The Cheapest and Best SUVs For a First Car

Buying a first car – especially for a young person – is a pretty big decision. This is doubly true these days as the car shortage has driven the supply of new cars into the dirt, while used cars and SUVs have skyrocketed in value. As SUVs have become one of the top coolest vehicle types, these cheapest and best SUVs might be a strong place to start looking for someone’s first car. 

Nissan Xterra parked in the sand and happens to be one of the cheapest and best SUVs for someone looking for their first car.
Nissan Xterra | eBay

What is the best SUV for a first car?

Most of us have some pretty harrowing tales of our first cars. Broken bits and bobs scattered around a haggard cabin with every storage compartment filled with scratched CDs. Many people’s first cars require a bit of know-how to start and just the right touch to get the key out of the ignition. However, cars have come a long way in only the last 15 years. 

This list of the best SUVs for a first car isn’t quite as old, and if they are well-bought, should be as haggard and jalopy-esq as the old days of 90s kids’ first cars. MotorTrend shows a decent variety of older and newer 4×4 SUVs that would make for a great first car for a teen or adult driver, alike. 

The Isuzu Amigo is one of the best-used SUVs that are still affordable

Isuzu Rodeo ad shows one of the best SUVs for a first car
2001 Isuzu Amigo/Rodeo | Isuzu

We don’t see much from Isuzu these days, but back in the 90s, it made some pretty rad 4x4s. These trucks were never fancy, but they were tough, dependable, and looked pretty cool. As far as boxy 4x4s go, the Isuzu Amigo/Rodeo (after 2001 the name changed) was one of the best deals at the time for a tough off-roader that wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg.

While the first-gen (1989-1997) Amigos has some cool features like a partially removable roof and a solid rear axle, the second-gen (1998 to 2003) is the best of the line. These make the best SUVs for a first car list because they had badass features like a real all-iron Dana 44 rear axle, durable IFS front suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, an optional 3.2L V-6, and a comfortable interior with airbags. The Amigo is a perfect mix of on-road comfort, off-road capability, and modern amenities.

It’s hard to beat an old Jeep Cherokee 

These have been peppering high school parking lots since the days of the Roman Empire. The XJ series Cherokee’s are similar to a Wrangler in that they are so simple and customizable that you can make a Cherokee whatever you want it to be. 

While Cherokees are killer SUVs for a first car, the 1991-2001 models are among the best Jeep ever made. This year range offers one of the best drivetrains of all time, the 4.0-liter straight six also found in some Wranglers of the period. The underpinnings are also strong and begging for an off-road thrashing. 

Don’t forget about the Nissan Xterra 

The Nissan Xterra is an interesting 4×4 SUV that never got the same love as the Jeeps and maybe that’s fair. However, The Xterra is actually very cool and would make for a great first car. If you’re looking for a great first used 4×4 SUV and need durability and survivability, but not fluff and amenities, then the first-gen 1999-2004 Nissan Xterra are a great option. In the U.S. market, you’ll find most with a 3.3L V-6 that made an adequate 170 hp, later bumped to 180 hp in the 2002-2004 models. 

These Nissan 4x4s run around $10k-$11k in good shape with decent mileage. These bad boys were built for where the pavement ends. What’s even cooler is they can be found with cool optional extras like towing packages, grille guards, and they came in manual. That last fact alone is a great feature for a first car. Learning on a manual transmission forces new drivers to pay more attention. 

The best SUV for a first car can be cheap

All of these cheap SUVs would make great first cars; they are simple, tough, reliable, practical, and inexpensive. Basically, any one of these three can be found in decent shape for less than $15,000. This is prime-time first car territory; not little to be unsafe, while still not being enough to worry about when it gets banged up. And most importantly, not too much money to feel bad about off-roading. 

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