Driving has become a rite of passage in American culture. Many teens anxiously await the day when their parents or guardians hand over the car keys. Some parents also look forward to the day when their teen no longer needs daily rides to school or activities. Giving your teen a personal vehicle can make life easier for you and your child but it also brings its own set of worries and frustrations.
Compared to other drivers, new drivers have a much higher risk of being involved in a serious motor vehicle crash. Learning to drive takes experience, patience, and proper judgment. Enrolling your child in driver’s education and letting them practice while you are in the car can reinforce safe driving habits. Taking the time to select the right vehicle also has a major impact on your teen driver’s safety.
Whether you choose to gift a car for a special occasion or let your teen borrow a family car, consider the specific needs of your child before handing over the car keys. We’ve compiled some of the top considerations from leading automotive, financial, and teen driving experts to help you determine the right motor vehicle for your child.
A big question for parents is whether to buy a used or new car for their child. Handing over the keys to a shiny, new car to your first-time driver might seem like a huge mistake. Young drivers have a higher likelihood of accidents and don’t always make the best judgment calls. However, a new car can give parents increased peace of mind knowing that their child is driving a vehicle with the best safety features.
Buying a new car for your teen or young adult means you get to choose the size, model, trim level, and safety features. New cars come with a factory warranty, so you and your child don’t have to worry about costly maintenance within the first few years. New car models also come with the latest connectivity technology reducing the need for added distraction while calling or getting directions in the car.
Some parents may be reluctant to give their teen a new car because of the liability. There is more to lose if your teen crashes a new car versus an old used car. Parents should also consider that new cars are often more expensive than used cars and depreciate quickly when you first drive them off the lot.
Some parents choose to purchase a used car for their children. Used cars have a couple of advantages compared to new cars including lower depreciation rates, lower initial costs, potentially lower insurance premiums, and less liability when new drivers make mistakes. If you buy the right type of used car, you don’t have to worry about constant repairs or the longevity of the vehicle. For example, some Toyota models last over 300,000 miles.
Other factors to consider include safety, customization, and technology. Depending on how old the vehicle is, the car may not have advanced safety features or updated hands-free calling. These features can help new drivers avoid accidents and distractions on the road.
Some families have a tradition of purchasing a new car for the parents and then gifting the old car to the newest family driver. This is a great method for parents who want to save money by avoiding another car purchase every time their child turns 16 or graduates. Some kids even think it’s cool to be driving around a nostalgic vehicle that once belonged to their parents.
However, similar to buying a used car, a hand-me-down may not last as long, be as safe, or be as cheap to maintain as a new car. Is the car really a gift if your son or daughter ends up with a lot of additional maintenance fees and high fueling costs? These are all factors to consider when deciding between a new, used, or hand-me-down vehicle.
Car salesmen and other auto experts often have suggestions for parents looking to buy their teens a car. Instead of waiting to talk to a car salesman, we’ve compiled some of the top advice to help you narrow down the perfect car for your teen.
Before you start your journey for the perfect vehicle, determine a budget. Your budget may be dependent on your son or daughter’s willingness to contribute. Some parents agree to contribute half of what the teen can pay. Other parents are willing to pay for the car in full. Whatever you choose for your family, aim for a budget that can pay for an economical and dependable car.
Buying your child a fancy vehicle has some unforeseen consequences. Expensive cars increase the price of insurance. New drivers are also much more likely to get into accidents even if they are small fender-benders. This is a major reason why parents choose affordable new cars or reliable used cars.
In a recent survey conducted by BestCompany.com, around 24 percent of respondents who had either gifted or received a car advised parents to purchase a used car rather than a new car. Respondents also mentioned that parents should find a good balance between a car that is reliable but not “too nice.”
Safety is a top priority for new teenager drivers. According to Carsurance, “Most of the fatal teen car accidents occur six months after obtaining the license.” Advanced safety features can help prevent fatal accidents by alerting the driver of possible dangers and reducing overall distractions.
Pam Fisher, the Senior Director of External Engagement at the Governor Highway Safety Association, provides insight into the top safety features parents should consider when selecting a car for their teen(s).
