a larger mid-sized sedan than most of the other cars on our list. Mazda has built a reputation over the years for building affordable, reliable cars that also come with a bit of intangible “fun” factor. This approach has earned the Mazda6 positive reviews from leading automotive outlets like Car and Driver and MotorTrend. Overall, the Mazda6 has consistently earned top safety ratings over the years.

The Subaru Forester is the only SUV on our list, and also the only one to be named a Top Safety Pick by the IIHS every year since 2012. Subaru is also known for vehicles that hold their value better than other cars. Kelley Blue Book and Car and Driver have both recently named Subaru a top brand for holding resale value. Along with a top safety record, this durability makes Subaru a solid choice for a teen driver.

We researched dozens of vehicles that are commonly recommended for teen drivers. The cars on this list are some of the best options for parents of teen drivers. But you can still find a safe vehicle even if it’s not on this list. 

We limit our recommendations to 4-cylinder engine vehicles that range in size from compact to small SUV, since experts agree these make for the safest vehicles for teen drivers. We also consider industry standard safety ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). All our recommended cars have strong safety records over the years, but we do not recommend models manufactured before 2012, when electronic stability control became a standard safety feature.

While different models evolve over the years on exact ratings and features, we primarily use base 2017 models to compare these cars using a standard benchmark. Our list excludes cars whose 2017 Kelley Blue Book value exceeds $16,000. Value can vary greatly based on mileage, year, and trim level, but this benchmark prevents more expensive makes and models from appearing on our list.

One other note to keep in mind: While all of these vehicles come with standard 4-cylinder engines, some do come with turbocharged options. Avoid these models for a teen driver if you can, as the greater speed that comes with a turbo engine means greater risk for your teen driver.

If you’re considering a vehicle for a teen driver that’s not on this list, you can use these resources as well to help determine what’s best for you:

For parents who may be looking to buy a new or used car for a teen driver, we want the cars on our list to be accessible to as many people as possible, so we favor those generally on the lower end of the cost spectrum. We looked at the value of vehicles using Kelley Blue Book, which has been an independent authority on car value for decades. If you’re in the market for a new or used car, or even if you want to assess the value of a car you already own, you can enter vehicle details on KBB.com to get an independent idea of the value of a given vehicle.

The NHTSA scores cars on a 5-star rating scale, with 5 being the best rating a car can receive. The safest cars will earn this agency’s top 5-star rating, and won’t have any specific safety concerns (which the NHTSA will list if one exists). The cars on our list consistently receive the top 5-star rating. You can also see specific scores for frontal, side, and rollover crashes, as well as download technical reports.

The IIHS ratings assess vehicle safety based on two key elements: how well a vehicle protects its driver and passengers in a crash and what technology a vehicle has to help avoid or mitigate a crash. The IIHS rates vehicles across a number of categories on a scale of poor to good, with good being the best. We like vehicles that regularly earn the top overall evaluation of good. The IIHS also awards certain vehicles with a branded Top Safety Pick designation, which the cars on our list consistently earn.

Teen drivers and passengers made up a greater percentage of speeding-related deaths than all other age groups between 2015 and 2019, a recent Governors Highway Safety Association report found.

Even while the COVID-19 pandemic has kept many more people at home than usual, clearer roads and highways have presented new risks. Fewer cars and traffic have led to more speeding and related motor vehicle deaths, the report says.

More than anything, the risks faced by teen drivers are directly related to their inexperience. “They’re still learning; it takes a while to gain that experience,” Shadel Fischer says.

So teen drivers present a challenging conundrum: “Teenagers are among the riskiest drivers but they often end up driving inexpensive vehicles that don’t offer adequate protection in a crash,” Cicchino says.

Putting your teen driver in a safer car may be the first thing you can do to diminish the greater risk they’ll face on the road, but it’s not the only thing. 

Start with the driving safety basics, and talk to your teen drivers about the importance of wearing seat belts, not drinking or doing drugs before or while driving, minimizing distractions, and observing the speed limit.

New and emerging technologies offer tools for ensuring safety.

Especially if you are in a stage where you are buying a new car for yourself that may one day be passed on to a teen driver, some of the new technologies that experts are excited about include GPS and speed tracking, either through a car’s computer or an app on your teen’s phone, and other new features like automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, and speed limit recognition.

At the end of the day, do what works for you and your teen driver. “Buy the safest car you can afford,” Shadel Fischer says. “Because you’re putting your highest risk driver in that vehicle.”

The same lack of driving experience that puts teen drivers at greater risk of being in a serious crash is also why they cost so much more to insure than more experienced drivers.

“It’s really just the enhanced risk of them not knowing how to drive as well as somebody who’s experienced,” says John Deichl, executive vice president of Guaranteed Rate Insurance.

Time behind the wheel is really the only thing that can change the experience side of the equation, but there are still ways you can make sure you’re not paying more than you must to insure a teen driver.

Many car insurance companies offer discounts that can help keep costs down, Deichl says. These can include discounts for insuring your home and auto with the same company, good student discounts, military discounts, electronic automatic billing, and paying your full premium in advance rather than month to month.

Another way you might be able to save on car insurance with a teen driver is with telemetrics programs that are increasingly offered by major insurance companies, Deichl says. These involve on-board (or in some cases via mobile phone app) technology that monitors driving behavior and offers discounts for safe driving. The primary things these programs look at are whether a driver is braking too hard and average speed, Deichl says. 

Telemetrics programs also provide an opportunity for parents to review and talk about driving behavior with their teens. “It creates a behavior that’s probably more beneficial for them, not only for the car insurance but also for their safety,” Deichl says.

Vehicle features like anti-theft systems, antilock brakes, and daytime running lights can also keep insurance costs down, Deichl says. Also, a smaller engine doesn’t just make for a safer car: the larger the engine, the more expensive a vehicle will be to insure, Deichl says.

Teen drivers cost more to insure than experienced drivers and face far greater risk of being involved in a serious accident. There’s only so much you can do on the insurance front, but you have much more control over the safety of the vehicle you put your teen driver in.

Cars that were manufactured over the last 3-5 years — but not before 2012 — strike a good balance of safety and affordability. Experts advise to avoid cars that are either too small or too large, and to be mindful of new and emerging technologies that can enhance the safety of a teen driver.