Driving

Best cars for teens: 15 vehicles under $20K with top safety ratings

Honda Civics are one of the most popular cars among teen drivers, and is our top recommendation for cars starting under $10,000.

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With car prices soaring and a potential recession looming over Americans, buying a car might not be a top priority for many people. However, teens across the country might feel differently. They’re finally reaching the moment they’ve anticipated their whole lives thus far — the age to obtain a driver’s license. And to really taste the freedom of the open road, they need a car.

As a parent, the thought of your teen driving may be nerve-wracking, so The Zebra compiled a list of the 15 best cars for teens based on typical first-car budgets as well as insurance rate and safety data considerations.

Skip below to the infographic for a quick review of the best cars for teens under $20,000, $15,000 and $10,000, plus some safety tips for teen drivers.

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Best cars for teens under $20,000

1. Toyota Highlander

 
toyota-highlander
 
 

The Toyota Highlander, model 2014 or newer, is our top teen vehicle recommendation for cars between $15,000 and $20,000. The vehicle earned its spot for its 5-star safety rating and lower insurance premium.

  • Average price: $17,800
  • Average insurance premium: $965
  • Average monthly cost: $377
  • Safety score: 5 stars

2. Kia Sportage

 
Kia-Sportage

 

Teen drivers who prefer a compact SUV will find that the 2017 Kia Sportage meets their needs with its 5-star safety score.

  • Average price: $17,000
  • Average insurance premium: $1,138
  • Average monthly cost: $378
  • Safety score: 5 stars

3. Hyundai Santa Fe

 

Hyundai-Santa-fe

 

The Hyundai Santa Fe's best model years for teen drivers are between 2017 and 2019 due to the lower selling prices, insurance premiums and safety scores.

  • Average price: $17,800
  • Average insurance premium: $1,082
  • Average monthly cost: $387
  • Safety score: 5 stars
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4. Subaru Crosstrek

 
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Subaru is known as one of the safest car manufacturers. The Subaru Crosstrek, models 2018 or newer, is perfect for teen drivers.

  • Average price: $19,900
  • Average insurance premium: $954
  • Average monthly cost: $411
  • Safety score: 5 stars

5. Toyota Corolla hatchback

 

toyota-corolla-hatchback

 

The Toyota Corolla hatchback, model 2019 or newer, is great for teens looking for a reliable car with newer safety features like blind spot monitoring and lane departure warning.

  • Average price: $18,700
  • Average insurance premium: $1,729
  • Average monthly cost: $456
  • Safety score: 5 stars

Best cars for teens under $15,000

6. Mazda CX-5

 

mazda-cx-5

 

Another compact SUV, the 2014 (or newer) Mazda CX-5 earns the spot as our top pick for best cars for teens in the $10,000 to $15,000 range.

  • Average price: $10,200
  • Average insurance premium: $955
  • Average monthly cost: $250
  • Safety score: 5 stars

7. Nissan Rogue

 

Nissan-rogue


Nissan Rogues made between 2014 and 2020 are a great option for an affordable and safe SUV. It earned good ratings all around in crashworthiness and offers optional front crash prevention in newer models.

  • Average price: $11,000
  • Average insurance premium: $890
  • Average monthly cost: $258
  • Safety score: 4 stars

8. Ford Fusion

 

Ford-fusion


The 2015 or 2018 Ford Fusion are both reliable options for teen drivers. This midsize sedan comes at a low average car payment and a 5-star safety rating.

  • Average price: $12,200
  • Average insurance premium: $1,105
  • Average monthly cost: $295
  • Safety score: 5 stars

9. Volkswagen Jetta

Volkswagen-jetta


The 2016 Volkswagen Jetta is a good contender for teens as the higher trim models boast safety features like adaptive cruise control and rear cross-traffic alert.

  • Average price: $10,900
  • Average insurance premium: $1,437
  • Average monthly cost: $301
  • Safety score: 5 stars

10. Nissan Murano

 

Nissan-murano


The Nissan Murano, models 2015 or newer, is one of the best midsize SUVs on the market for teens and families alike. It’s reliable and earned great crash test results.

  • Average price: $14,700
  • Average insurance premium: $923
  • Average monthly cost: $322
  • Safety score: 4 stars

Best cars for teens under $10,000

11. Honda Civic

 

Honda-civic


Honda Civics are one of the most popular cars among teen drivers, and is our top recommendation for cars starting under $10,000. The top recommended model years for the Civic are between 2012 and 2015 and 2019 or newer.