Fisher mentioned several different safety features parents should check:
Vehicle capacity and height are two factors to consider when purchasing a car. A vehicle with less seating restricts how many passengers can accompany your new driver. According to the Teen Driver Source, “crash risk doubles when teens drive one peer passenger and triples with two or more teen passengers.” Limiting the number of passengers with vehicle size along with enforcing restrictions can help reduce the crash risk.
Vehicle height can influence a driver’s ability to access current road conditions. Sedans are a popular choice for new drivers because of the cost and capacity. However, you may want to consider an SUV crossover if your driver feels too short in a sedan. Taller and heavy vehicles also offer additional protection in the event of an accident. Try to avoid vehicles that may be too large as they can be more difficult to maneuver.
Tricia Morrow, a Chevrolet Safety engineer, has more than 20 years of experience at GM and has worked across a wide variety of roles. As a mother of a teen driver herself, she offers advice to parents searching for a car that will suit their child’s needs.
Safety is a high priority for new or inexperienced drivers. Organizations such as the NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) stay up-to-date with current safety ratings for new and used cars. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began testing vehicles in 1978. New, high-volume models receive a 1–5 star rating in front-impact, side, and rollover crash tests.
IIHS conducts its own crash tests on over 100 new or updated car models every year. Based on the IIHS rating system, cars can earn a Good, Acceptable, Marginal, or Poor rating on each of the six crash tests. The cars that receive a “Good” rating on all six crash tests and “Good” or “Acceptable” rating for headlights become a Top Safety Pick+ for the year.
Below are some of the safest new and used vehicles for teens according to IIHS, NHTSA, and Consumer Reports. In addition to top safety ratings, these car models come with electronic stability control and have a weight greater than 2,750 lbs. Some models have recommended trim levels for optimal safety.
All of these car brands also fall into the top 10 best car brands on BestCompany.com with reviews highlighting customer experience of purchasing a car for teens.
Toyota is known for its reliability and longevity. Some Toyota car models are still on the road with 300,000 miles or more. Toyota offers top safety features for new teen drivers in its Toyota Safety Sense package. With hybrid options, parents can find fuel-efficient options that will keep costs low for teens with a long commute. Toyota has its own page dedicated to the best Toyota models for teens.
Recommend models for teens
Customer Review: Mindy Baumann
"Great cars that run forever and ever! My teenage daughter drives an FJ cruiser and we feel good about her being in a safe, reliable vehicle."
Honda excels in areas of dependability, safety, and affordability. Parents can find new and used Honda vehicles that are comfortable and safe for new drivers. HondaSensing technology offers advanced features such as collision avoidance, road departure system, lane-keeping assist, and adaptive cruise control.
Recommend models for teens
Customer Review: Jaylene
"When buying a car for my 16 year old daughter, Honda was a natural choice. Although it scared me that she would be out on the roads driving alone, I knew that putting her in a Honda car would keep her safe. And it proved to be true. Only two years after buying her car, she got in a life threatening car crash, and walked away without a scratch on her. Thanks, Honda."
Nissan is known for its diverse lineup created to fit your budget and needs. New Nissan vehicles start at around $15,000. Nissan offers the following safety features: forward collision warning, blind-spot warning, lane intervention, back-up intervention, around view monitoring, and distance control.
Recommend models for teens
Customer Review: Cristi Stafford
"When it was time to buy my daughter's first car last year my husband and I knew exactly what it would be. A Nissan Altima. We knew it would be a good dependable and safe car for our 16, and she has loved it."
Chevrolet manufacturers affordable vehicles with a proven reputation. The company takes extra steps to ensure teen driver safety. In 2019, Chevy released the first buckle-to-drive feature that requires drivers to fasten their seatbelt before the car can be put into drive or reverse. As mentioned by Pam Fisher, Chevrolet has teen driver technology that includes speed caps, buckle-up reminders, stereo volume limits, and speeding notifications.
Recommend model for teens
Customer Review: Cathy Sewall
"I really could go on forever on how much I love your vehicles! We have 4 in our yard right now, and when my son is old enough to drive... he will get a Chevy too!"
Subaru creates a safe and smooth vehicle with the ability to master any terrain. Subaru cars have one of the highest resale values among car brands. The majority of new Subarus are still on the road ten years after purchase. Although Subaru prices are a little higher than competitors, parents can have peace of mind that their child is driving a safe and dependable vehicle.
