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Consumer Reports: Safest cars for teens under $20K

Parents choosing a car for their teen drivers have a tough decision to make because they need to strike a balance between cost and safety.

The temptation -- often born of necessity -- is to buy a less expensive, bare-bones model or to pass down an older family car. But because the car will be transporting their children, parents should pick the best and safest car their budget allows.

Teenagers are among the riskiest drivers because of a combination of immaturity, inexperience, and social pressures. Consequently, teens have crash rates that are almost four times those of drivers 20 and older. Choosing the right car can help teens stay safe, but it can be challenging to balance all the factors that make a vehicle ideal for inexperienced drivers.

Consumer Reports and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety used to publish independent lists of cars best suited for teens, but now CR has joined forces with the IIHS, also a safety-focused organization. Combining expertise and data, CR and the IIHS now are providing a simple list of cars, SUVs, and minivans that balance accident avoidance, crash protection, performance and reliability. The vehicle recommendations are ideal for teens, but they can serve any shopper looking for a vehicle that excels in those areas.

“We are delighted to be able to team up with the IIHS to jointly develop a list of used vehicles for teens that deliver a smart and effective combination of safety technology and reliability, all without breaking the bank,” said Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at CR’s Auto Test Center. “Vehicles on this list can help teens stay safe as they gain driving experience.”

All vehicles in CR’s list are used cars and have a starting price of $20,000 or less. (Higher-trim models may cost more.) They were ranked within the car size by the starting price. For the full list of cars with starting prices, click here.

There are two tiers of recommendations: Good Choices and Best Choices.

Good Choices

To make the cut to be a Good Choice, the vehicles must have:

  • Electronic stability control. ESC has important crash prevention and lifesaving potential. It became standard on all passenger vehicles in 2012, and it was standard on many models prior to that year.
  • Above-average reliability for the majority of the years listed, based on CR’s member surveys.
  • Average or better scores from CR’s emergency handling tests.
  • Dry braking distances of less than 145 feet from 60 mph in CR’s brake tests.
  • Good ratings in four IIHS crashworthiness tests — moderate-overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraints.
  • Four or five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (if rated).

Best Choices

The Best Choices meet a more stringent criteria that also factors:

A good or acceptable rating in the IIHS driver’s-side small-overlap front crash test, which was launched in 2012. The test replicates what happens when the front left corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object such as a tree or utility pole.

Insurance claim rates. “Injury claims provide another window onto safety in the real world and may capture things that crash tests don’t,” says IIHS President David Harkey. Consequently, the Best Choices list excludes vehicles that have substantially higher than average insurance claim rates under medical payment or personal injury protection coverage. Both coverage types pay for injuries to occupants of the insured vehicle. The Highway Loss Data Institute, an IIHS affiliate, collects and publishes insurance loss data by make and model every year. The results are adjusted for driver age, gender, and other factors that could affect risk.

These recommendations focus on “Goldilocks” models that provide the best all-around protection for inexperienced drivers. Ultimately, the goal is to select a reliable car with as much safety as you can afford. Increasingly, advanced driver assist systems (ADAS) are becoming widespread and are now available in many late-model used cars. Features such as forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection, and blind spot warning are all proven features that can help avoid collisions and are worth considering, if your budget allows.

The starting price listed is the least expensive version in the range of years, assuming that the vehicle is in good condition with typical mileage and that it’s sold via private party. The prices were provided by Kelley Blue Book.