When assembling a list of the best cars for new drivers, there are a number of concerns to bear in mind. First and foremost is safety. New driver typically means inexperienced, and inexperienced can mean subject to accidents. If one happens, you’ll want to be in a car with a strong reputation for protecting its occupants. That’s why each car on our list of best cars for new drivers (except one—more on that later) is an IIHS Top Safety Pick.
Now, with that being said, often when we’re talking about new drivers, we’re also talking about young drivers. Most young people do appreciate a degree of style in their set of wheels. To that end, we’ve also made it a point to ensure each car on this list has a bit of verve. In other words, we tried to make sure each selection was a car a younger person wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen in.
Finally, but by no means least important, is price. If you’re buying your young driver their first car, or particularly if they’re buying it themselves, odds are budget is a big part of the equation. While there are all sorts of luxury cars out there noted for their safety features, power, and cachet, they are also —in all likelihood—budget busters for most people. For that reason, we ensured every car on the list could realistically be purchased for less than $25,000.
While this list focuses specifically on cars, a couple of crossover utility vehicles do fill the bill too. Most notable are the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, which starts at $19,470, and the Mazda CX-5, which starts at $21,545. Both are good handling vehicles with better than average fuel economy, handsome styling, a strong feature set, and both have earned IIHS Top Safety Pick Status. We’d have no problem recommending either of those as well.
Now that we’ve explained our reasoning, we have to report the answer to the question; ”Can you have safety, style, and remain budget wise—all in one car?”, is no.
You can actually have it in 10.
The only micro-car to make our list of best cars for new drivers, Chevrolet’s front drive hatchback is powered by a 1.2-liter inline four-cylinder engine with 84 horsepower and 83 ft-lbs of torque. Its fuel economy is rated at 30 miles per gallon in the city and 39 on the highway. A five-speed manual transmission comes as standard equipment, but for new drivers we recommend going with the available continuously variable transmission. It is important to note, in this case, reasonably priced does not mean spartan. Among other niceties, the Spark offers a touchscreen interface and handsfree Bluetooth connectivity. The little Chevy also houses 10 airbags, and can carry some 31 cubic feet of cargo. Chevrolet Spark pricing starts at $12,170.
We promised style, and the Dodge Dart delivers it huge for its price range. Based upon the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, the Dart offers good looks, an abundance of safety features, and a nice tech package for the entertainment of its occupants. Power for the base model comes from a 160-horsepower 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine. A six-speed manual transmission is the standard offering, while a six-speed automatic is optional. Fuel economy is rated at 24 in the city and 34 on the highway with the recommended automatic transmission. Its pricing starting at $15,995, the Dart offers handsfree telephony and audio streaming, ten airbags, and four disc brakes.
With delightful road manners, a huge helping of style and a host of tech, the Ford Focus is a really good choice for a new driver. Properly equipped, it can even park itself. Power comes from a 160-horsepower, 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine, which makes 146 ft-lbs of torque. While a five-speed manual is standard, the optional six-speed dual-clutch automated manual is our recommendation for new drivers. Standard features include keyless entry, power accessories, and an auxiliary audio input port. You can also get Bluetooth and voice activation while still staying under $20,000. Ford Focus pricing starts at a very budget-friendly $16,810.
A perennial entry on practically every list of best cars, Honda’s Civic has achieved near legendary status. Power accessories, cruise control, Bluetooth, and text messaging are standard equipment. Power for the front-drive base model comes from a 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine producing 143 horsepower and 129 ft-lbs of torque. A five-speed manual transmission is the standard offering, but for new drivers, the optional continuously variable transmission is a better bet. Fuel economy is rated at 30 miles per gallon in the city and 39 on the highway. Honda Civic pricing starts at $18,190 for the coupe and $18,390 for the sedan.
Boasting rakish good looks, a spacious interior, and a very generous warranty, the Hyundai Elantra is a great choice for a first car. Hyundai is known for packing a lot of value into its cars, and the Elantra is certainly representative of this fact. Standard equipment includes heated mirrors, cruise control, a USB interface, full power accessories, and satellite radio. The base engine is 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder good for 145 horsepower and 130 ft-lbs of torque. The front-drive powertrain is fed through a six-speed manual transmission as standard equipment, though we recommend getting the optional six-speed automatic. Pricing starts at $17,200.
If you’re looking for something different, the Mazda3 is probably the best-known anonymous car out there. The good news it’s also handsome and fun to drive. Freshly redesigned for the 2014 model year, the Mazda3 has a new look and a broad palette of standard features. Among them are full power accessories, air conditioning, and a USB interface. The engine is 155-horsepower, 2.0-line inline four capable of 150 ft-lbs of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, while a six-speed automatic is optional. Fuel economy is rated at 30 in the city and 41 on the highway. Pricing starts at $16,495.
Until the arrival of the Scion FR-S sports car, the Scion tC was the sportiest thing in the Scion lineup. And, while it might not have the enthusiast appeal of its sleek rear-drive sibling, the front-drive tC offers a broad palette of standard equipment to go along with that coveted IIHS Top Safety Pick rating. How does air-conditioning, cruise control, full power accessories, a panoramic sunroof, a height-adjustable driver seat, a leather-trimmed tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and an eight-speaker Pioneer sound system with a touchscreen display sound? There’s also a CD player, HD radio, an auxiliary audio input jack and an iPod/USB interface. A lot of car for the money, the Scion tC is powered by a 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine producing 179 horsepower and 173 ft-lbs of torque. A six-speed manual is standard, while a six-speed automatic is available. Fuel economy is rated at 23 in the city and 31 on the highway. Pricing starts at $20,695 with the automatic transmission.
One of only two all-wheel drive cars on our list of best cars for new drivers, if you’re living in an area prone to copious amounts of snowfall—or other traction reducing conditions—this is where you need to start looking for your new car right here. The Impreza’s 2.0-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine makes 148 horsepower and 145 ft-lbs of torque. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, but we recommend going with the optional continuously variable transmission for new drivers. Fuel economy is rated at 27 mpg in the city and 36 on the highway. Standard equipment includes Bluetooth, keyless entry, a USB interface, and full power accessories. Pricing starts at $17,895.
There’s a reason you’re suddenly seeing these cars practically everywhere you look. The tough little Subaru XV Crosstrek is handsome, great on gas, capable of mild offroading, and stands up really well in crash testing. The only other all-wheel drive model to fit within our established parameters for this list, power comes from Subaru’s 2.0-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine, which makes 148 horsepower and 145 ft-lbs of torque. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, but we recommend going with the optional continuously variable transmission for new drivers. Standard equipment includes roof rails, heated mirrors, a windshield wiper de-icer, air-conditioning, full power accessories, cruise control, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, heated front seats, a split-folding rear seat, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and a six-speaker audio system supporting a CD player, a USB interface port, and an auxiliary audio input jack. Pricing starts at $21,995.
While the standard Prius model did make IIHS Top Pick status, its base price is a bit too close to the $25,000 mark to realistically include it on a list of cars attainable for less than $25,000. Once you add destination charges and a few options, you’ll be over 25k. However, just barely missing IIHS Top Safety Pick status because of its performance in the new small overlap front collision test, the Toyota Prius C still ranks as a safe car. Further, it’s the only truly affordable hybrid model we feel comfortable recommending. With standard features like automatic climate control, Bluetooth, full power accessories and a multi-function display, the Prius C is nicely equipped as well. The best feature of all though is the Prius C’s fuel economy—53 miles per gallon in the city and 46 on the highway. The hybrid powertrain puts out 99 horsepower, which is fed to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission. Pricing starts at $19,080.