Best Cars for Teens: The Must Have Models Parents Want

August 12, 2022

Team ACV




Best Cars for Teens: The Must Have Models Parents Want

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When choosing a car for teen drivers, it’s perhaps no surprise that parents have their eye on safety.6 Insurance concerns also tend to rate at the top of their list. Since parents often see increases as high as 150% when adding teenagers to their insurance plans, getting a good deal can be paramount.6 Consequently, cars with safety features that are less expensive to insure may be great additions to your inventory.

As a car dealer deciding which models to stock, you’ll want to learn about the features common to the best used cars for new drivers. Learning about what parents look for will empower you to source the most reliable and safest cars for teens. 

Essential Safety Features 

The “Big Three” safety features currently required by federal law are anti-lock brakes, traction control, and stability control.6 2013 and later model years6 have to meet this requirement, so it’s a useful benchmark to keep in mind when selling used cars to families with teens.

In addition to core safety features, many parents may be seeking the following additional features and traits when buying cars for their teenagers:6

  • Above-average reliability2
  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Airbags — especially cars with at least six of them
  • Automatic climate control
  • Automatic high beams
  • Automatic on-off headlights
  • Electronic stability control2
  • Blind-spot monitoring
  • Forward-collision warning with front automatic emergency braking
  • Hill-start assist
  • Infotainment system with voice recognition
  • LED headlights and taillights
  • Outboard mirrors with turn-signal indicators
  • Power-adjustable driver’s seat
  • Tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel

Crash-Test Ratings Parents Pay Attention To

You can access crash test data from the government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a third-party crash-test organization.6 Such data is available on their respective websites and Kelley Blue Book. Both the NHTSA and the IIHS crash test ratings may be worth considering when stocking inventory for families with teen drivers.9

How The NHTSA Scores Crash Testing

NHTSA performs three tests, scoring each using a system of stars. The best score is 5 stars, and the worst is 1 star. NHTSA scores each test individually and then also issues an overall score.16

  • Frontal crash
  • Side crash
  • Rollover crash

How The IIHS Scores Crash Testing

The IIHS is a nonprofit organization widely supported in the auto insurance industry.6 It performs crash tests and evaluates vehicles based on the results.1 It also uses additional data to award certain models with their “Top Safety Pick” and “Top Safety Pick+” awards. Rather than rate cars on a 1-5 scale, it uses the terms “Good,” “Acceptable,” “Marginal,” or “Poor” to rate cars for the following tests:1

  • Driver’s-side small-overlap front crash
  • Passenger-side small-overlap front crash
  • Moderate-overlap front crash
  • Side crash5
  • Head restraints and seats
  • Roof strength

They also look at additional data, including:1

  • Front crash prevention tests
  • Headlight evaluation
  • Seat belt reminder evaluation
  • LATCH evaluation — which tests child seat attachment hardware
  • Verification

10 of The Best Cars for Teens

Many choices are available for parents looking for a safe and affordable vehicle for young drivers.2 Used cars that are suitable for teens are frequently available from $10,000-$20,000.10

Given that parents have their eye on safety and reliability, it may also be a good idea to stock cars with high IIHS safety ratings.17  These include all of the models on the following list. The first three are small cars, the next three are midsize, and the last four are large cars.

Mazda 3

One of the safest cars according to the IIHS safety ratings,21 the Mazda 3 is fuel-efficient and compact and offers all-wheel drive (AWD). It’s also celebrated as a fun car to drive and is highly reliable. The 2014 and later model years offer the best safety features.7

The 2018 Mazda 3 Sport compact sedan has a Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) of around $19,000, and earlier model years are less expensive. There’s also a hatchback option, which tends to have a slightly higher MSRP.15

A Black Mazda 3 in a empty dealership parking lot

Subaru Crosstrek

The Crosstrek is a subcompact SUV and is often described as comfortable and reliable. AWD is standard on every Crosstrek. Gas mileage is a decent 33 mpg on the highway. Teen drivers can also benefit from the Crosstrek’s automatic climate control, adaptive cruise control, fog lights, lane-departure warning, windshield wiper de-icer, and lane-keeping assistance. The 2018 model year or newer offers the best safety features.21

The 2018 Subaru Crosstrek’s MSRP is around $22,710 for a base model with manual transmission. The premium option runs about $800 more and offers the most safety features.11

A black Subaru Crosstek in dirt parking lot

Toyota Corolla

The Corolla boasts NHTSA’s 5-star rating. For the best possible safety functionality, parents will be on the lookout for the LE trim level with the convenience package. This model also has enhanced driver-assist features that new drivers crave: adaptive cruise control, hill-start assist, heated mirrors with integrated turn signals, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, traffic-sign recognition, and automatic high beams.19

Used Corollas tend to be relatively fuel-efficient and affordable. The 2018 Toyota Corolla L base model’s MSRP is just over $19,000. You can also get a used Toyota Corolla hatchback — with particularly high IIHS safety ratings and a slightly higher price point — starting with the 2019 model year.22

