Is your teenager ready for a car? Read this first

With high school graduation close and either college or a job around the corner for teenagers, many parents want the right car for their teen — considering both safety and cost. Each year the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety compiles a list of both used and new vehicles, including ballpark costs, for parents of teens to consider before buying a vehicle.

“As parents, we can’t control what happens on the road once our teen driver pulls out of the driveway,” says Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at Consumer Reports’ Auto Test Center. “But we do have some say in the type of vehicle they drive off in, and that can make a huge difference. This list can help parents find vehicles that check all the boxes.” Finding an appropriate, affordable vehicle can be challenging, as prices for new and used vehicles remain stubbornly high. In contrast to previous years, all but a handful of the vehicles on this year’s list of recommended vehicles for teens cost more than $10,000.

Overall traffic deaths have been rising in the last few years after decades of decline. Nearly 43,000 people died on the roads in 2021, a 10% increase over 2020. Teen road deaths have followed the same pattern, increasing 11% to 3,058 in 2021.

What makes a good teen vehicle? First, it should be fairly sedate. Off the bat, IIHS and CR exclude sports cars and other vehicles with excessive horsepower. These vehicles make it too easy to speed and can tempt young drivers to show off. Secondly, it shouldn’t be too small. The list has no minicars or vehicles under 2,750 pounds because small, light vehicles don’t provide enough protection in multiple-vehicle crashes.

It also shouldn’t be too big. Although it might be tempting to keep your child ensconced in a large SUV or pickup because it offers greater crash protection, those larger vehicles can be hard to handle and often have increased braking distances. They also pose more risk to others on the road, including pedestrians, bicyclists and people in smaller vehicles. Moderately sized vehicles provide a better balance of crash avoidance and crash protection.

Recommended used vehicles are divided into Best Choices, which this year range in price from $7,800 to $20,000, and Good Choices, which start at $6,600 and go up to $14,500. Best Choices offer a somewhat higher level of safety.

Both groups have:

¯ standard electronic stability control

¯ above-average reliability, based on CR’s member survey, for the majority of the years listed

¯ average or better scores from CR’s emergency handling tests

¯ dry braking distances of less than 145 feet from 60 mph in CR’s brake tests

¯ good ratings in four IIHS crashworthiness tests — original moderate overlap front, original side, roof strength and head restraints

¯ four or five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (if rated).

In addition, Best Choices have a good or acceptable rating in the IIHS driver-side small overlap front test, which was launched in 2012. The test replicates what happens when the front left corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object like a tree or utility pole.

Recommended new vehicles are held to an even higher standard than the Best Choices of used vehicles.

“If you’re spending the money on a new vehicle that’s likely to be in your family for many years, we want you to get the most safety available,” IIHS Chief Research Officer David Zuby said. “That means the highest ratings in our latest suite of tests.”

This year’s recommended new vehicles are all 2023 IIHS Top Safety Pick winners. That means they have good ratings in three frontal crash tests — driver- and passenger-side small overlap and the original moderate overlap — a good or acceptable rating in the updated side test, advanced or superior ratings for front crash prevention (including daytime pedestrian detection), and standard acceptable- or good-rated headlights. Injury claim rates from recent model years are also factored in.

To see the IIHS recommendations go to iihs.org/ratings/safe-vehicles-for-teens.


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