Which cars are the best for teen drivers? Consumer experts update their picks

As graduation kicks off, we are looking at new recommendations on the top cars for your teens.

Just in time for graduation, two of the most trusted names in auto reliability and safety are teaming up with brand new recommendations for safe, reliable and affordable used cars for teenage drivers.

Using Consumer Reports’ expertise in performance and reliability and crash test data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety -- the result is a list of 61 used vehicles perfect for first-time drivers.

Included on the list -- the Mazda 3, Toyota Prius and the Outback and Legacy models from Subaru. To see all the cars that made the list, head online to cr.org/teencars

One thing to keep in mind, parts shortages and supply chain backups mean you might have to do a little more digging to find a safe and affordable car.

“The used car market is really tough right now, but that doesn’t mean you should sacrifice important safety features, like electronic stability control and the newest accident avoidance systems, which are especially important for new drivers,” said Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at Consumer Reports Auto Test Center.

Even in this tight market, it’s possible to find some good options for young drivers. IIHS and CR identified 61 used vehicles ranging from $6,400 to $19,800 that meet safety and reliability criteria. A separate list of new vehicles with state-of-the-art protection has 29 models ranging in price from $19,900 to $39,500.

Although the lists are intended specifically for teen drivers, they can be a resource for anyone looking for a safe, reliable and affordable vehicle. The new vehicle list is especially useful for parents of younger children who might be buying a vehicle for their own use with an eye toward handing it down to a new driver in the future.

Consumers who consult the list won’t find any sports cars or other vehicles with excessive horsepower because these vehicles can tempt teens to test the limits and put themselves in high-risk situations. In addition, there are no minicars or vehicles under 2,750 pounds. The biggest, heaviest vehicles, including those in the large SUV class, have also been left off the list because they can be hard to handle and often have increased braking distances.

The list of recommended used vehicles is divided into Good Choices and Best Choices, which offer a slightly higher level of safety. Both Good Choices and Best Choices have:

  • standard electronic stability control
  • above-average reliability, based on CR’s member survey, for the majority of the years listed
  • 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)

In addition, the Best Choices have a good or acceptable rating in the IIHS driver-side small overlap front 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 like a tree or utility pole.

The top tier of used vehicles also 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.

The recommended new vehicles offer an even higher level of safety. All of them are winners of the IIHS TOP SAFETY PICK or TOP SAFETY PICK+ award, meaning they have good ratings in all six of the Institute’s crashworthiness tests, advanced or superior ratings for front crash prevention, and acceptable- or good-rated headlights.

Only 2021 vehicles that come with vehicle-to-vehicle automatic emergency braking as standard equipment are included in the recommendations. In cases in which acceptable or good headlights aren’t standard, the list specifies the qualifying trim levels and options.

The new models are vehicles that CR has judged to be at the top of their respective classes. They have average or better predicted reliability, and they meet the same criteria for emergency handling as the used vehicles. Compared with the used vehicles, they are held to a tighter braking distance requirement of 140 feet. They also receive a rating of good or better from CR for ease of use of their controls.

“The high prices for used cars may lead more families to consider buying a new vehicle for their teen,” Harkey says. “If you go that route, make sure you are investing in safety and reliability for the future.” Used-car prices are 18 percent higher than they were a year ago, the vehicle valuation company Kelley Blue Book said earlier this month. Demand for vehicles rose during the pandemic as some people abandoned public transit and others decided to put their government assistance checks toward cars. At the same time, supply chain issues have constrained new vehicle production.