Correction & clarification: a previous version of the article stated that the Mini Cooper had "better" crash test results than the Smart Fortwo, but failed to note that those results represented the overall results of all NHTSA tests, not the IIHS tests. The commentary on the Smart Fortwo has been clarified to further explain the basis for the opinion given.
Every parent knows that what kids think is cool isn't often safe, and cars are no exception. In fact, according to an aggregated report by Allstate Insurance, collisions "are the leading cause of death among American teenagers, killing between 5,000 and 6,000 teenagers every year for the past decade." And while there is no substitute for responsible driving, the reality of the situation is that many of the vehicles popular among teens today are simply too dangerous for inexperienced drivers to operate. More often than not, it's because teens tend to value what's hot over what's safe -- but the two qualities don't need to be mutually exclusive.
By analyzing crash test results published by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as well as what hundreds of auto critics have written about today's most popular cars, we created a short list of dangerous vehicles that you should think twice about before buying for your young driver. And, in the interest of compromise, we provide a safer alternative that both of you can live with.
Sure it's cute, cool, and economical, but the Smart Fortwo may not be safe for inexperienced drivers. Because it's much smaller and lighter than most vehicles on the road, some auto critics doubt it can hold its own in a serious crash. Several also note that strong gusts of wind can make controlling the Smart on the highway a difficult task. And while the IIHS and NHTSA rate it well in both frontal offset and side impact crash tests, NHTSA has issued a "safety concern" for its performance in side impact testing, in which "the driver door unlatched and opened," increasing the risk of the driver being ejected from the car. That's of particular concern when teens are behind the wheel, as NHTSA data show teens are the group of drivers least likely to wear seatbelts.
A Safer Alternative: For a ride that's just as quirky-looking, consider the MINI Cooper. Though the Smart outperforms it in IIHS side impact testing, the MINI does better overall in NHTSA testing, including a better rollover rating, and NHTSA hasn't issued any safety concerns about it. It's a bit more expensive, but may be a safer bet for a new driver.
Volkswagen New Beetle
Popularized by the hippies of the 1960s, the VW Beetle is loved for its free-spirited nature and odd-ball design. Ironically, test drivers find its bug-like shape to also be the source of great concern. To revamp the bulbous shape of the original Bug, Volkswagen extended the New Beetle's windshield and dashboard into the engine cavity, creating an elongated dash with blind spots around the front pillars. Add to that poor to mediocre performance in side impact crash tests conducted by the IIHS and NHTSA, and it's easy to see why the New Beetle shouldn't be your teen driver's first choice.
A Safer Alternative: Retain that old school feel and free-spirited appeal with the VW Rabbit. Not only does it come equipped with a wide array of safety technology, but it's also an IIHS Top Safety Pick.
Aggressively designed to tempt drivers and passers-by alike to challenge the limits of its capabilities, the Mitsubishi Eclipse is probably not the safest place for your teen driver. While it's true that other sports cars easily outperform the Eclipse, its sporty looks alone are enough to make drivers want to speed -- which is never a good thing. And although it features a long list of safety features and even performs well in IIHS crash tests, test drivers warn that the Eclipse's rearward visibility poses a serious danger. In addition to thick rear pillars that create blind spots in both the coupe and Spyder, reviewers complain that the odd placement of the side mirrors makes it hard to see vehicles alongside the car.
A Safer Alternative: You don't have to sacrifice looks for safety. With the Scion tC, you get the best of both worlds: exceptional crash test scores, a long list of standard safety features, and that hot look teens crave. But note that, according to a survey conducted by ISO Quality Planning, tC drivers are among the most ticketed -- which probably has to do with the fact that tC drivers tend to be on the young side.
Loved for its open-air design and off-road capabilities, the classic Jeep Wrangler is a staple of high school parking lots -- as its rugged nature speaks to teenagers' sense of freedom and adventure. Parents, however, should be wary of its troubling crash test scores. While the IIHS rates it well in frontal impacts, models not equipped with optional side airbags earn poor to marginal scores for their performance in side impact crashes. Even more concerning is the Wrangler's performance in NHTSA rollover tests, in which it only earns three of five stars. No doubt, a vehicle that flips is not a safe one. A study published in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine found that fatal rollovers were significantly more likely for teens in SUVs than in cars, while NHTSA reports that in 2003, nearly 25 percent of teens who died in car crashes were driving SUVs.
A Safer Alternative: If safety is the top priority in your teen's SUV, be sure to add the Honda CR-V to your short list. In addition to being an IIHS Top Safety Pick, it performs better than the Wrangler in NHTSA rollover tests. What's more, critics find that it provides great all-around visibility and features the latest safety gadgets, like electronic stability control and side curtain airbags.
Though the Chevy Aveo pales in comparison to class leaders like the Honda Civic and Mazda Mazda3, its good looks, low sticker price and competitive warranty give it a lot of parent and teen appeal. However, numerous safety concerns ensure that it's anything but kid friendly. For starters, the Aveo earns mixed crash test results, with NHTSA rating it well and the IIHS awarding marginal to acceptable scores for both front and side impacts. And while test drivers find its unobstructed visibility from the driver's seat to be a major asset, many are still left disappointed by its lack of standard and even optional safety equipment. It lacks side curtain airbags, electronic stability and traction control, and anti-lock brakes are only available as options for its higher-end trims.
A Safer Alternative: For a bargain-priced ride that doesn't skimp on safety, consider the Suzuki SX4. Not only is it good-looking, but boasts top-notch safety scores and a compelling list of standard and optional safety features. And, unlike low-cost alternatives such as the Chevy Aveo, Nissan Versa, and Kia Spectra, the base trim comes equipped with standard anti-lock brakes and electronic brake force distribution.