New Cars for Teens

First-time drivers need safe, reliable transportation that won't break the bank. We considered coupes, sedans, convertibles, hatchbacks, SUVs and regular-cab pickup trucks that cost less than $20,000. Top criteria included overall value and safety features, but our experts also considered gas mileage, exterior styling and interior comfort.

Best New Car for First-Time Drivers

2008 Honda Civic
Starting MSRP: $14,810
Maximum mpg: 26/34
Whether you're a concerned parent or a sensible young person looking for a first car, the Civic can't be beat. It's safe, reliable, gets good mileage, retains its value and has a lot of standard features. Heck, even if you're slightly less responsible, the Civic has sporty handling and a sharp-looking exterior in coupe and sedan models. The interior is futuristic and well-made, and the doors shut with a solid thunk. The Civic is one of the best cars on the market for any driver; first-timers certainly won't go wrong with it.

Best Deal for First-Time Drivers

2008 Honda Fit
Starting MSRP: $13,950
Maximum mpg: 28/34
The financiers — er, parents — will appreciate the Fit's sub-$14K price tag, which includes power windows, A/C and a CD stereo. Crash-test ratings are stellar, and standard safety gear includes six airbags and antilock brakes. Teens will love the agile handling and cargo-friendly interior, with seats that recline completely flat for, um, studying. The pint-sized four-cylinder is enough for puttering around campus, and it delivers highway gas mileage in the mid-30s. The modest power should keep young drivers out of too much high-speed trouble, too.

Other Worthy Contenders (sorted by price)

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer
Starting MSRP: $13,990
Maximum mpg: 22/29
When Mitsubishi redesigned its Lancer this year, it really upped the ante for stylish compact sedans — and it's not even that compact. That substantial feeling of size translates to the driving experience, reassuring first-time drivers. There are also lots of standard safety features, a sub-$14,000 starting price and a sporty look that makes the Lancer feel more expensive than it is.

2008 Suzuki SX4
Starting MSRP: $14,270
Maximum mpg: 22/30
The SX4 Sport sedan should appeal to first-time drivers looking for an affordable car with handling that makes winding roads a treat to drive. Its tall roof means good headroom inside, and the SX4 Sport's standard safety features list includes side curtain airbags. For buyers who prefer the versatility of an all-wheel-drive hatchback, Suzuki also sells the affordable SX4 Crossover.

2008 Toyota Tacoma
Starting MSRP: $14,280
Maximum mpg: 20/25
OK, so you want a pickup. The Tacoma is a solid choice, with good reliability scores and a burly optional V-6. Antilock brakes are standard, and the sturdy composite bed should survive plenty of tailgating parties. The interior is short on standard features but high on quality, and did we mention it starts under $14,500?

2008 Scion xB
Starting MSRP: $15,650
Maximum mpg: 22/28
Were it not for the lack of crash-test ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the xB might have won the category. It has it all: funky styling, a high-quality cabin, an attractive price tag and lots of safety features. Never mind that Scion attracts its share of geriatric drivers — the xB understands the MyFace Generation better than most car companies ever will.

2008 Nissan Sentra
Starting MSRP: $16,040
Maximum mpg: 25/33
The Sentra is a smartly packaged sedan with innovative design features, like a glove compartment big enough for a classroom binder and rear headrests that flip forward to improve visibility. Six airbags are standard, and antilock brakes come on most trim levels. Stick with the base engine, as the faster Sentra SE-R isn't particularly well-executed, and 200 horsepower is a lot for inexperienced drivers.

2008 Hyundai Sonata
Starting MSRP: $17,670
Maximum mpg: 21/31
A long list of standard features — like air conditioning, cruise control, antilock brakes, side curtain airbags and an electronic stability system — and a low starting price make Hyundai's Sonata a sensible choice. Both engine choices (four-cylinder or V-6) offer good fuel economy, and the Sonata has a five-year/60,000-mile warranty with five years of roadside assistance.

2008 Mini Cooper
Starting MSRP: $18,050
Maximum mpg: 28/37
The Cooper will easily stand out from the sea of Civics and Mustangs in the high-school parking lot: It's a Mini, stupid. Pick the base model over the 172-hp Cooper S hatchback, which is pricier and may have too much power (remember, this is a lightweight car) for a first-time driver. Though it's at an inherent disadvantage in a collision with larger cars, the Cooper comes standard with six airbags and antilock brakes. Parents should appreciate the excellent IIHS frontal crash-test ratings, too. Those in sunnier parts of the country might also consider the Cooper convertible.

2008 Ford Escape
Starting MSRP: $19,140
Maximum mpg: 22/28
Updated for 2008 with new styling, the five-seat Ford Escape is an affordable small SUV. It features a number of important safety features — antilock brakes, side curtain airbags and Ford's AdvanceTrac stability system with Roll Stability Control — that come standard. The Escape can have either a fuel-efficient four-cylinder or a 200-hp V-6. A hybrid version comes at a higher price.

© 5/29/08