What are the safest newer cars for teens under $20,000?

Looking for a newer car that’s safe, reliable, and inexpensive? That might seem like an automotive unicorn in this time of record high new car prices and equally obstinate used car prices. Fret not, the IIHS and Consumer Reports have teamed up on Tuesday to update their annual list of recommended new and used cars targeted for teen safety. 

With teen crash rates occurring at nearly four times those of other drivers, the emphasis on teen driver safety resonates even more for 2023. The number of people killed in car crashes increased by the largest rate in history in 2021, when 42,915 Americans died in a motor vehicle crash. Teen road deaths increased 11% during the same year, to 3,058 fatalities, which had been the highest cause of death for children through the age of nineteen until it was recently surpassed by firearm-related deaths. 

“As parents, we can’t control what happens on the road once our teen driver pulls out of the driveway,” Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at Consumer Report’s Auto Test Center, said in a statement. “But we do have some say in the type of vehicle they drive off in, and that can make a huge difference.”

A huge factor in car shopping for any drive is cost, and safety factors into that equation. The economic cost of a minor crash can also drain a family. In January, the NHTSA released a comprehensive study that calculated the total societal cost of car crashes, borne by every American, not just those directly involved in car crashes, to be $1,035 per insured driver. But most newer cars come equipped with advanced driver assist systems (ADAS) designed to mitigate the impacts of a crash or avoid them altogether. 

The 2022 Subaru Outback rates

Fortunately, that technology is no longer reserved for higher end vehicles loaded with options. In 2022, the 20 largest automakers committed to a volunteer pledge brokered by the IIHS to equip 95% of its new cars sold with automatic emergency braking (AEB), wherein the car brakes itself when an imminent rear-end crash is detected. That includes many new models from automakers ranging from Buick to Volkswagen with starting prices well below the average new car price of $47,000. 

This unicorn is more of a Goldilocks. This year, the IIHS and Consumer Reports split the recommendations into 16 recommended new vehicles for teens and 46 recommended used cars for teens. The partnership had a tough time limiting recommendations under the old price ceiling of $20,000, and this year kept the new car list below $40,000 and the used car list below $20,000.

All of the recommendations share some sensible rule-of-thumb traits when it comes to vehicular safety. The IIHS and Consumer Reports advise parents and other safety shoppers to avoid high-horsepower cars that can tempt even the best humans to do dumb things, especially teen boys. The full list also excludes small cars that weigh less than 2,750 pounds, which offer less crash protection. On the other end of the spectrum, bloated full-size SUVs or trucks are omitted for how long it takes them to stop and for handling that’s harder to control. They’re also much harder to park in school parking lots. 

The new cars have tougher crash criteria to earn the recommendation, and thsoe recommendations suggest that the tradition of passing down the old family beater to the newest driver might not be as beneficial as one with modern crash protection and driver-assist systems.

On the other hand, the prudent—or perhaps self-indulgent—parent may buy one of the new cars on the list with the plan of passing it down in a few years to the new driver. Everyone’s a winner. 

Rounded to the nearest $100 for the base model, the prices are all pulled from Kelley Blue Book fair purchase prices as of May 11, 2023, but they exclude the mandatory destination fee. 

Safest new car recommendations

  • Honda Odyssey, $38,100
  • Mazda 3 sedan or hatchback, $23,000
  • Subaru Legacy, $25,100
  • Subaru Outback, $29,300
  • Honda HR-V, $24,400 
  • Subaru Forester, $27,700
  • Mazda CX-5, $27,800
  • Mazda CX-50, $28,900
  • Toyota RAV4, $29,300
  • Honda CR-V, $29,700
  • Lexus UX, $36,000
  • Subaru Ascent, $34,600
  • Hyundai Palisade, $36,600
  • Toyota Highlander, $37,100
  • Mazda CX-9, $38,300
  • Lexus NX, $39,800

Safest used car recommendations

With car insurance ever-present on the mind of those paying to insure new drivers, the IIHS and Consumer Reports broke down the 46 used vehicle recommendations into Good Choices and Best Choices. The Best Choices exclude vehicles with “substantially higher than average insurance claim rates under medical payment, personal injury protection or bodily injury liability coverage,” according to the IIHS’s Highway Loss Data Institute. Both have electronic stability control, above average reliability, average or better handling and braking, and “Good” ratings on the core battery of tests from the IIHS. 

