Top 11 Cars for Teenage Drivers
By MATTHEW CLAYSON, 4/2/2019
My first ride was a white 1992 Pontiac Grand Am 4-door sedan. I purchased it in 1996 for $6000. It had 40,000 miles, a hint of cigarette smell masked by a “new car” scented scent wafer, a 4-cylinder 160 HP engine, power windows and locks, automatic transmission and an after-market sunroof. The after-market sunroof was the differentiator. Talk about options.
In all seriousness, I liked the car because it was somewhat sporty, could comfortably fit my friends and ski racing gear, looked as good with a set of roof racks as it did with a modified exhaust pipe and rims – we’re talking pre-Vin Diesel “Fast and the Furious” days and was a cool $6,000, which I could afford with summer dishwashing and landscaping jobs. My parents liked it because it was safe – having seatbelts, an airbag and newer Cooper-Standard tires; efficient – having a smaller engine that drove modest fuel economy; cheap to insure and not too flashy but not too geriatric – a major step up from the circa 1980’s Buick Century and Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme that were in the consideration set.
While the vehicles in today’s consideration set has changed substantially, the underlying factors that motivate vehicle purchase decisions for teenage drivers have not. Teenagers want a car that looks good, that is fun to drive and that fits friends and gear. Parents want cars that are reliable, efficient, affordable and safe. With more than 300 different makes and models, finding a car that meets all these needs can be tough, but by no means impossible.
And we’re here to help.
We’ve demoed scores of cars. We’ve reviewed hundreds of pages of manufacturer facts and figures. And we talk to thousands of shoppers every day, answering their calls and helping them find the right vehicle for their needs. And we’ve applied this experience, research and conversation results to compile the list of the top cars for teenage drivers. Cars that balance affordability and safety with style and space. Cars that are efficient yet fun to drive. Cars that keep teenagers and their parents happy.
#11. Toyota Corolla
Base MSRP Range: $18,700 - $22,880
Redesigned for 2020 and ready for your life, the Toyota Corolla is efficient, stylish and spacious. Powered by an ample 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, the Toyota Corolla delivers a sporty ride and excellent fuel economy without sacrificing space or style. It is one of the few cars that still offer a 6-speed manual transmission, perfect for the teenager who is a driving enthusiast and who wants to show off for friends. For everyone else, there’s an automatic, continuously variable transmission. For the environmentally conscious teenager, a hybrid version of the Toyota Corolla is available, combining the standard 1.8 liter engine with an electric drive system to deliver a combined output of 121 horsepower.
#10. 2019 Mazda CX-3
Base MSRP Range: $20,390 - $27,145
Compact, sporty yet solid and substantial, the Mazda CX-3 delivers agile, fun-to-drive handling; a confident feel; impressive safety features and good fuel economy. Distinctive 18-inch wheels are standard on all models but the base; styling is aggressive and modern, evoking queues from niche premium brands such as Range Rover and Alfa Romeo without the eye-popping mark-up. Powered by a peppy, 148-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder and a six-speed automatic, the CX-3 is a smooth in the city and capable on the highway – good for getting to and from school, going back and forth to practice during evenings and cruising the beach on the weekends. The infotainment system includes a 7-inch center display screen, which is large for its class. A rotary knob that controls phone and audio functions can be clunky at times, especially for a teenage user who is used to responsive touch screens. The rear seat is tight and cargo space modest; don’t be looking to do long road trips with friends in this vehicle. Nonetheless, looking to move up from riding the bus and getting from home to class in style, then the Mazda CX-3 is the car for you.
#9. Jeep Compass
Base MSRP Range: $21,595 - $29,445
[PRO-TIP FOR PARENTS: ask about leasing specials, as Jeep remains one of the more competitive brands when it comes to zero-down, low monthly payment lease].
Sitting between the Jeep Renegade and the Jeep Cherokee, the Jeep Compass has been entirely redesigned for the 2018 model year. With interior and exterior styling referencing its larger Jeep Grand Cherokee sibling, the Compass is distinctive: maintaining an aggressive stance, a spacious cabin and surprisingly refined interior finishes. Its steering wheel is substantial and beefy, providing the driver with a confident and in-control feel. Touch controls for entertainment and climate control systems are intuitive and responsive; Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, so don’t let the dealership try to talk you or your teenager into an expensive – and unnecessary – navigation system. Rear passenger seating is comfortable and rear cargo space accommodates sporting equipment, music instruments and anything else needed for a life full of friends and extracurriculars. Power comes from a 180-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder, an engine that delivers enough pep when pushed, perfect for driving to school and after school activities. The ride quality is firm and confident. Standard safety features include 4-wheel drive, multiple airbags, anti-lock brakes and everything in between. Available safety features include forward-collision warning, lane-departure warning, and blind-spot warning.
