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Choosing the Best Vehicle for Your Teen

One minute you are driving your kids back and forth to school and then they are getting their driver’s license and now you feel ….scared. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety teens are 3 times more likely to have an accident than 20 year old drivers, per diven mile.

IIHS is known for its ratings of new vehicles, but for many families, a brand new TOP SAFETY PICK or TOP SAFETY PICK+ isn’t in the budget for a teen’s vehicle. In a national phone survey conducted for IIHS of parents of teen drivers, 83 percent of those who bought a vehicle for their teenagers said they bought it used (see background research).

With that reality in mind, the Institute regularly publishes a list of affordable used vehicles that meet important safety criteria for teen drivers. There are two tiers of recommended vehicles, best choices and good choices. Prices range from about $2,000 to nearly $20,000, so parents can buy the most safety for their money, whatever their budget.

Defining Safety

The recommendations are guided by four main principles:

  • Young drivers should stay away from high horsepower. More powerful engines can tempt them to test the limits.
  • Bigger, heavier vehicles are safer. They protect better in a crash, and HLDI analyses of insurance data show that teen drivers are less likely to crash them in the first place. There are no minicars or small cars on the recommended list. Small SUVs are included because their weight is similar to that of a midsize car.
  • Electronic stability control (ESC) is a must. This feature, which helps a driver maintain control of the vehicle on curves and slippery roads, reduces risk on a level comparable to safety belts.
  • Vehicles should have the best safety ratings possible. At a minimum, that means good ratings in the IIHS moderate overlap front, side and head restraint tests and four or five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

16-year-old Chase Leschanz with his mom Rhonda Sweat in his 1998 Jeep Wranger

Check for Recalls

Use the Vehicle Identification Number to check for outstanding recalls before buying a used vehicle. To receive future recall notices, notify the manufacturer of your purchase. NHTSA also advises vehicle owners to check its database for new recalls every six months or so.

For more information, see “Smart picks for new drivers: IIHS updates criteria for recommended used vehicles” (April 2017).

BEST CHOICES: recommended used vehicles for teens starting under $20K

Vehicles on this list earn good ratings in the IIHS moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests and good or acceptable ratings in the driver-side small overlap front test. If rated by NHTSA, they earn 4 or 5 stars overall or 4 or 5 stars in the front and side tests under the old rating scheme. All come with standard ES.

GOOD CHOICES: recommended used vehicles for teens starting under $10K

Vehicles on this list earn good ratings in the IIHS moderate overlap front, side and head restraint tests. If rated by NHTSA, they earn 4 or 5 stars overall or 4 or 5 stars in the front and side tests under the old rating scheme. All come with standard ESC. All listed vehicles start under $10,000. Prices, provided by Kelley Blue Book and rounded to the nearest $100, are from March 1, 2017.