Recommend models for teens
Customer Review: Ryan Larsen
"I recently purchased a Subaru Outback for my daughter. It is a great value and great car. I like their safety features and the car is extremely reliable. I would highly recommend a Subaru."
Hyundai vehicles feature the right balance between safety and style. Hyundai has several models that rise to the top of safety rating sites. The automaker also has the best factory warranty in the country: 5 years or 60,000-mile basic policy and 10 years or 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
Recommend models for teens
Customer Review: John Burnside
"Quality is acceptable and the quality for value is very good. I've purchased three other used Hyundai's over the years for my daughters and all have been good vehicles. It's my opinion that Hyundai offers the best value in compact cars. They are hard to beat."
Many teens look forward to the day when they receive the keys to freedom (or in other words access to a car). Some parents give their children a car for their 16th birthday. Other parents make deals to gift a car at a high school or college graduation. Whatever the tradition is in your family, you should take financial and living factors into consideration.
If you are gifting a car to your child, you are likely not too concerned about the financial costs that are associated with owning a car. However, determining who will pay for gas, maintenance, and insurance before gifting the car can help you avoid any incorrect expectations. Here are a few questions to consider pertaining to vehicle expenses.
Some parents require their children to pay a portion of the overall vehicle cost. This method teaches children how to save money and sacrifice time for a long-term goal. You may consider this agreement if you are worried about your child’s level of financial independence and responsibility.
Patti Black from the Bridgeworth Wealth Management Group suggests involving your teen in the car buying process to help them learn about personal finance.
Children often plan on going off to college or leaving the house after they graduate from high school. The young adult years bring about spontaneous adventures and unexpected life changes. When purchasing a car for your child, you should consider their 5–10 year plan. This will help you determine if you should hand over ownership early on or wait until they are settled in an area before turning over the title. Here are a few questions to consider concerning living conditions.
Outside of choosing the right car, you can find apps and programs to help improve the safety of your new driver. These resources may help you monitor your teen’s driving habits, create safety guidelines for the first year of driving, and prepare your teen for unexpected situations behind the wheel.
Some parents use a location app to keep tabs on their new driver. These location apps often have additional features such as roadside assistance and distracted driving reminders.
Each state has different rules for newly licensed drivers. These are called the Graduated Driver's Licensing Program. For example, in the state of California, new teen drivers are required to complete 50 hours of supervised driving with 10 of those hours being nighttime driving. They must also log at least 6 hours of driving course instruction.
After a California teen is licensed to drive, they must wait at least 12 months before allowing a passenger under the age of 20 into the motor vehicle without the supervision of a licensed driver over 25 years old. The teenage driver must also be accompanied by a licensed driver over the age of 25 if they are driving between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.
Each state will have different requirements and guidelines for new drivers. The GDL program was created to safeguard new drivers from distractions and impaired judgment. Before putting your teen behind the wheel, learn about your state’s GDL program.
Let the professionals teach your new driver about common situations on the road. A defensive driving course can teach teens about what to look for past just checking mirrors and turning on a blinker. These courses can help teens get used to their car and learn safe driving practices.
Tire Rack Street Survival is a defensive driving course that offers classes across the U.S. Bill Wade, the National Program Director for Tire Rack Street Survival explains the advantages of signing your child up for a defensive driving class.
“We recommend every first-time driver take a driving safety course in their vehicle. It's not enough to just know the logistical rules of the road. Driving relies on your expertise to react appropriately to other drivers' actions — and that's where driving safety courses can give your first-time driver the opportunity to learn in a safe, controlled environment the proper reactions to things like sudden stops, wet traction control, avoiding sudden obstacles at a fast speed and ultimately avoiding accidents. Driving safety courses that allow you to learn those reactions in the actual car you will be driving are best. Every vehicle has different limitations and they need to know how to control their daily driver.”
After conducting research and narrowing down your options, you now need to make a final decision. You may choose to consult with a spouse or relative to help you think through the possible options. If you aren’t planning on surprising your teen, you may include him or her in the discussion.
Survey Methodology: Survey data was collected in March and April 2021 with 137 respondents through SurveyCircle, Survey Monkey, and emailing Best Company reviewers.