A white Toyota Corolla in an Tree lined Parking lot

Toyota Prius V

With an MSRP of around $27,510 for a 2017 base model, The Prius V can be a more expensive proposition. Yet, its superior fuel economy and safety features have allowed it to gain a cult following among parents of new drivers.  The later model years continue to up the ante. The 2015-2017 model years are great choices for parents prioritizing safety features for their teens.13

The Prius V is expected to maintain its value quite well compared with other cars in its class, so it  may be a wise choice for your inventory for that reason, too.13

A white Toyota Prius V in a parking lot

Subaru Legacy

The legacy offers premium safety features and AWD. The fuel economy isn’t best-in-class. Yet, it may be a perfect fit for teen drivers living in places where it regularly snows or where traction is compromised. So it’s a favorite in cold weather states - for new drivers and more experienced ones alike.12

The 2018 base model has an MSRP of around $23,000, but the premium option comes more highly recommended and starts at $25,000 MSRP.12

A maroon Subaru Legacy in a parking lot

Volkswagen Passat

The Passat is a midsize sedan with roomy back seats and a spacious trunk, making it a great pick for families with active teens. The Passat does have front-wheel drive, so it may appeal most to customers in more temperate climates.14

Experts also recommend the mid-level R-Line model, whose MSRP is a little lower than $26,000 for the 2018 model year. The 2018 model is also a Top Safety Pick for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.14

A gray Volkswagen Passat in a covered Parking lot

Mazda CX-5 and CX-3

The Mazda CX-5 is a small SUV with great fuel economy and a host of safety features. It performs beautifully in crash tests and is highly reliable.3

The 2018 Mazda CX-5 in Touring trim has a strong offering of driver-assist and safety features. It also has adaptive cruise control, auto-leveling LED headlights, automatic climate control, automatic high beams, lane-departure warnings, and lane-keeping assistance. It has an MSRP starting around $25,000, while the Touring edition has an MSRP of around $27,000.3

For teen drivers who need less space, the CX-3 is a subcompact option at a lower price point than the CX-5. It drives well and has robust safety features. All-wheel drive costs about $1,200 extra to add to a CX-3, so it’s a good option for drivers in harsh winter climates. The base 2018 model starts at around $22,000 and the Touring model starts at $26,000.4

A blue Mazda CX-5 parked in a Dealer Parking Lot
A white Mazda CX-3 in a parking lot

Honda CR-V

The CR-V boasts excellent reliability and resale value and snagged the spot for KBB’s highest-rated compact SUV of 2018. Most models are equipped with Honda’s Sensing safety suite and are considered easy to drive. Notably, it’s not as fun to drive as some of its peers - but that could be a perk for parents. The 2018 base model has an MSRP starting around $25,000.20

A white Honda CRV parked in Dealer parking lot

Toyota Highlander

The Highlander, a crossover SUV that fits eight passengers, has plenty of safety features and is reported to feel comfortable and secure for passengers and drivers. A base 4-cylinder 2018 FWD Highlander LE starts around $32,000. There are also AWD options available at higher price points.8

A gray Toyota Highlander parking in a large parking lot

Toyota RAV4

The Toyota RAV4 is small but mighty. This plucky SUV is synonymous with advanced safety technology and snagged the IIHS accolade of Top Safety Pick in 2017.23 The SE trim offers the most safety features including fog lights, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high beams. MSRP for this parental favorite is around $26,000 though advanced trim levels command higher price tags. 

 A sliver Toyota RAV4 parked next to a garage

Other Good Choices for Teen Drivers

There are so many affordable cars with great safety features for teens. Additional models to have found favor with parents as they assist young drivers with their first cars include:17

  • Kia K5 (one of the safest according to IIHS)
  • Honda Accord (one of the safest according to IIHS)
  • Honda Civic
  • Toyota Highlander
  • Toyota Avalon
  • Kia Soul
  • Mazda3
  • Honda CR-V
  • Toyota Camry
  • Hyundai Kona
  • Hyundai Santa Fe
  • Chevrolet Equinox
  • Subaru Outback
  • Nissan Altima
  • Ford Taurus
  • Mazda 6
  • Ford Fusion

Types of Cars Parents May Avoid

Some cars just repel parents. These often include models with low safety ratings, though there are also niche options that parents seemingly avoid. 

High horsepower cars can present safety concerns since even experienced drivers can have trouble handling them. Plus, high horsepower means higher insurance premiums for families.

When choosing a car, parents may avoid sports cars since it can be tempting to drive too fast. Some options that are relatively sporty but won’t necessarily present these issues include the Honda Civic Si, Ford Mustang, and Chevrolet Camaro 6.

Find Great Deals on Cars for Teens at ACV’s Online Auction Today!

Stocking excellent choices for teen drivers may be a wise business decision for your dealership. The safety features, reliability, and resale value of these vehicles make them versatile and helpful additions. You can offer families cars that will be the safest possible for their new drivers, plus additional features and benefits. 

Ready to source great inventory today? Start by simply registering below. We look forward to working with you at ACV Auctions!


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