Handing the keys to a car over to your teenage offspring for the first time is one of those monumental moments for a parent, and not one that they necessarily look forward to. Nonetheless, every year, millions of teens will get behind the wheel of a car with varying degrees of experience. While driver’s ed may help out, it’s undeniable that much of the learning new drivers experience comes directly from piloting a vehicle in the real world. Therefore, it makes sense that teens are the most susceptible demographic when it comes to vehicular accidents. It only makes sense, then, that parents would want to put their kids into the safest cars possible. That’s a given, but the biggest question then is which cars are those?
Fortunately, there are resources like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, its sole purpose for existing to separate the safe cars from the not-so-safe cars. Earlier this year, it released its recommended list of used cars that perform best from a safety perspective. “A teenager’s first car is more than just a financial decision,” IIHS President Adrian Lund said in a statement at the time. “These lists of recommended used vehicles can help consumers factor in safety, in addition to affordability.”
However, safer cars can also run up the price. “Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to get a safe vehicle for a teenager at the prices most people are paying,” said Anne McCartt, who is the IIHS senior vice president for research. “Our advice to parents would be to remember the risks teens take and consider paying a little more.”
The list included numerous recommendations and entries, so we’ve taken the two most affordable models from each category and laid them out here. “All the recommended used vehicles have standard ESC and provide good protection in moderate overlap front crashes,” IIHS said. “Those considered ‘best choices’ for under $20,000 also have good ratings for side crash protection, good head restraints and seats for rear crash protection, and good roof strength to protect occupants in rollover crashes.” Pricing information was lifted, by IIHS, from the Kelley Blue Book and rounded to the nearest $100.
1. Large Cars: Buick LaCrosse
It’s certainly not the sexiest of sedans, but for all intents and purposes, the Buick LaCrosse should more than meet the needs of most teenage drivers. IIHS says that models built in or after 2010 can be had for about $12,900, or the cost of a brand new Nissan Versa — but rest assured, you’re getting a lot more car for the money.
2. Large Cars: Volvo S80
Renowned for its safety, the Volvo S80 is among the most secure cars that the Swedish brand makes thanks to its large, heavy stature. Priced at about $9,000 for a 2007 model year (0r later), the S80 is not only cheaper than the new LaCrosse models, but also might help shed the social geriatric stigma that the Buick carries — which is a big deal for most teenagers.
3. Midsize Cars: Volvo C30
IIHS had the Volvo C30 classified as a midsize car, which we found a bit strange. It’s most definitely a compact, and was the smallest car Volvo produced when it was still being built. Models from 2008 or later can be had for less than $10,000 fairly easily (the KBB quoted $9,800), and makes for a smart alternative for those who may not want or need a full-size flagship sedan, but do want Volvo’s legendary record of safety.
4. Midsize Cars: Volkswagen Jetta
A brand new Volkswagen Jetta can be bought for less than IIHS’ threshold of $20,000, but used models from the 2009 model year or later can be had for as low as $8,200 for the sedan, and $9,400 for the Sportwagen. The Jetta arguably offers the most fun one can have in the compact segment, and a quality alternative to the usual teen favorite Civics and Corollas.
5. Small SUVs: Volkswagen Tiguan
For the relatively small price tag of around $10,000, a 2009 or later Volkswagen Tiguan can be purchased for your teen driver. The Tiguan, as a small SUV, offers the comforts and increased stability of a larger vehicle with the economical benefits of a car. The kids will have more room for their friends, books, or sports equipment as well. Although the Tiguan isn’t exactly a household name, it still compares favorably to many others in its segment, and has the trustworthy Volkswagen badge on the front as well.
6. Small SUVs: Honda Element
The Honda Element was one of the more ambitious vehicles put to market by Honda, and it still offers a safe and stable drive, making it ideal for teenagers. The Element comes at a relative bargain as well, and can be found for less than $9,000 for a 2007 model year or later. This SUV also proved its worth in the IIHS safety ratings as well, scoring highly in each of the top four categories in which it was tested.
7. Midsize SUVs: Subaru Tribeca
Moving up a class, it’s hard to beat Subaru’s Tribeca midsize SUV in terms of safety and price. The Tribeca can cost roughly $8,500 for a 2006 or later model, and given Subaru’s reputation for reliability, that’s more than a fair price. The Tribeca also scored very well in the IIHS’ safety ratings, helping give worried parents peace of mind with their teens out on the road.
8. Midsize SUVs: Volvo XC90
Evidently, the IIHS is very fond of Volvo. Volvo’s largest SUV, the XC90, isn’t just for drivers looking for a sleek and classy SUV; it’s also a perfect fit for the teen driver. The XC90 does actually pack a good amount of power, staring at 235 horsepower for the 2010 model, which may be useful for teens driving in rural areas or in parts of the country known for tough weather. It is a bit pricey, however, with models after 2010 coming in at around $18,000.
9. Large SUVs: GMC Acadia
If your teen needs a large, tough SUV, the GMC Acadia is a sure bet. The Acadia will set you back more than $17,500 for a 2011 or later model, but it should give parents a sigh of relief to know that the Acadia is strong and capable, two variables that can be invaluable when the snow starts flying. The Acadia also has received top marks from the IIHS for safety.
10. Large SUVs: Chevrolet Traverse
The spiritual cousin to the GMC Acadia, Chevy’s Traverse offers pretty much the same exact experience. The glaring difference is that the Traverse can usually be found for a slightly less price, around $16,600 by the IIHS’ calculations. Like the Acadia, the Traverse also scored exceptionally well in the safety ratings, making it a good bet for teen drivers and the parents who worry about them.
11. Minivans: Dodge Grand Caravan
Minivans aren’t typically what teens might think of as a ‘cool ride,’ but they do have their advantages. Have a large family and the oldest needs to haul the whole batch off to school? A Dodge Grand Caravan may be the way to go. A 2012 or later model will set you back a little bit over the $15,000 mark, but for the amount of bodies that the Grand Caravan can handle, it may be worth it. It also scored highly in the IIHS’ safety tests.
12. Minivans: Volkswagen Routan
An alternative to the Dodge Grand Caravan is another Volkswagen model — the Routan. While the Routan doesn’t have the storied history of the Caravan, it still provides an excellent choice for the family in need of a safe and reliable minivan for their teen driver. The Routan costs around $14,000 for a 2012 model. The Caravan and Routan are very similar, and the decision between the two really comes down to the details and personal preference.