Best cars for teens: $20,000 or less

Shopping for a car or truck can be stressful, and that’s doubly true when you’re shopping for your teen son or daughter. Those looking for information on the best cars to buy for their teenage drivers have any number of reputable sources that offer solid recommendations. Fortunately, the safety-minded Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an organization that specializes in crash-testing vehicles and reporting the results to American consumers, has run the numbers on reasonably priced vehicles for teen drivers.

The IIHS partnered up with Consumer Reports to publish a list of vehicles that are expected to be both reliable and safe, earning good ratings in its own moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests, and a good or acceptable rating in the driver-side small overlap front test. They also cross-referenced their picks with crash-test data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to ensure any recommended vehicles received either four- or five-star results from the federal safety agency.

Armed with that data, we break down some of our own suggestions based on what’s important to parents and/or their kids. After all, with well over 40 vehicles in every size and shape making the list from the IIHS, we figure some parents may want to narrow down the field a bit. Without further ado, here are our suggestions for the best cars for teens available for a reasonable $20,000 budget.

Best cars for teens:

2014-2020 Mazda3

Mazda 3 SedanMazda 3 Sedan rear

Lots of lists for the best cars for teens will focus in on the Toyota Corolla, and for good reason. It’s been one of the most reliable vehicles ever sold in America for decades, it’s reasonably affordable, and there’s bound to be dozens of them on used car lots within a few miles of anyone’s home. But let’s say you’re an automotive enthusiast who believes the apple doesn’t land far from the tree. If you like to drive and think your kid will follow in your footsteps, consider a Mazda3 instead. It’s a lot more fun to drive than a Corolla or even most Honda Civics, with communicative steering and a ride/handling balance that leans to the sporty side.

In order to get the most safety equipment and best styling, we’d suggest aiming for a 2017 or later model if you can find one in your price range.

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2013-2019 Chevrolet Volt

Chevrolet Volt frontChevrolet Volt rear

The Chevrolet Volt is more than just a fuel-sipping alternative to the Toyota Prius (Note that the Prius Prime used to be on this list, but was removed as its price has crept up too high). Because it has a plug, the Volt’s large(ish) onboard battery pack can store enough juice to power the vehicle for more than 30 miles per charge. After that, the Chevy Volt still operates as an efficient hybrid vehicle. Despite its sedan-shaped shell, the Volt is actually a four-seat hatchback.

The Chevy Volt is one of the best used-car bargains in America, whether you’re shopping for a teen or just want to park a solid commuter car in your driveway.

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2018 Subaru Impreza sedan or wagon

Subaru Impreza2Subaru Impreza sedan

If you live in the snowbelt or some other area that regularly deals with inclement weather or muddy conditions, the Subaru Impreza may be a good bet for your teen driver. It comes standard with Subaru’s well-regarded Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive technology and offers good visibility. It’s not as efficient as some of its competitors, however, which means its dirty-duty capabilities don’t come without some sacrifice.

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2014-2019 Subaru Outback

Subaru Outback2Subaru Outback rear

Subaru’s long-running and much-loved lifted all-wheel-drive wagon received a major update and an all-new stiffer chassis for the 2014 model year, and that’s where we’d start our search. 

Unlike the smaller cars on this list, the Subaru Outback is offered with a range of engine options. The base 2.5-liter four-cylinder is likely plenty powerful enough for new drivers, though its continuously variable automatic transmission does drone under steady acceleration. A 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine is also available.

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2017-2019 Volkswagen Passat

Volkswagen Passat GTVolkswagen Passat GT rear

The Volkswagen Passat offers one of the roomiest interiors of any sedan in America. In fact, the Passat straddles the line between midsize and fullsize, with a rear seat that compares favorably with a lot of cars that have much more sizable exterior dimensions.

If you decide the Passat is the right choice for your teen driver, we’d recommend looking for a 2018 or 2019 model with the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission. Older versions of the engine, shared between VW and Audi, had problems that were addressed in the third generation of the engine found in these Passat models.

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2014-2019 Mazda6

Mazda 6 frontMazda 6 rear

Like many Mazdas, the midsize 6 sedan is one of the most fun-to-drive vehicles in its segment. For any number of reasons, though, Mazda products just don’t have the same kind of stellar reputation among used-car buyers as competing products from the likes of Honda and Toyota. That means a pretty nice Mazda6 may fall into the under-$20,000 budget of this list. It’s worth noting that the last time we looked over choices, the Honda Accord featured prominently. It seems that used Accords are getting priced out of this desirable price range.

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2018 Kia Niro

Kia NiroKia Niro rear

Kia made a really smart decision when it introduced a crossover vehicle that prioritized fuel efficiency and multiple powertrain options with attractive styling and reasonable pricing. The Niro is available in hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and pure electric forms. The one we’re highlighting here is the PHEV, which can run around 26 miles on a fully charged battery before its gasoline engine switches on the keep the car moving. In the real world, we found the Kia Niro PHEV a compelling package when it was new back in 2018, and it remains a solid choice as a first car for your teen.

Find a Kia Niro for sale near you


2015-newer Honda CR-V

Honda CR V frontHonda CR V rear

The Honda CR-V has been on the best-sellers list for as long as most of us can remember, and for good reason. It strikes excellent balances between roominess and exterior dimensions, sportiness and efficiency. It’s also quite reliable, according to sources that track that kind of data. Really, if you find a well-priced and well-equipped CR-V in your area, taking a look at it is a no-brainer.

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2016 or newer Toyota Tacoma

Toyota Tacoma frontToyota Tacoma rear

There’s only one pickup truck on the list that matches the criteria set out by the IIHS and Consumer Reports, and, not surprisingly, it’s the Toyota Tacoma. With a well-earned reputation for reliability and durability (older models had issues with frame rust, but that’s less likely with a 2016 or newer truck), the Tacoma has long been the midsize pickup truck sales leader in America. To find a used Tacoma for less than $20,000, you might need to consider pickups with higher miles than you might prefer. You may also have to look at base or SR5 trims instead of the upper or TRD models. We also suggest taking a Toyota Tacoma for a test drive before committing to a purchase — the interior dimensions are awkward for some drivers, with cramped headroom and a legs-forward seating arrangement that’s not comfortable for some people.

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Can you buy a new car for less than $20,000 for your teen driver?

Yes, technically, you can. But we wouldn’t really recommend it. There are currently three new cars on sale in America with a retail price below the $20,000 threshold: the Nissan Versa, the Kia Rio and the Mitsubishi Mirage. Of the three, we think the Nissan Versa is probably the best buy. But one of the used models listed above is likely to be a safer bet for a similar, or likely even smaller, amount of money.


Looking for buying advice on other reasonably priced vehicles? Best New Cars Under $20,000

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