The 7 Best Used Cars for Teen Drivers

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6 min read
Young female buckling up in car

Seeing your teenager behind the wheel of a car is enough to make any parent’s hair turn gray. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), nearly 2,500 teenagers died in car accidents in 2018. However, teen auto fatalities are on the decline, dropping by over 70 percent since 1975. What’s more, we saw 10 percent fewer teen car accident fatalities in 2018 than 2017.

To keep those statistics on the decline, it pays to put safety first when searching for cars for teens. Researching safety ratings produced by IIHS and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) can help ease your worried mind. For maximum protection, the IIHS says that the best cars for teenagers are ones with electronic stability control and a high safety rating and to stay away from cars with high horsepower. The best cars for new drivers should also offer a good EPA fuel efficiency rating, a track record of longevity and performance and features that teens look for in an automobile.

Most parents cannot afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars to buy a new car for their teen driver. It often makes more sense to buy used cars for teen drivers while they master the rules of the road and learn how to handle the responsibility that comes with automobile ownership. The good news is that there are plenty of excellent cars for teens on the market for $10,000 or less. We’ve scoured the market looking for the best used cars for teenagers that offer a combination of safety, fuel efficiency and durability to make your search a little easier.

The best cars for teenagers

1. Honda Civic (2012-2016)

The Honda Civic has been one of the best-selling small cars in the United States for years, with a winning combination of price, features, safety, reliability and resale value. It’s no surprise, then, that it’s also one of the best used cars for teenagers.

The sedan was an IIHS Top Safety Pick every year from 2009 to 2017, and nearly every configuration of the car made since the start of the car’s ninth generation in 2012 has gotten a five-star overall safety rating from the NHTSA.

The Civic is good on gas, with EPA estimated averages around 31 MPG. While finding one under $10,000 isn’t difficult, used 2012 model Civics tend to have anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000+ miles on them, typically past their three-year, 36,000-mile factory warranty. Newer model, lower-mileage Civics with fewer miles typically cost more than $10,000.

2. Toyota Camry (2012-2014)

The Camry often ranks near the top of the list for one of the best cars for teenagers and one of the best-selling cars in the nation in general. Unfortunately, Camry owners tend to hold onto them for the long haul, meaning a Camry under $10,000 without excessive miles is hard to come by.

The 2011 model gets an estimated EPA 22 MPG in the city and 32 MPG on the highway. The IIHS listed the 2012-2014 Camrys to its Top Safety Pick list, and the NHTSA gave the same models five-star overall safety ratings. The 2011 Camry features a six-speed standard or automatic transmission, along with a three-year, 36,000-mile warranty. Highly rated in crash safety tests, and with great longevity, reliability and fuel economy, the Toyota Camry is a great first car if you can find a used one for sale.

3. Hyundai Sonata (2011 or newer)

The 2011 Hyundai Sonata has a five-year, 60,000-mile warranty and gets an estimated 34 MPG on the highway. The Sonata also comes in a hybrid version with even greater fuel efficiency. Since 2011, all gas-powered Sonatas have earned a five-star NHTSA safety rating and have earned the IIHS Top Safety Pick distinction every year except 2014, making these cars an easy choice for one of the best cars for new drivers.

Used 2011 Sonatas in this price range usually have more than 60,000 miles, while 2016 models have just shy of the warranty mileage limit. Base models come with standard safety features, including front and side curtain airbags and stability control.

4. Nissan Altima (2014 and newer)

Every model of the Nissan Altima since 2014 has earned a NHTSA five-star safety rating. Even in the base models, Bluetooth connectivity and Intelligent Key remote engine start are standard features, while models from 2016 and beyond also feature a rearview camera.

The four-cylinder engine with continuously variable transmission can log EPA estimated fuel economy 38 MPG on the highway, peaking at 39 MPG on the 2016 model. In this price range, expect to find 2014 models with around 60,000 to 80,000 miles – leaving plenty of life to take this ideal car for teens well into the college years.

