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Best First Car

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Your first car should not sacrifice safety, style and technology for a cheap price. To come up with the best first car, we relied heavily on ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and Kelley Blue Book (KBB) experts, as well as consumers on Edmunds. So while the cars on this list aren’t necessarily the least expensive, they’re well-rounded and budget-conscious choices. Here are some of the best first cars to own in 2019.

Best first subcompact cars

Subcompact cars can be great for daily commutes as a smaller car usually means a smaller price and better MPG.

Honda Fit

MSRP $16,190

4.6 stars by KBB experts; 5 stars by consumers on Edmunds (4 reviews)

5 stars NHTSA

29 city / 36 highway / 31 combined MPG

The Honda Fit has one of the lowest costs of ownership over five years, according to Edmunds. While it doesn’t come with a lot of room for seating or storage, or has a lot of power, given it’s a subcompact with a price well under $20,000, it has smarts. It works what its mama gave it, with a Magic Seat ®, a rear seat that may be configured to fit people or tall or long cargo, or a combination. One downside: you’ll have to upgrade to at least the EX trim, with a starting MSRP of $18,160, to get Honda Sensing, a safety technology suite that includes things such as automatic emergency braking.

Kia Soul

MSRP $16,490

4.3 stars by KBB experts; 4.5 by consumers on Edmunds (21 reviews)

5 stars NHTSA; IIHS Top Safety Pick

24 city / 30 highway / 27 combined MPG

The Kia Soul is known for its out-of-the-box design, pun intended for this cube-like car. It has an unapologetic, boldly fun style, which has led to it being one of the most popular hatchbacks ever. And all Kias come with a 5 year, 60,000 mile “bumper-to-bumper” warranty, two years longer and 24,000 miles more than that of most competitors. This, along with low maintenance costs and good resale value, helped the Kia Soul to win a 5-year cost to own award by KBB. The slightly more expensive 2020 Soul is out – read our review here.

Mazda CX-3

MSRP $20,390

4.2 stars by KBB experts; 4 stars by consumers on Edmunds (16 reviews)

5 stars NHTSA; IIHS Top Safety Pick

29 city / 34 highway / 31 combined MPG

An SUV crossover, the CX-3 offers lean looks to go with ace athletic handling. It has great reliability scores, low maintenance and repair costs, and high resale value. Even the lowest trim level includes low-speed automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert. The subcompact size combined with lean style however means that interior room is a bit cramped for cargo and adult backseat passengers.

Best first compact cars

Bigger than a subcompact, but not too big, compact cars could offer more comfort and capability if you travel often or long distances.

Subaru Impreza

MSRP $18,595

4.3 stars by KBB experts; 4.5 stars by consumers on Edmunds (16 reviews)

5 stars NHTSA; IIHS Top Safety Pick+

23 city / 31 highway / 26 combined MPG

Available as a sedan and as a (higher-priced) hatchback, the Subaru Impreza has all-wheel drive (AWD) standard. This, combined with high safety scores and a low price, can make the Impreza a practical choice that’s hard to beat — it’s the only Top Safety Pick+ on this list. Practical though, rarely means fun, and that’s the Impreza’s weakness. The only engine option is underpowered and the overall design of the car can elicit yawns. The ownership costs for it are average, and if you want Subaru’s safety suite, the EyeSight driver assistance package, it will tack on $845 to every Impreza trim but the highest one, which has an MSRP of $25,190 for a sedan (add $500 for a hatchback).

Volkswagen Jetta

MSRP $18,745

4.4 stars by KBB experts; 4.1 stars by consumers on Edmunds (47 reviews)

5 stars NHTSA

30 city / 40 highway / 34 combined MPG

Volkswagen’s smallest sedan, the Jetta, offers a comfortable ride, plenty of backseat legroom and available technology, and a “bumper-to-bumper” warranty of 6 years, 72,000 miles. You could add the Driver Assistance Package to any of the Jetta’s trims for $450, which includes automatic emergency braking and blind spot monitoring.

Honda Civic

MSRP $19,450

4.6 stars by KBB experts; 4.6 stars by consumers on Edmunds (34 reviews)

5 stars NHTSA

32 city / 42 highway / 36 combined MPG

The Civic is available as a sedan, a coupe and a hatchback as well as two special models, the Civic Type R and the Civic Si. Here we focus on the regular sedan, a globally popular car with excellent reliability and safety ratings. Honda Sensing is standard, with collision mitigation braking, lane keep assist and adaptive cruise control. Perhaps the main downside is that it might be a tinsy bit hard to find in a packed parking lot.

Best first hybrid car

Basic hybrid vehicles are still more expensive than regular cars, but they have about double the MPG.

Toyota Prius

MSRP $23,770

4.4 stars by KBB experts; 5 stars by consumers on Edmunds (1 review)

5 star NHTSA; IIHS Top Safety Pick

54 city / 50 highway / 52 MPG combined

The Prius is famous as the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle. And though it’s since been joined by a hybrid Camry, Corolla, Avalon RAV4 and Highlander, it has the highest mileage ratings of them all. It’s also known for high reliability and low ownership costs. If you’re worried about the cost of a potential battery replacement, it’s about the same price as a transmission. Toyota redesigned the compact Prius for 2019, giving it the option of all-wheel drive (AWD) and a less space-agey exterior styling. All trim levels include the Toyota Safety Sense P suite, which has a pre-collision system, automatic high beams and lane departure with steering assist.

How we chose the best first cars

All of these new 2019 vehicle models had to earn a rating of at least 4 out of 5 stars in expert reviews from KBB, consumer reviews on Edmunds and in crash test safety ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Their MSRP had to be under $25,000. They also had to have a low cost to own as determined by KBB or Edmunds based on a combination of average maintenance, repair, insurance, fuel and financing costs, as well as taxes and depreciation. If you’re looking for lower-priced options for a young driver, we rounded up the best cars for teenagers and the best cars for college students.

Ways to finance the best first car

If you’re shopping for your first car, you’re probably also shopping for your first car loan. Before you hit the lot, it helps to get pre-approved for a loan first. While car dealers can set up financing, some try to make money by charging a higher interest rate. A first-time car buyer with a sparse borrowing history could be a prime target for an overpriced loan.

Instead, set up your financing ahead of time through a bank, credit union or online lender. This way, you’ll know how much you may borrow at what rate and which terms. Applying for a loan may involve a hard credit pull, but it should not impact your credit to apply to multiple lenders any more than it should to apply to one as long as you do so within a 14-day window. To speed up the process, consider filling out the online form on LendingTree. Based on your creditworthiness, you could get up to five different auto loan offers from lenders.

MSRPs in the article are accurate as of the date of publishing.


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