If you’re buying a car for a high schooler, college student or recent grad -- or you are the family automotive consultant -- take a look at our list of best new and used vehicles for young drivers. The vehicles we spotlight won’t bust your (or their) budget, and they get high marks for safety and reliability.
All of these vehicles received a Top Safety Pick designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (its crash tests are more extensive than government tests). And all of our picks have stability control and at least six airbags. We used Consumer Reports' used-car verdicts to help choose used vehicles with above-average reliability. We also looked for the technology that millennials want (and because that tech reduces distractions while driving, you want them to have): Bluetooth and USB or iPod hookups that allow you to select songs on an in-dash screen.
SOURCES: Used-car prices are from Kelley Blue Book (opens in new tab) and assume very good condition and 42,500 miles -- average mileage for their age. (Certified vehicles cost more because they are inspected and sold with an additional factory warranty.) New cars are listed with sticker price, invoice price and KBB’s Fair Purchase Price to give you an idea of negotiating room. All models are priced with automatic transmission. Five-year service costs (expected outlays for maintenance and repairs) are from Vincentric (opens in new tab).
- Sticker price: $23,490 (i Sport model)
- Invoice price: $22,341
- KBB Fair Purchase Price: $22,077
- 5-year service costs: $5,640
- MPG (city/hwy): 26/38
The sharply carved exterior of the Mazda6 beckons you inside, where you’ll find premium materials and features. USB is standard, and the i Sport model comes with Bluetooth, a rearview camera, Pandora Internet radio, and SMS text messaging that can read texts aloud and allow you to reply with preset messages. Sporty handling accompanies ample power and a thrifty 30 mpg in combined city and highway driving.
2014 Mazda CX-5
- Sticker price: $25,645 (Touring model)
- Invoice price: $24,933
- KBB Fair Purchase Price: $24,494
- 5-year service costs: $5,578
- MPG (city/hwy): 25/32
Mazda was firing on all cylinders when it introduced the CX-5 last year. Resale values are strong across the board, and while the CX-5 provides the view of an SUV, it drives like a sport sedan. The base model has class-leading highway mileage of 35 mpg; we chose the Touring model for its tech features -- it adds Bluetooth, Pandora Internet radio, a rearview camera and a blind-spot monitor, plus it will read SMS texts aloud and allow you to reply with preset messages.
2014 Kia Optima
- Sticker price: $22,300 (LX model)
- Invoice price: $21,379
- KBB Fair Purchase Price: $20,976
- 5-year service costs: $4,346
- MPG (city/hwy): 23/34
Sporty styling keeps the Optima looking cool, and the car provides for all your young driver’s needs. The base engine is powerful but efficient, and a hybrid model is available for those who want to boost the green factor. Bluetooth, USB and a cooling glove box (road snacks, anyone?) are standard, and 2014 brings an optional blind-spot detection system for upper trim levels (it’s included in the $2,300 technology package with navigation and rear camera).
2014 Chevrolet Spark
- Sticker price: $15,820 (1LT model)
- Invoice price: $15,220
- KBB Fair Purchase Price: $15,136
- 5-year service costs: $4,016
- MPG (city/hwy): 30/39
Chevy’s first minicar might be small, but it’s packed with features. Ten airbags come standard, including knee airbags for front passengers and side airbags for the rear seats. On LT models and above, the MyLink connectivity system allows you to connect smart phones via USB or Bluetooth for calls and music. The Siri Eyes Free mode lets iPhone users listen to and compose texts, select songs from iTunes and make calls via voice command.
2014 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport
- Sticker price: $21,520 (ES model)
- Invoice price: $20,647
- KBB Fair Purchase Price: $20,167
- 5-year service costs: $5,470
- MPG (city/hwy): 24/31
Mitsubishi's small SUV has scored high for reliability for years. Plus, it’s fun to drive, seats five comfortably and has copious cargo space -- 22 cubic feet behind the second row and nearly 50 if you put the rear seats down. Bluetooth and USB are standard; upgrade to the SE model for a rearview camera.