#8. Honda Civic
Base MSRP Range: $18,840 - $28,650
[PRO-TIP FOR PARENTS: Go used on the Civic. You’ll save on monthly payments and insurance, and the thing is basically guaranteed to run-and-run-and-run with minimal maintenance].
This car is for the teenager who could care less about looks or third-party validation. Your car is a vehicle to get you from class to home and back. You value dependability and reliability. And, like a trusty dog, the Honda Civic has served as a reliable standby for generations of sensible, pragmatic shoppers looking for an easy, efficient car that runs and runs and runs. Just think of how many 2000 era silver Civics you see on the road today, obediently transporting their owners from place-to-place without worry or concern. While the 2019 Civic won’t win any awards for its styling; it gets props for a base engine that is efficient and reliable, a stable ride and an interior that has a lot of storage space for its class. Available in coupe, 4-door sedan or hatchback, the Civic has a body style for every need. Need some spice? There is a 306 hp Type-R version that will have your teachers mistaking you for Vin Diesel when driving in for first hour. As an added, but not surprising, bonus for parents: Honda rates amongst the top brands in J.D. Power’s 2018 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study
#7. Volkswagen Jetta
Base MSRP Range: $18,545 - $26,945
[RANDOM PRO-TIP: Volkswagen Group owns Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini and Porsche, as well as Volkswagen. As a result, a consistent brand DNA and engineering – e.g. a brand look and feel – is shared across all product lines and VW can rely on engineering breakthroughs and styling from its more premium siblings to deliver a solid, affordable product]
“Fahrvergnügen: It's what makes a car a Volkswagen”.
Too young to remember this off-beat marketing campaign (?), then Google it. And Google the all-new Jetta while you are at it, because it is a great buy. Redesigned and re-engineered, the Volkswagen Jetta combines great fuel economy with easy to use controls, a roomy cabin and a plethora of upscale features. Powered by an adequate 147-hp, 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and an eight-speed automatic transmission, the Jetta holds its own in around-the-town driving, but shines on the highway where it provides ample acceleration on demand. Ride is smooth, perfect for bumpy city roads. Like its German engineered siblings, the Jetta delivers impressive fuel economy at 34 mpg overall. A quiet cabin and thoughtful color and material choices give the cabin a premium feel. Safety features such as automatic emergency braking, forward-collision warning, and blind-spot warning are optional on the base trim, and standard on all other trims. All-in-all, the Jetta is a delight to drive and own. Again, it’s all about the Fahrvergnügen.
#6. Dodge Charger
Base MSRP Range: $28,995 - $65,345
[PARENTS PRO-TIP – FCA (e.g. Dodge’s parent company, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) loves to basically give these things away on lease. If you’re paying more than $250/month for one of these adequately loaded, you’re getting a raw deal]
You (or your teenager) has a good summer job that is paying well. And you want to reward yourself with something fast, fun and loud but that does not sacrifice safety or efficiency. Packing aggressive, in-your-face American styling and powered by Detroit-muscle, the Dodge Charger puts you in command of the road and your image. The Charger is a big and it is comfortable, delivering a smooth ride and a quiet cabin for you and your friends. Powered by a 3.6-liter V6 paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission, the Charger is . Dealing with all-season climates, all-wheel drive is optional, as are automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping assist. Wanna make a statement and command the road, the Dodge Charger is the vehicle for you.
#5. Buick Regal TourX
Base MSRP Range: $25,070 - $39,070
[PRO-TIP – these things lease really well, with zero down options available. Hatchback versions are classified by many insurers as SUV’s, commanding lower premiums].
