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The best cars for teen drivers

The 14 vehicles below meet our requirements:

  • They are an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick.
  • They cost less than $15,000 for a 2009 model, according to Edmunds.com
  • They get 20 mpg or better in combined driving, according to the EPA.
  • They score average or better in annual repair visits, according to TrueDelta.com.

From there we shopped for insurance on each one as if an 18-year-old were buying his or her own policy.  (Full details on the coverage are below.)

Make and modelCost of carReliability**MPGInsurance
Mitsubishi Lancer GTS* $10,890 19 23 $4,392
Honda Fit* $12,694 18 31 $3,976
Volkswagen Rabbit 4-door $11,409 34 24 $3,874
Ford Focus 2-door* $9,239 28 27 $3,800
Honda Civic 4-door* $14,583 23 29 $3,738
Subaru Impreza $11,671 24 22 $3,732
Toyota Corolla* $10,294 18 30 $3,656
Audi A3 2.0T $14,474 47 24 $3,622
Volkswagen Jetta $10,333 34 24 $3,524
Subaru Legacy $13,005 27 22 $3,518
Scion xB $10,387 7 24 $3,506
Ford Fusion* $11,216 14 23 $3,494
Honda Accord $14,399 21 24 $3,334
Ford Taurus $11,286 12 21 $3,322

*Electronic stability control optional or available only on some models.
**Fewer visits is better.

Safety first, then price

The “Best Cars for Teens” rankings starts with the “Top Safety Picks” designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) , which identifies not only the 2009-model cars that withstood crash tests with flying colors but also those that have available electronic stability control to keep young drivers out of trouble in the first place.

In fact, the wider availability of stability control added many of the cheaper models such as the Ford Focus and Toyota Corolla to our list this year. (The government now requires it on all new cars.)

From the IIHS list of nearly 100 top-scoring models, we eliminated pickups and SUVs.

“While some pickups and SUVs score well, they’re really not great choices for novice drivers,” says CarInsurance.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner. They’re taller and have higher centers of gravity, making them more prone to “tripping” on a curb or other obstruction and rolling over -- a kind of accident that stability control can’t easily prevent.

Of the “Best Cars for Teens” picks, automotive expert John Pearley Huffman likes the Accord. “You could keep it a long time without outgrowing it,” he says. “And it’s big enough that parents won’t worry.”

Huffman, who writes about cars for The New York Times and Car and Driver, says he would seek out the larger models on the list. “I love small cars like the Fit, but relatively speaking, your kid stands a better chance in something with bigger crumple zones.”

Who pays the bills?

From there we looked for models that cost less than $15,000 from a private party, using Edmunds.com’s True Market Values. In cases where stability control was an option, we priced trim levels that offered that option.

We also tried to keep an eye on running costs, assuming that a teen driver might be responsible for upkeep, gas and insurance.

We eliminated any vehicle that didn’t get at least 20 mpg combined on EPA tests.  But we also eliminated any vehicle with a higher-than-average number of yearly repair visits as reported by car owners at TrueDelta.com.

Lastly, we priced an insurance policy for each. Because new drivers are the riskiest, discounts for teenagers tend to be crucial and may further cut your costs.

A caveat: This list is useful for showing the relative differences in rates between cars, but it does not necessarily reflect what you or your child might pay. We looked at rates for an 18-year-old male in Florida with no tickets or accidents, buying his own full-coverage policy.

You could pay less, or you could pay much, much more. It depends largely on your ZIP code and the teen’s driving history.

Teen drivers: 4 scenarios

Insurance companies calculate rates based on risk. Adding a licensed teenager greatly increases that risk -- and means parents need to look at many options. (See “What young drivers need to know.”)

Consider Don and Darla, who live in Pensacola, Fla., middle-aged parents with spotless records who drive a 2012 Honda Accord and 2008 Chevrolet Suburban.  The cheapest quote we found for full coverage on both their cars was $1,959 a year.

Now let’s add their 18-year-old to the mix.

Assign the teen driver to the cheapest-to-insure car. We added Don and Darla’s 18-year-old son, Aiden, and assigned him to the family SUV. Cheapest quote: $3,477 a year.

Buy the teen driver a late-model used car. A financed 2009 Toyota Corolla joins the fleet. Cheapest quote: $4,771.

Buy the teen driver a beater car. A 2002 Ford Taurus is added to the family policy with liability-only coverage. Cheapest quote: $3,723.

Insure the beater separately and exclude the teen from the family policy. We found liability-only coverage for Aiden at $2,321 a year. Add that to his parents’ $1,959 bill and the family comes out about $500 in the hole compared with simply adding the Taurus to the family policy. (Note: Even if the named driver exclusion somehow winds up being much cheaper, not all states will allow a driver under 18 to be excluded from a family policy.)

Methodology

Insurance rates are for an 18-year-old male in ZIP code 32534 (Pensacola, Fla.), commuting 12 miles each way to school, with no accidents or violations. Coverage includes $100,000 bodily injury liability (up to $300,000 per accident) and $50,000 in property damage liability, $10,000 in personal injury protection and comprehensive and collision coverage with $500 deductibles.

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