A note about stability control: Mandated in 2012, electronic stability control or traction control uses the antilock braking system to apply or release the brakes to certain wheels when it detects slippage and also reduces engine speed if the driver hits the throttle. It’s considered to be the safest automotive technology since the seat belt.

Further, safety agencies urge anyone buying a used car to make sure its airbags have been replaced as part of the Takata airbag debacle, the largest recall in automotive history that continues to roil the industry. Get a carfax; cross-reference the VIN at nhtsa.gov to find open recalls. 

Best Used Choices

Small cars

  • Mazda 3 sedan or hatchback (2014-20; built after October 2013), $9,100
  • Ford C-Max Hybrid (2014-16), $10,000
  • Toyota Prius (2014; built after November 2013), $12,900
  • Subaru Impreza sedan or wagon (2018, 2022), $14,500
  • Subaru Legacy (2013-21; built after August 2012), $7,800 
  • Mazda 6 (2014-18), $10,200
  • Subaru Outback (2015-18, 2022), $12,200
  • Toyota Prius v (2015-17), $14,500
  • Volkswagen Passat (2017), $14,500
  • Toyota Avalon (2015 or newer), $14,600
  • BMW 3-Series (2017 or newer; built after November 2016), $16,500
  • Hyundai Genesis (2016), $18,000

Crossover SUVs, minivans, and trucks

  • Volvo XC60 (2013,2017), $9,600
  • Mazda CX-5 (2014 or newer; built after 2013), $11,800
  • Nissan Murano (2015 or newer), $12,400
  • Mazda CX-3 (2016, 2019), $13,900
  • Honda CR-V (2015 or newer), $15,200
  • Hyundai Santa Fe Sport (2018), $15,700
  • Toyota Sienna (2015-2020), $15,700
  • Honda HR-V (2017 or newer; built after March 2017), $16,000
  • Toyota RAV4 (2015 or newer; built after Nov. 2014), $16,100
  • Toyota Highlander (2014 or newer), $17,100
  • Toyota Tacoma extended or crew cab (2016 or newer), $17,900
  • Kia Niro plug-in hybrid (2018), $18,900
  • Acura RDX (2016 or newer), $19,300
  • Subaru Forester (2018 or newer), $20,000

Good Used Choices

Small cars

  • Kia Soul (2013, 2017, 2019, 2021 or newer), as low as $6,600
  • Toyota Corolla sedan (2013 or newer), $9,700
  • Chevrolet Volt (2013), $10,300
  • Honda Civic sedan (2013-2015, 2020 or newer), $10,400
  • Toyota Prius (2013), $11,700

Mid-size and large cars

  • Hyundai Genesis (2013), $10,000
  • Ford Fusion (2014, 2016), $10,300
  • Honda Accord coupe or sedan (2013 or newer), $10,400
  • Audi A6 (2013-2015), $10,800
  • Toyota Camry (2013 or newer), $11,400
  • Toyota Avalon (2013-14), $11,700
  • Toyota Prius v (2013), $12,000
  • BMW 3 series sedan (2016), $14,000
  • Audi A4 (2015-16), $14,200

Crossover SUVs

  • Hyundai Tucson (2014), $9,700
  • Nissan Rogue (2015, 2017, 2021 or newer), $11,900
  • Honda CR-V (2013-14), $12,400
  • Acura RDX (2013-2015), $14,000
  • Toyota RAV4 (2013-14), $14,100
  • Toyota Highlander (2013), $14,500

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