What Is the Best Car for a Teen?

by bcope

I remember the day I first got my license. I was 18 and felt empowered, invincible and free. While I’m sure most teens feel the same way when they first get their license, it’s an anxious time period for parents. How to choose the best car for a teen? Should you buy a used car or a new one? Big or small? Should it be the world’s safest car?

Part of the problem here is that there is generally a difference in the list of requirements between the teen and the parents. For the teen, the list probably goes something like – cool, trendy, fast, nice sound system. For the parent, on the other hand, it probably goes something like – SAFE, slow, low insurance, cheap. Resolving these two conflicting sets of requirements can be tricky. Hopefully the following tips can make this task a little easier.

Best car for a teen – does size matter?

The first thing to settle on is the size of the car – big or small. Traditional wisdom suggests a big car built like a tank is safer. On the flip side it’s probably a gas guzzler, among other things. The middle path may be a sedan. A lot of sedans have good crash ratings. A good place to look up the latest crash ratings is the Consumer Reports website. If you don’t subscribe, try your local library.

They will most probably have a subscription. Another great resource is Safer Car, which has safety ratings for all cars from 1990 to the present. It makes the job of deciding on a used car easier. You need only look for models that meet your safety thresholds.

New car vs. an old car

There are pros and cons for both options.

New Car Advantage Old Car Advantage
  • Latest safety features
  • Will last much longer
  • Less repairs (if you chose a good, reliable new car)
  • Cheaper
  • In all probability the teen will buy a new car as soon as they graduate, so why put so much money into something that will be used for a short period of time?
  • Cheaper car insurance – older cars cost less to insure
  • Any new driver will know enough just to get a license, but until they actually know how to drive, the car will get some scratches and dents. Why teach them how to drive in a $25,000 car?


It is a matter of opinion and affordability on whether a new or a used car will be the best car for a teen. My opinion is – used is the way to go. It will also teach the kid to live within their means. A used car can take a beating and if it is a recent model used car, it will have less repairs and can be driven for a long time.

How much money should you spend?

The next major question is deciding how much money to expend on the purchase. Do you put down all the money for the car or do you use this opportunity to teach your teen the value of money? There a couple of ways of making your teen earn at least part of the car.

  • Match the money she/he saves for the car
  • Loan the money and make a payment plan (including interest if she/he misses a payment)

Don’t forget to factor in the cost of insurance in your comparison of cars. While it’s possible to find a Camry and a Mustang that cost the same initially, the latter is definitely going to raise some flags at your insurance provider.

Best car for a teen – expert opinion

Let’s talk specifics. According to the recent Consumer Reports, some of the best affordable and reliable cars for teenagers include: 2007 Volkswagen Rabbit, 2002-2004 Toyota Camry, 2006 Hyundai Sonata and 2006-2007 Kia Optima. All of them under $10,000.

Safe car vs. safe driver

So after putting all the time and effort into researching, you go out and help your teen purchase that safe, reliable, environmentally friendly (a huge cool factor by the way). But the car is still only as good as the person behind the wheel. As they say in math, a safe car is a necessary but not sufficient condition. A safe driver is a more important requirement. Some tips to help train your teen effectively are:

  • Defensive driving practices that are taught by most driving schools.
  • Graduated licensing: Adopted in almost all the states, it splits the licensing period into stages. There is an initial supervised learner’s period followed by a road test. Passing the road test earns the teen an intermediate license that limits driving in high-risk situations except under supervision. A full privileges license is earned later.
  • Safe/smart driving practices: A few of the insurance companies have trendy, easy-to-use web interfaces that teach teens good driving practices as well as provide handy information about various driving situations. It even has a section for parents to educate themselves about facts and general teen driving behavior. [http://nationwidesmartride.com/ or http://www.toyotadrivingexpectations.com]. These websites also have simulators that demonstrate the loss of control that occurs when under the influence of alcohol or while texting and driving. A very useful thing, in my opinion, to try (however minimal the effect) and temper the feeling of indestructibility that teens have.
  • Constantly drumming into their heads that driving is a privilege, not a right.

In the end, it’s a difficult process. Looking at the situation from each other’s points of view is probably the most foolproof way of coming to an agreement quickly. Did you buy a car for your teenager recently? Have any tips?



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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Tom August 16, 2011 at 5:51 AM

We set $ contributions toward a car based on GPA, beginning in 9th grade. Purchasing support is earned, and supplements my daughter’s contribution. We also have a deal: drive alone for first 6 months, and I will pay car insurance for the first year.


krantcents June 22, 2011 at 10:39 AM

The car is less important than the circumstances. My children bought their cars with a little help from me. I paid the insurance because it protected me as well the children. They paid for the operating expenses. They had a stake in the car because they paid for most of it. There were rules as to how far they could drive etc. I went with them when they practiced, so I knew how well they were doing.


Ben June 22, 2011 at 7:36 AM

Might I add that small cars have better handeling. And if I would choose between a tank and a small car I would go with the one that has the best chance of avoiding the accident.


Neal Frankle June 22, 2011 at 8:02 AM

Interesting point. I wonder if there are any stats on which cars are more prone to be involved in an accident…I’m sure there are….have to check into that…


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