Helping your child buy their first new car can be a terrifying experience for any parent. Budget transportation doesn't often bring to mind solid safety scores, and young people are often more interested in impressing their friends than rollover resistance.
But by the time your kids are old enough to drive, you've learned that sometimes you just have to trick them into accepting what what's best. With that in mind, we set out to find the gummy vitamins of the automotive world. The result is a list of funky, quirky and personality-laden cars that manage top scores in our safety ratings and cost $20K or less.
|Vehicle||Safety Score||Base MSRP|
It's easy to impress teenagers in a Civic. The car's profile is futuristic and its cabin is visually dominated by an instrument console some compare to a video game. But the Civic is one of the best-selling vehicles in America because of its rock-solid reliability and good fuel economy. It also achieves top crash test scores from both the federal government and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The Civic even offers active head restraints -- unusual at an entry-level price.
Subaru's latest small car, the Impreza, has surprising cache among teens and young adults. Aftermarket tuners make many parts to visually enhance the car, and while the high-performance WRX model is out of reach for most young buyers, its existence seems to lend an air of coolness to its low-end cousins. Parents will note that the Impreza is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety "Top Safety Pick" -- and the least-expensive all-wheel-drive vehicle in America.
The Element has one of the most distinctive shapes on the road. It's ugly and cute all at once. Your kid's friends will probably be jealous. It's practical, too -- with the rear seats folded away to the sides it offers a huge cargo space for hauling a small apartment's worth of stuff. And you'll be reassured knowing he's driving an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety "Top Safety Pick."
Parents can look at the 2009 Pontiac Vibe and see that it scores 9.7 out of 10 in our safety ratings. It even offers traction and stability control and active head restraints -- features often reserved for more expensive cars. Kids look at the same car and see a funky kind of versatility. Part SUV, part hatchback, part small car -- the Vibe is hard to categorize, which gives it a certain appeal. Though it shares most of its parts with the Toyota Matrix, we recommend the Vibe because it comes with a more affordable price and a year of GM's Onstar service to ease parents' minds.
At least hear the logic on this one. A low-end Mustang costs under $20,000. It earns top five-star scores in every government crash test, and you wouldn't have to talk your child into it at all. We're not suggesting you buy your teen or twenty-something a V8 engine. The base Mustang comes with a V6, and early rumors say a four-cylinder may be in the works for the 2009 model. It's not the right choice for everyone, but if you want to be parent of the century, you can buy this car and still sleep well at night. A note of caution: side airbags are optional, and we highly recommend you spring for them.
Toyota started its Scion brand in an attempt to appeal to young buyers. But Toyota sales executives are having an unusual problem this year: too many middle-age buyers are choosing Scions. They're worried about losing the brand's youthful appeal. Why does this matter? It means that these are cars, though targeted at young drivers, are so safe and practical that they actually appeal to parents. The xB is Scion's signature car -- a funky, boxy, low-to-the-ground, hard-to-categorize hatchback that packs plenty of personality. It's also an affordable small car with Toyota levels of dependability and solid crash test scores. It even offers Brake Assist for panic stops -- a unique feature in this price range.
Trucks can be part of a social strategy: young people move around a lot, and always need a friend with a truck. Why not make your kid that friend? It's an easy way to make friends who will owe a lot of favors, and junior can help with your household projects too. The safest small truck in our rankings is Toyota's Tacoma, which earned the highest possible rating in both government and insurance industry frontal crash tests.
2008 Smart ForTwo
An unusual choice? Sure. But it's probably an easy one to get your teen or young adult to embrace. Smart's tiny city car probably turns more heads than anything else on the road. In addition to setting its owners apart, the Fortwo comes with an innovative tridion safety cage that earned a top score of five stars in government crash tests despite the fact that it only takes up half a parking space. Another bonus? The Smart only holds two people, and numerous studies have shown the more people in the car, the more young drivers are at risk for having an accident. But before you buy, think about how your child will use the car. ForTwos are not highway cars and they don't hold a dorm room's worth of stuff -- so if your teen or young adult is going to be driving back and forth to college, you probably don't want them doing it in this. But if they need the ability to get around town cheaply and safely, the little Smart might be a perfect choice.