In the Covid Era with parents working from home and “all hands on deck,” teenagers, who might not have been on tap to get a car, are suddenly in need of reliable and inexpensive wheels. Luckily, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety does an annual survey of used vehicles under $20k that check safety and reliability boxes — geared specifically for a teen driver.
All vehicles on their “Best” list, get Good ratings in the IIHS moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests as well as Acceptable ratings in the driver’s side front overlap test. They also will get 4 or 5 stars overall in NHTSA testing and come with electronic stability control.
This year IIHS teamed up with Consumer Reports to ensure the vehicles also have above average reliability and average or better scores from CR’s emergency handling tests.
Together they have provided a list of 18 “Best” SUVs and 7 “Good” SUVs. You can see the full list (including cars) on the IIHS website, but we wanted to cherry pick a bit and pulled out our five faves from the Best list.
Years: 2014 or newer
This is at the top of the list because it costs the least, but it’s also one of our all-time favorite SUVs. The Mazda CX-5 is gorgeous, has a sporty ride and gets nice interior fit and finish. The compact size will also be easy to use in a more urban environment as well as be more manageable for a newer driver. Plus, with decent cargo space, it’s got nice utility for athletic gear – or when the time comes – moving to college.
Years: 2013 or newer
IIHS puts Outback in the “car” category because it’s technically a “wagon,” but with of the higher ride height and capacious cargo area, I’m slotting in the SUV category. Plus, especially as you get closer to the newest generation it looks more like an SUV than a wagon. We love how the Outback looks and drives, and if you can get a model with EyeSight – it’s one of the best safety systems in the biz. Gauges and controls are easy to reach and intuitive, and the driving position is comfortable for a wide range of drivers. Oh, and did we mention all-wheel drive is standard?
Years: 2015 or newer
The RAV4 is one of the more plain-looking SUVs on the list, but Toyota reliability is well-known and it’s a solid SUV in terms of ride and handling. It gets a refresh in 2016 with the addition of some new safety tech, and that’s where we’d start our search. The interior is also plain-Jane but functional and relatively rugged. So, if you have teen who might be a little hard on their vehicle (think: muddy athletic gear or work clothes), RAV4 won’t make your teen driver feel guilty for being on the messier side of the spectrum.
Years: 2015 or newer
This is the only midsize SUV we’ve included on our list because it doesn’t have a third row (like the Mazda CX-9, which we also love) and it doesn’t have irksome features like the other SUVs on the IIHS Best list. This is more on the “posh” side of the spectrum with nice attention to detail and swoopy styling. It’s also worth noting the Murano literally has the most comfortable seats we’ve ever sat in. Nissan started adding the Zero Gravity tech to Murano front seats in 2013, and they’re phenomenal. So, if you have a teen driver who will spend a lot of time behind the wheel, this might be a good choice.
Years: 2018 or newer
The Kona was all-new in the Hyundai lineup for 2018, and it comes in some flashy color combos that might be good for a teen with a sense of style. It’s compact (read: easy to drive), and because it’s newer, it’ll have some newer tech – such as standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. This is still a base-level vehicle, so materials are more rugged than elegant, but they are attractive nonetheless. You’ll probably want to start with the SEL trim because that’s where the safety technology starts to be available.
The bottom line
Not seeing the exact vehicle you want for your teen driver from our top five? IIHS and Consumer Reports identified 65 cars and SUVs for their Best and Good lists, so be sure to visit the full list to see if there’s something more suited to your needs. These five just happen to be vehicles we’d put in our own garage.
We’d be remiss if we also didn’t take this opportunity to remind you: With any used car purchase, make sure you check the vehicle history report for any red-flag damage and verify there aren’t any outstanding recalls on that specific vehicle before signing on the dotted line. This is especially important if you’re buying from a private or third-party vendor.
And if you want to make sure you’re getting a good price, we recommend a visit to TrueCar, which will show you what others are paying for the same car as well as a list of available vehicles in your area.
Buying a car for your teen is a big deal, so start with safe and reliable, and go from there.