The Safest Cars for Teen Drivers

Photo: Mark Robinson

When I started driving six months before turning 16 years old — with a learner’s permit — I was terrified of the roadways.

Remember that scene in Clueless when Dionne accidentally exits onto the freeway and she, Cher, and Murray freak out? That was me. In fact, until I was about 19 years old, I had to turn off the radio when merging into moving traffic, and for the first year I avoided highways all together.

It didn’t help that I owned a beater of a car — and that’s an understatement. This vehicle was so terrible that one of my best friend’s fathers refused to let her in it. And in hindsight, I don’t blame him. It looked like it might break down or blow up at any minute. Eventually it did — break down, that is. Luckily it was in my own neighborhood, so I did what any self-respecting teen boy would do in that situation — I called my dad to pick me up and left the car where it died for someone else to scavenge.

So your kid doesn’t suffer the same fate, conduct research into a vehicle’s safety before you buy. I know that not everyone can afford a new car or even a great used car when their kid reaches driving age, but safety is never a poor investment.

To help you make the most informed decision, I’ve asked a few experts for their insight on how to choose the safest car for your new driver. Here’s what they had to say. (See also: How to Get Cheap Auto Insurance for Young Drivers)

Q: Overall, what's the safest type of car for teens?

A: “Teens are safest in a mid-sized, four-door sedan with four cylinders. This type of vehicle does not have too much power, but still allows the inexperienced driver to maneuver safely through traffic,” says LeeAnn Shattuck, co-owner of Women’s Automotive Solutions, a consulting firm that helps women (and men) buy cars. “It's big enough to protect them sufficiently in an accident, but not so big that it is difficult to control. They also can't stuff too many of their friends into a mid-sized sedan, which can be a significant distraction for teens. My insurance agent partners all say that this type of vehicle is also the cheapest to insure for a teen.”

Q: What about SUVs? They seem safe, especially since there’s a higher center of gravity. Are they good for teen drivers?

A: “Many parents think their teen is safest in an SUV because it will protect them in an accident,” Shattuck says. “But statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) show that teens are more likely to get into an accident in an SUV (vs. a sedan) because those larger vehicles (with a higher center of gravity) are much more difficult to control if they have to take evasive action. Because the SUVs also tend to cause more damage in an accident, insurance rates are higher.”

Q: Besides safety in accidents, what are some other concerns parents should think about when buying a car for the teen?

A: "I advise parents to avoid Hondas for their teens, especially for teen girls, since Honda Civics and Accords are the most stolen cars in America. You don't want your 16-year-old daughter getting car jacked on her way home from soccer practice or work,” says Shattuck. “I tend to steer parents more towards the Toyota Camry or even Corolla, the Nissans, and the Hyundais. Even the Ford Focus or Fusion (or an older Taurus) are safe and reasonably reliable. If they really want an SUV (to be higher up for better visibility), I highly recommend the Ford Escape. It's a decently reliable little SUV, easy to drive, used ones are in the $6,000 to $10,000 range, and they have relatively low maintenance costs.

Q: What are the benefits of a used car over a new car?

A: “Buying used for a young driver makes more sense than buying new since overall vehicle costs on used cars are typically lower,” says Max Katsarelas, marketing strategist for Mojo Motors. “Plus, with the rapid depreciation of a new car once it drives off the lot, buying used can save some major coin, especially when considering the accident rate of young drivers. Auto repair costs for young drivers total about $19 billion, so buying a new car doesn't make financial sense when taking into consideration the resale value after an accident. Since a vehicle's crash history can be seen with a Carfax report and any sign of an accident, even ‘fender benders’ drop a vehicle's resale value considerably. Ultimately, the best bet for parents looking at cars for young drivers should buy used. For example, a new 2012 Ford Focus starts at around $18,000. A gently used 2008 Ford Focus with under 60,000 miles can be had for under $10,000. Both boast the highest safety rating, ‘Good’ from IIHS, but a used Focus can cost up to $10,000 less.

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Meg Favreau's picture

Heehee -- the Clueless reference made me chuckle.

I'm not surprised about the SUV thing -- I think a used sedan is definitely the way to go. Although my first car was my family's old dodge caravan.

Guest's picture

I think I'm an excellent driver now - although I don't do it much living in NYC - but the beginning was stressful. I got into a lot of accidents with inanimate objects, like fences and parked cars. The "Clueless" reference is totally true. I hated the highway. And because I wouldn't use it at first, it took me a long time to get places. I long for the day when I can hire a driver - an inexpensive one, of course. :)

Guest's picture

Driver: it's called a girlfriend.
I should know: I was one. We've been married for a while now, and I still put on most of the miles on our car....

Andrea Karim's picture

My first car caught fire as we drove it back from the seller's house. While I wouldn't argue that it qualified as "safe" per se, I guess it did prevent me from driving very far. Or fast.

Meg Favreau's picture

The for sale ad: "Budget car; great first vehicle. Very warm in winter!"

Guest's picture

Giiiiirl! I hope you got your money back.