Best used cars for a new teen driver

2008 Nissan Rogue (Image courtesy of Nissan USA)

My nephew turns 16 in May. In addition to gifting him a trip to Bondurant Teen Driving School (Shhhhh! Don’t tell; it’s a surprise!), I’ve been doing a lot of research on what kind of car he should be driving.

I’m saying no to a Jeep Wrangler -- even though that’s what he wants -- not only because of fuel economy but also because of safety. It has marginal side crash test results, and front crash prevention isn’t available. It also only gets 3 out of 5 stars on the NHTSA’s rollover resistance test – not something I feel good about with a novice driver at the wheel.

Of course, if you’re buying new, the first place all parents should start their car search is with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Top Safety Pick list. It rates crash tests, headlights and autonomous emergency braking systems, separating the wheat from the chaff. There are 88 cars on this list, 45 of which achieve a Top Safety Pick + Award.

While there are some excellent affordable cars on this list, such as the Toyota Yaris iA ($16,835), sometimes buying new just isn’t in the budget.

So, I was thrilled to find IIHS’s list of best used cars for teen drivers. It lists the vehicle, model years and base pricing.

As the IIHS compiled its complete list of vehicles for teens, it had four guiding principles:

  • Young drivers should stay away from high horsepower.
  • Bigger, heavier vehicles are safer.
  • Electronic stability control is a must.
  • Vehicles should have the best safety ratings possible.

The list is broken down into “Best” (under $20K) and “Good” (under $10K) cars and organized by vehicle segment. Even in the “Best” category, you can find some great vehicles around $10K, and that’s probably where I’d start my shopping.

You can see the full list by visiting the IIHS website, but based on cars I’ve driven over the last decade, these used vehicles would be my top 5 picks for a teen:

Good: Buick Regal, 2011 & newer ($8,000)
2.4-liter, 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 182
Torque: 172 lb-f
MPG (city/hwy): 20/30

Even though this is classified as a “large car,” it drives relatively small and has decent visibility out all windows. Plus, if your teen is going to be spending a lot of time behind the wheel carting around younger siblings, the seats are really comfortable. The next-gen Regal is due out for 2018, so it may even be possible to get an extra deal as this current generation gets laid to bed.

Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, 2011 & newer ($6,900)
2.0-liter, 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 148
Torque: 145 lb-ft
MPG (city/hwy): 25/31

The Outlander Sport has long been the shining star of the Mitsubishi lineup in terms of practical vehicles. It looks attractive and has peppy ride and handling. The interior is more rugged than plush, so it will stand up to a decent amount of wear and tear. With its compact size and decent fuel economy, this is a really nice option for a new driver.

Best: Nissan Rogue, 2014 & newer ($12,900)
Good: Nissan Rogue, 2008-2013 ($4,400)

Engine: 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 170
Torque: 175 lb-ft
MPG (city/hwy): 22/27 (FWD, 2008); 21/26 (AWD, 2008); 26/33 (FWD, 2014); 25/32 (AWD, 2014)

The Nissan Rogue is compact, drives really well and would make a great starter SUV for a novice driver. There is good visibility out all windows, and the driver’s seat can be well adjusted for both tall and small drivers. The extra cargo area in the back is excellent for a student athlete’s gear. Fuel economy ratings are better with later models even though power ratings stay the same, so take note if fuel efficiency is a factor.

Best: Subaru Legacy, 2013 & newer ($10,700)
Good: Subaru Legacy, 2009-2012 ($5,400)

Engine: 2.5-liter, Boxer 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 170 (2009); 173 (2013)
Torque: 170 lb-ft (2009); 174 (2013)
MPG (city/hwy): 20/27 (MT, 2009); 20/26 (AT, 2009); 21/28 (MT, 2013) 24/32 (AT, 2013)

If the standard all-wheel drive isn’t enough to draw you in, the price tag and decent fuel economy should. Subaru enjoys cult-like following from its owners, with a lot of repeat business. The Legacy is a comfortable and functional sedan that will not only keep a teen safe but also provide a relatively reliable ride. This is a great car for anyone – but especially novice teen drivers – who live where there’s snow.

Best: Volkswagen Jetta, 2015 & newer ($9,200)
Good: Volkswagen Jetta, 2009-2014 ($3,900)
Engine: 2.5-liter, 5-cylinder (2009); 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder (2015)
Horsepower: 170 (2009); 115 (2015)
Torque: 177 lb-ft (2009); 125 lb-ft (2015)
MPG (city/hwy): 21/30 (MT, 2009); 20/29 (AT, 2009); 25/34 (MT, 2015); 23/34 (AT, 2015)

The Volkswagen Jetta is a perennial favorite. It’s compact, cute and fun to drive. The manual transmission is actually easy to use, and thus great for a new driver. It holds up well in both urban and suburban driving, and its size will make it easy to park in most situations. The 2015 model has four different engines, and we grabbed the specs for the base model, which will be your most fuel-efficient. What we like best about the Jetta: The German ride and handling without the luxury price tag.

Note: IIHS pulled current pricing information from Kelley Blue Book, and used the base model without options as our guide. Pricing reflects “Good” condition on the oldest recommended model year and what a dealership may be asking for it.

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