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. Buyers 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.

It is possible to buy a brand-new car for less than $20,000. The number of choices, however, is dwindling fast, and the few that are left don’t meet the criteria to earn a spot on this list, either due to their safety scores or their predicted reliability scores. The least-expensive new vehicle that would qualify is the 2024 Mazda3 for around $23,000. So that means a used vehicle may be a better choice for buyers looking to stay under the elusive $20,000 price point.

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:

2021-2022 Mazda3

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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2019-2021 Lexus UX

The Lexus UX is the smallest vehicle the Japanese luxury brand sells in the United States. It’s offered in two versions. The UX 200 is equipped with a gasoline-fueled 2.0-liter engine powering the front wheels only; the UX 250h is a little more powerful and fuel efficient with an added hybrid component and optional all-wheel drive. The distinctive design and the hybrid system’s excellent efficiency are two major selling points, and even if we wouldn’t call the UX fun, its composed handling and comfortable ride yield a perfectly pleasant driving experience.

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2019-2020 Subaru Impreza sedan or wagon

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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2018-2023 Chevrolet Equinox

There’s no shortage of choices in the compact SUV space, and the Chevrolet Equinox quite frankly gets lost in the scrum. It’s a bland vehicle with little to excite or offend from the curb. Most of its key elements like passenger space, fuel economy, power and more are merely average. The only engine offered is an uninspiring (but efficient and, according to Consumer Reports, reliable) 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder.

On the plus side, the Equinox offers many of the expected features and tech items you might be looking for in this segment. Its infotainment system is easy to use, and a plentiful amount of driver assistance systems are available if you want them. If blending into the background is your goal, the Equinox won’t disappoint. And, realistically, having a flashy car that stands out from the crowd may not be what parents are looking for when shopping for their teen driver. Plus, it won’t be hard to find a low-mileage Equinox near you for an attractive price.

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2017-2019 Subaru Legacy/Outback

Subaru’s long-running and much-loved lifted all-wheel-drive wagon is based on the Legacy, which will surely be a less expensive option for buyers looking for a deal, and received a major update and an all-new stiffer chassis for the 2014 model year. That’s where we’d start our search, though the IIHS suggests looking for something from 2017 to 2019.

Unlike the smaller cars on this list, the Subaru Legacy and Outback are 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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2014-2019 Mazda6

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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2020-newer Honda CR-V

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

There aren’t any pickup trucks on the latest list from IIHS and Consumer Reports, but there used to be. The only one pickup truck that matched the criteria was, not surprisingly, the Toyota Tacoma. We’re going to leave it on the list for buyers who really need a pickup truck. 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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