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IIHS and Consumer Reports find the best used cars for your teen

2015 Toyota Sienna

It’s not going to earn your kid respect from their reprobate friends, but it’s solid transportation.


Buying a car for your teenaged child just isn’t as simple as it used to be. When I was looking for my first car, the most important (read: only) criterion for my parents was that it be cheap, like, questionably cheap. That’s how I ended up with a brown rotary-powered deathtrap from the early 1980s that caught on fire shortly after I sold it (to another teen), but that’s a story for another time.

These days, all you 10-ply parents care about your children’s health and well-being, so there are a lot of other factors besides cost that all need to be considered when car shopping, like safety. To help make that process of winnowing down potential candidates much more straightforward, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and Consumer Reports (CR) have teamed up to offer their first-ever list of recommended used vehicles for teens.

Now, to arrive at their picks, IIHS and CR considered several criteria including price, performance, reliability and safety. To make the list, a car had to have features like electronic stability control, above-average reliability per CR’s independent testing, dry braking distances under 145 feet, “Good” or better ratings in four IIHS crash tests — moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraints plus it had to score at least four stars in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tests.

Using these criteria, IIHS and CR then divided their picks into two categories: Best and Good. In each of those categories, the vehicles were further broken down by their type: small car, midsize car, minivan, etc. We’re going to focus on the “Best” choices because otherwise, we’d both be here all day. Regarding pricing, all of these vehicles can be had for less than $20,000 based on pricing data from Kelley Blue Book.

Small Cars:

Mazda 3 (2014 or newer; built after October 2013)
Subaru Impreza (2014 or newer)
Hyundai Elantra GT (2018 or newer)
Kia Forte (2019 or newer)
Kia Niro (2018)
Toyota Corolla hatchback (2019 or newer)
Honda Insight (2019 or newer)
Subaru Crosstrek (2018 or newer)
Toyota Prius Prime (2017 or newer)

Midsize Cars:

Subaru Legacy (2013 or newer)
Subaru Outback (2013 or newer)
Honda Accord sedan and coupe (2013 or newer)
Volkswagen Jetta (2016-2018)
Mazda 6 (2015 or newer)
Volkswagen Passat (2016-2018)
Toyota Prius V (2015-17)
Lincoln MKZ (2016 or newer)
Volvo S60 (2017-2018)
Nissan Altima (2019 or newer)
Audi A3 (2017, 2020)
BMW 3-series sedan (2017 or newer)

Mazda CX-5 (2014 or newer; built after October 2013)
Buick Encore (2016 or newer)
Chevrolet Equinox (2016 or newer)
Honda CR-V (2015-2016, 2019 or newer)
Mazda CX-3 (2017 or newer)
Subaru Forester (2016 or newer)
Nissan Rogue (2017 or newer)
Toyota RAV4 (2015 or newer; built after November 2014)
Honda HR-V (2017-2018; built after March 2017)
Hyundai Kona (2018 or newer)
Audi Q3 (2016 or newer) $17,300

Midsize SUVs:

GMC Terrain (2014, 2016 or newer)
Kia Sorento (2016 or newer)
Nissan Murano (2015 or newer)
Hyundai Santa Fe Sport (2017-2018)
Hyundai Santa Fe (2017 or newer; built after March 2016)
Mazda CX-9 (2017 or newer; built after November 2016)
Lincoln MKX (2017-2018)

Toyota Sienna (2015 or newer)
Honda Odyssey (2015-2016)
Kia Sedona (2016-17)

So, as it turns out, the best buys for your teenager’s first cars are hardly the coolest cars on the dealer lot or Craigslist. Still, even though safe and reliable transportation won’t impress your kid’s dirtbag friends, it will hopefully keep your kid out of too much trouble, and that’s kind of the point.

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