The Buick Regal is a car that is sporty, distinctive and is packed with advanced technology and safety features that will please the most tech-minded teenager as well as the safety conscious parent. Powered by a European inspired 2.0-liter, turbo four-cylinder engine, the Buick Regal is engaging as well as efficient. Friends and family will appreciate the Buick Regal’s comfortable ride, firm seats and quiet cabin, where road, wind, and engine noise are well-muted. Parents will be glad to know that the Buick Regal’s handling is responsive and confident: grippy with little body roll, confronting everything from bumps and potholes to fast stops and quick moves with ease and elegance. Handsfree texting and dialing? Google or Apple Maps navigation? Of course! Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility is standard, so don’t get talked into any navigation system upgrade, which can add $500 upwards to any purchase price.
#4. Kia Sorento
Base MSRP Range: $25,600 - $45,900
[PARENTS PRO-TIP: Kia is right up there with Chrysler and Jeep when it comes to competitive leasing. Want a low monthly payment and not seeking the commitment of ownership, then explore 24 and 36 month leasing options you’re your local dealership]
Seeking a midsize SUV at competitive lease rates, then the Kia Sorento is the car for you. Packing more value per pound than its Toyota or Honda competitors, the Kia Sorrento continues to be top shopper choice in the midsized SUV class when it comes to a car that balances value, cost of ownership and reliability. For those wanting to make a statement without sacrificing reliability, the Kia Sorento offers styling is more modern and aggressive than the Toyota Highlander or the Honda Pilot. Packing three-rows of seating and powered by a standard V6 engine with an all new eight-speed transmission, the Sorento is a good choice for an active family looking to be transported worry-free and in style. And speaking of worry free experiences, Kia placed as the highest ranked non-luxury car brand on J.D. Power’s 2018 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study.
#3. Chevrolet Cruze
Base MSRP Range: $17,995 - $26,120
[PARENT PRO-TIP: General Motors, Chevrolet’s parent company, is discontinuing the Cruze, which means there will be deals to be had. Be sure you go to the dealership armed with all recent incentive and rebate information]
The Cruze is a fuel sipper that looks good and drives well, perfect for the teenager whose parents value affordable and efficiency. It tracks between 37 – 48 MPG on the highway and between 28 – 31 MPG in the city. Its trunk is spacious, as is seating, which can accommodate up to 4 friends and plenty of gear. A 153-horsepower engine provides adequate power and an engaging, responsive driving experience. Handsfree texting and dialing? Google or Apple Maps navigation? Of course! Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility is standard, so don’t get talked into any navigation system upgrade, which can add $500 upwards to any purchase price.
#2. Chevrolet Colorado
Base MSRP Range: $20,200 - $40,00
[PRO-TIP: General Motors, Chevrolet’s parent company, loves to lure buyers with incentives and rebates. Interested in the Colorado and ready to buy, then be sure you go to the dealership armed with all recent incentive and rebate information]
Not really into sedans or SUV’s, or go to high school in a Northern climate with variable weather conditions? Fortunately for you, the automotive product development overlords in Detroit resurrected the compact pick-up truck, which packs a spacious, stylish cab with a versatile rear. Mullet references aside, the base Chevrolet Colorado is an attractive, capable truck. It’s loaded with the most recent electronic gadgets, such as GM’s proprietary MyLink audio system. And it’s efficient, logging in a respectable 18 MPG in the city and up to 25 MPG on the highway. Sure, the ride can be choppy at times – but base models fit with 4-wheel are affordable options for the casual off-roader who seek aggressive styling coupled with legendary Chevrolet durability. Backed Chevrolet’s commitment to quality and ranked by J.D. Power as one of the most dependable brands in its 2018 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study, the Chevrolet Colorado is an unexpectedly reliable and affordable choice for young professionals.
#1. Ford Escape
Base MSRP Range: $24,105 - $34,120
[PARENTS PRO-TIP: the Ford Escape leases out quite well, with monthly payments between $200 and $300 / month with little down.]
Pound for pound, the Escape delivers more value than other small SUV’s in its class. Powered by a 1.5-liter, turbocharged engine, the Escape is peppy and capable. Standard traction control ensures confident driving across variable conditions. Friends and family will enjoy ample legroom in the rear seats, compliments of a well-designed cabin. Plenty of rear cargo space is available for hauling sports gear, musical instruments, book bags and other necessities. Infotainment is powered by the robust Sync 3 system, which is loaded with hands-free and voice activated features. Advanced safety features are optional, but impressive, and include forward collision warning and advanced lane assist.