Scion xD Pictures
Scion xD Pictures

They want style. You want safety. Few family decisions produce generational standoff like choosing a car for a newly licensed teenager or a semi-independent college grad.

On this one, of course, the parents are right. Young drivers, even 20-somethings who've had their license for a few years, have higher accident rates, so a safe car is paramount. But good luck with selling that practical notion to a frisky young driver.

When we crunched the numbers, the safest cars under $25,000 turned out to be geezermobiles like the Ford Taurus or minivans-gag!-like the Hyundai Entourage. Yes, if Mom and Dad are footing the bill, Junior should be grateful for any ride at all. But even many parents would cringe at the sight of their kid piloting a grocery-getter.

Honda Fit Pictures
Honda Fit Pictures

So we returned to our spreadsheets, to devise a list of safe cars that teenagers and 20-somethings actually want to drive. We started by compiling a set of cars popular with drivers under 30, based on research from auto experts like J.D. Power and Kelley Blue Book. We cross-checked those cars with the U.S. News Best Car and Truck Rankings, to see how they rank on quality. With nearly $4 gas, fuel economy matters-especially to thin wallets-so we measured whether each car gets above- or below-average mileage for its class. Then we factored in these safety considerations:

1. Government crash-test scores

We like cars that earn either 4 or 5 stars, out of 5, in each of the four categories the government tests. A perfect score would be 20. We consider a "top" combined score to be 16 or higher, with nothing lower than 4 in any single category.

2. Rollover resistance

The government also calculates the likelihood that a car will roll over if the driver loses control. This is just as important as crash-test scores, since many wrecks are single-vehicle accidents that can be perfectly survivable if the car stays upright-and deadly if it flips over. Road-hugging sports cars tend to have the highest rollover resistance, since their center of gravity is low. (Still, we discourage buying your kid a Porsche.) Tall SUVs usually score lower. Safety features like stability control can help. We consider 4 or 5 stars to be a "top" rollover score.

3. Mass

A car's size and weight matter too. While crash test scores are a good safety indicator, the government rates cars only within their class-which means a compact car with a 5-star rating scores high compared with other compacts, but not necessarily compared with pickups or SUVs. In the real world, of course, collisions occur between every kind of car, and as a general rule, bigger, heavier cars protect their occupants better. So we determined whether the cars on our list have above- or below-average weight, compared with all cars.

The List


In the end, we ended up with a list of cars that may just do the impossible: keep parents and teenagers happy.  The best ten cars also run the gambit from practical sedans (for the serious student) to zippy coupes (for the effervescent cheerleader) and even a pickup truck (for the Outdoors Club president).  While there are some smaller cars on the list, they make up for their size with advanced safety features, good fuel economy and a high cool factor.  Even if their favorites didn't make the final cut, parents and teenagers should find plenty of cars here that they can agree on.  As for setting curfew, well, you're on your own.


Check out the Top Ten Best Cars for Young People gallery.

Top 10 PicksMSRPMPG Why It Made the Cut
MINI Cooper hatchback$18,70028Bubbly looks, safety features compensate for small size
Toyota Tacoma pickup$14,28020Great safety features for its class; high youth appeal
Toyota Corolla sedan$14,40528Sensible styling and gas mileage with, zippy performance and low price
Dodge Charger sedan$22,35018 Muscle car heritage and style
Chrysler 300 sedan$25,27018 This car's cool factor is off the charts
Honda Fit hatchback$13,95028Cute and practical, with a low price tag
Scion xD hatchback$15,17027Quirky looks, great safety features
Kia Spectra5 hatchback$16,62023Top-notch safety features, plenty of space for teens' gear
Chevrolet Equinox SUV$23,35517Optional AWD make it a good choice for northern teens
Honda Civic$14,81026 Futuristic styling, tough-to-beat quality and price