2014 Nissan Rogue
- Sticker price: $23,650 (S FWD)
- Invoice price: $22,273
- KBB Fair Purchase Price: $22,616
- 5-year service costs: $5,880
- MPG (city/hwy): 26/33
Redesigned for 2014, Nissan’s best-selling crossover seats up to seven, has a comfortable and spacious cabin and keeps annual fuel costs to just $1,800. Bluetooth and USB are standard, and available technology includes Nissan’s Around View Monitor, which gives you a bird’s-eye view of the vehicle and makes parking a snap.
2011 Honda Civic
- Dealer price: $17,245 (EX-L with Nav model)
- Private-party price: $15,245
- Certified price: $17,820
- 5-year service costs: $6,531
- MPG (city/hwy): 25/36
Known for reliability, Honda's Civic is a perennial pick for good value. To get the tech and safety features we wanted, we chose the top-of-the-line EX-L with Navigation. The good news is that the three-year-old Civic costs about one-third less than the new version. Besides navigation, Bluetooth and a USB port are standard.
2011 Kia Soul
- Dealer price: $14,107 (+ model)
- Private-party price: $12,307
- Certified price: $14,707
- 5-year service costs: $6,825
- MPG (city/hwy): 26/31
With its plethora of amenities, such as standard Bluetooth and USB, the Soul + offers a lot of bang for the buck. The funky-looking hatch handles like a go-kart but doesn't have too much power. There's plenty of room in the back -- the Soul has 39 inches of rear legroom and 19 cubic feet of cargo space -- to give the 'rents a ride or pack up for the drive to college.
2011 Scion xB
- Dealer price: $14,662 (base)
- Private-party price: $13,062
- Certified price: $15,312
- 5-year service costs: $7,010
- MPG (city/hwy): 22/28
This boxy hatch, along with the rest of Scion's lineup, was created with younger drivers in mind. Made by Toyota, the xB features the parent company's quality at a lower price -- with looks only a millennial could love. It has oodles of space inside: 38 inches of rear legroom and nearly 22 cubic feet of cargo space. The roomy interior is complemented by a peppy engine that puts out 158 horses. Look for a model with the optional Blu Logic hands-free system -- an iPod input is included.
2011 Volkswagen Golf
- Dealer price: $13,882 (2.5L 4dr model)
- Private-party price: $12,432
- Certified price: $14,657
- 5-year service costs: $7,308
- MPG (city/hwy): 24/31
Volkswagen’s versatile Golf hatchback is more than meets the eye. Available in both gas and diesel configurations, it’s frugal on fuel (diesel models get a combined 34 mpg) and doesn’t skimp on power. German-engineered handling gives it a nimble feel on the road, and it’s deceptively spacious as well. The rear cargo area is bigger than most midsize-car trunks, and with the seats down you can fit 46 cubic feet of luggage. Diesel models (dealer price for a four-door automatic: $19,129) come with Bluetooth and an iPod connector; look for a sunroof on gas models to find these features.
2013 Best Cars for Young Drivers
2010 Honda Civic
2010 Kia Soul
2010 Lincoln MKZ
2010 Scion xB
2010 Subaru Legacy
2013 Kia Sportage
2013 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport
2013 Nissan Altima
2013 Subaru Impreza
2013 Toyota Prius (pictured at left)
Kiplinger updates many of its "best cars" slide shows (opens in new tab) regularly. Above is last year's list of the best cars for young drivers.
2011 Best Cars for Young Drivers
2011 Kia Soul
2009 Honda Civic
2011 Hyundai Sonata
2008 Chevrolet Malibu (at left)
2011 Subaru Forester
2009 Toyota RAV4
2011 Ford Mustang
2008 Nissan 350Z
Kiplinger updates many of its "best cars" slide shows (opens in new tab) regularly. Above is our 2011 list of the best cars for young drivers.
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