  • Average price: $7,100
  • Average insurance premium: $814
  • Average monthly cost: $186
  • Safety score: 5 stars

12. Toyota Prius

 

Toyota-prius


The Toyota Prius is a classic for teens as any model 2011 or newer comes recommended with 5-star safety scores and good crashworthiness.

  • Average price: $8,100
  • Average insurance premium: $884
  • Average monthly cost: $209
  • Safety score: 5 stars

13. Subaru Legacy

subaru-legacy


Another Subaru, the Subaru Legacy, earns a spot on our list of best cars for teens under $10,000 for its low monthly cost and top safety ratings. Opt for models 2013 or newer for your teen driver.

  • Average price: $8,300
  • Average insurance premium: $923
  • Average monthly cost: $215
  • Safety score: 5 stars

14. Toyota Camry

toyota-camry


For the last decade, the Toyota Camry has earned a spot on IIHS’s list of top safety picks, making models 2012 or newer a great option for teen drivers. 

  • Average price: $9,400
  • Average insurance premium: $854
  • Average monthly cost: $228
  • Safety score: 5 stars

15. Honda Accord

 

honda-accord


The Honda Accord, model 2012 or newer, concludes our list of best cars for teen drivers. Models built after 2017 include the Honda Sensing suite of advanced safety features, like lane assist and collision mitigation.

  • Average price: $9,900
  • Average insurance premium: $1,107
  • Average monthly cost: $257
  • Safety score: 5 stars

Tips for buying your teen’s first car

Buying your teen’s first car is a big life moment. Follow our car buying guide and send them on their way in one of our recommended vehicles.

Set a budget

Buying a car for teens looks different for all families. It’s not something every family can afford to do. For those who can, it’s wise to set a budget. Just because you may be able to afford to splurge on a brand-new sports car for your child doesn’t mean you should. Vehicle choice can factor into the risks associated with teen drivers.

Our list prioritizes used cars selling for under $20,000 to keep monthly payments affordable for the average parent or the teen themselves. However, if you’re looking for an option with the latest tech like GPS navigation or speed restrictions, you may need to set your budget higher and search for newer vehicles. Some of the cars and SUVs on our list sell for $20,000 to $40,000 for the latest models and hold similar safety ratings. 

Another factor that may influence your budget is how much use the car will get. The average length of car ownership for first cars is just over four years. When shopping, you’ll want to keep in mind if your family is planning to share the car between siblings and for how many years. Will the car be passed down to younger children? Will your child take the car off to college? It may be worth spending more on a newer, reliable car with low miles if you plan for this car to stick around through multiple years or children.

Focus on models built after 2006

Another reason to consider the year a car was made relates to safety. While you may find vehicles older than 2010 selling for under $5,000 that are typically cheaper to insure, safety features built in more recent years outweigh the lower price tag.

Vehicles built prior to 2007 are more likely to have safety features like side airbags and electronic stability control — something found in today’s vehicles that you likely wouldn’t think twice about. Side airbags specifically weren’t mandated until 2009 and electronic stability control wasn’t required by law until 2012.

Look for these safety features

Safety should be your top priority when searching for your child’s first car. Ease your and your teen’s driving fears by looking at and test-driving cars with top safety technologies, such as:

  • Anti-lock brakes 
  • Traction control 
  • Stability control
  • Forward-collision warning
  • Blind-spot monitoring
  • Backup cameras
  • Parking sensors
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Understanding car insurance for teen drivers

A common question parents ask is how much it costs to add a teenager to their car insurance policy. The answer varies significantly. Location, vehicle, age, sex and driving history all play a part in determining insurance rates. However, teens are one of the most expensive drivers to insure. The average teenager (or parent) pays a $1,332 premium on a six-month policy.

You can lower your teen’s insurance rate by:

Now that you have a list of the best cars for teens in hand, it’s time to start shopping. If you haven’t already added your teen to your family car insurance plan, try out our free car insurance calculator for an estimate of your new rates today!

Sources: The Zebra | IIHS

Methodology

To find the best cars for teens, The Zebra analyzed data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and Kelley Blue Book (KBB) to determine the safest vehicles on the market under $20,000. 

To determine the monthly cost for each vehicle, we calculated the average monthly car payment based on a five-year loan and added the vehicle’s average monthly insurance rate. We selected our top choices based on vehicles with the lowest monthly cost and the highest safety ratings. Average insurance rates come from The Zebra but do not take the age of the driver into consideration.

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