5. Toyota Prius v (2012-13)

To find a Toyota Prius v below the $10,000 price point, you’re going to be looking at a fairly high mileage car. Still, the Prius is built to last and is one of the cheapest cars to own through the years. The Prius V is a top pick across the board. Plus, one of the features for which it regularly gets dinged — slow acceleration — makes it one of the best used cars for teenagers. Plus, with an average MPG of 41, it will keep more money in your teen’s (or your) pocket.

The Prius v was an IIHS Top Safety Pick in both 2012 and 2013 and while the NHTSA didn’t rate the 2012 model, they gave the 2013 model five stars.

6. Ford Focus (2015-2017)

The 2015 Ford Focus gets an EPA combined estimated 31 MPG and earned the IIHS’s Top Safety Pick distinction. From 2012 to 2018 (Ford discontinued the Focus in 2019), every style of Ford Focus has earned a five-star overall safety rating from the NHTSA, including sedans and hatchbacks. You can find several Focus models in the $10,000 price range, including some later models still within the three-year, 36,000-mile factory warranty.

The 2015 Focus was the first model to offer a standard back-up camera, with blind-spot detection and lane departure warnings. Ford also offers MyKey, a program that enables parents to program a key that will set limits on the car’s speed and radio volume, as well as seatbelt alerts. While young drivers might not agree, these features secure the Ford Focus as one of the best cars for teens in the minds of many parents.

7. Subaru Forester (2009-13)

All-wheel-drive Subaru vehicles are legendary for their capability, utility and longevity. Plus, further cementing them as one of the top cars for teens, they earn four-star NHTSA safety ratings for 2011-2013 models and five-star ratings from 2014 and newer models. Parents can feel comfortable with a Subaru, knowing they’re one of the best cars for new drivers, even in all types of weather. The Forester comes equipped with front and rear head airbags, front side-mounted airbags and emergency braking assist. It also features an AM/FM stereo, with four speakers, air conditioning and front reading lights.

Moving from a car to a crossover or SUV, vehicles in the $10,000 price range usually have more miles on the odometer. Typically, 2012 Foresters have 80,000 miles or more on them, but their high safety and reliability rankings more than make up for the high mileage. The Forester’s EPA fuel efficiency rating is slightly lower than other picks on our list, with 27 MPG on the highway and 21 MPG in the city.

Car insurance for teens

As you’re weighing your options for the best used cars for teenagers, keep another factor in mind. To truly keep your teen safe on the road, you need to make sure they have the right auto insurance.

To comply with state law in every state except New Hampshire, your teen needs at least bodily injury and property damage liability coverage. Because your teen is new behind the wheel, you might want to consider things like collision coverage and roadside assistance too. All told, insuring teen drivers can get pricey, especially when you factor in their increased risk as new drivers.

Fortunately, by choosing an affordable car, you help to keep your premiums low. Plus, we’ve rounded up the best and cheapest car insurance companies for young drivers to help you find the right policy for your teen.

Frequently asked questions

Why is car insurance for a teenager so expensive?

Statistically, teen drivers cause more accidents than adults do. In 2017, more than 2,300 teenagers died in road accidents and another 300,000 sustained injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a cost of $13.1 billion. Insurance companies base rates on the financial risk incurred by insuring a driver. Typically, car insurance rates for young people with good driving records start to decrease by the time they reach their late teens or early 20s.

How do I know if a car is safe for my teenager?

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration produce safety ratings on the most popular vehicles. Both organizations maintain a database of auto ratings on their websites, which include older model automobiles, so you can look for the safest and best cars for teenagers.

Are teenagers restricted from driving at night?

Yes, in most states. Each state sets its own nighttime driving restrictions. For example, Nevada restricts teen driving between the hours of 10:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. Vermont is the only state that does not impose nighttime driving restrictions.

Do states restrict the number of teen passengers in a vehicle driven by a teenager?

Most states restrict the number of teenage passengers in a car driven by another teenager. For example, a teen driver in Texas cannot have more than one passenger under the age of 21. Florida, Iowa, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota are the only states with no restrictions. For more detailed teenage driving restrictions by state, check out this table from the IIHS.