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The Parent’s Guide to Buying a Car for a Teen Driver

buying a car for a teen

Buying a used car is arguably less risky than it was decades ago thanks to improved inspection and certification programs. The cars themselves are better-built and more reliable, too. However, there may still be some anxiety over the possibility driving home in a “lemon” — a vehicle with hidden, often dangerous problems — or one whose previous owner simply didn’t take good care of it.

Now imagine buying that used car for a teenage child who just started driving.

We are entering a high season for used-car sales, when parents seek the right set of wheels that will allow their teenagers to hit the road for summer jobs, vacations and driving off to college as safely as possible and without breaking the bank. It’s a tall order that requires research and negotiation — certainly with car sellers and perhaps with the young drivers as well.

Teenagers preparing to take their driver’s license tests or anticipating a big, four-wheeled high school graduation gift might dream of cruising in plush, new luxury sedans and speedy sports cars.

But the reality of tight family budgets and typical parental focus on safety mean most teens will wind up in used cars.

That is the way it should be, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The auto-safety organization, funded by the insurance industry and well-known for its stringent safety and crash-testing standards, publishes a list of recommended used vehicles for teens. The latest list from 2017 grew by 50% compared with 2016, including a diverse range of cars, sport-utility vehicles, minivans and even a couple of pickup trucks.

Used cars are getting safer

In addition to more vehicle choices, the longer IIHS list means there are more safety features available to used-car shoppers than ever before. Electronic stability control, lane-departure and blind-spot warnings, and rear-view cameras are all included — even cars with automatic braking are beginning to reach the used market. In the past, teenagers, consistently among the riskiest drivers, have often wound up driving old, low-priced cars that skimp on crash protection.

The current IIHS list includes 49 vehicles the group considers the “best choices,” with prices starting under $20,000, and 82 “good choices,” starting under $10,000. This is still a big purchase for many families, and these upper price limits may seem breathtakingly high. But while some of the recommended vehicles may not fit your budget, the roster includes a number of surprisingly inexpensive models.

The Volvo S80 sedan and XC90 SUV are among the least-expensive models the IIHS mentions. Certain midsize family sedans, including the Subaru Legacy and Honda Accord, also look like potential deals. In some cases the estimated prices partly reflect that some vehicles in the survey were more than a decade old. Still, perusing the price list can give shoppers an idea of what to expect in terms of price depreciation when sizing up older cars on dealer lots and deciding how much to offer.

Teens might roll their eyes at some IIHS recommendations — for years the group has urged parents to seek the most comfortable balance between vehicles with the most safety gear and the lowest prices, and suggest avoiding any vehicles touted for speed or high performance. Teens need basic transportation that often comes in the form of big, slow sedans — the kind of unstylish vehicles grandparents often drive. Such cars often have the most safety features and prices are far more affordable when they are a few years old.

Shopping tips for parents

Here is a list of suggestions you can consider while shopping for your teen’s first car:

  • Look for vehicles with the best crash-test ratings you can afford. You can find crash-test ratings for vehicles by make and model on the Insurance Institute and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sites.
  • Avoid cars with lots of horsepower. They may tempt impressionable teens to drive too fast or show off.
  • Bigger, heavier vehicles are safer. There are no small or subcompact cars on the IIHS lists, in part because their relatively light weight puts them at a disadvantage in collisions with larger vehicles. However, some compact SUVs made the cut because they weigh about the same as a midsize car.
  • Consider electronic stability control a must-have item. This technology, which helps a driver maintain control and cuts single-vehicle fatal crash risk nearly in half, has been required on new vehicles since the 2012 model year. All of the vehicles on the IIHS lists have the feature as standard equipment.
  • Get organized. Before visiting any cars in person, make a general list of vehicles that seem to fit your needs and budget. Know their approximate values from sources like, or others.
  • Shop around. Get ready for serious legwork, both online and on the ground. There are many sources for used cars, ranging from fancy dealerships and small roadside lots to private-party sales that crop up on Craigslist. Dealerships tend to carry newer models with less wear and fewer miles, but they can be pricey. Private-party cars usually cheaper, but may require a bigger leap of faith.
  • Get expert advice. It may be worth paying a mechanic a couple hundred dollars to check the car out before you buy. Honest sellers will usually allow this.
  • Keep an open mind. Be ready to consider vehicles that are a good fit, even if they aren’t on your tentative list or come from an unexpected source. Remember, you could find a good car sitting unused in a friend’s garage or parked in front of a neighbor’s house with a “for sale” sign in the window.
  • Brace for insurance sticker shock. Adding a newly licensed teenage driver to a parent’s auto insurance policy is expensive. A number of online guides suggest your rates could double, compared with insuring one adult driver (we found this to be accurate using Progressive’s rate-estimating tool). But it is almost always less expensive to add a teen driver to a parent’s policy than to insure the teen under a separate policy, which can top $2,000.
  • How to finance? You will have to weigh the costs and benefits of getting a loan in your name or cosigning on a loan for your child. Taking out the loan yourself may cost less, but a loan in the teen driver’s name can be a good way for a young person to begin building a credit history. Prices, rates and deals vary widely so it pays to shop for the best terms from dealers, banks and credit unions.

How used is too used?

The Top Used Cars For Teens Under $10,000
Large cars Ford Taurus 2009 and newer $4,600
Midsize cars Saab 9-3 2005-11 $2,200
Small SUVs Mitsubishi Outlander 2007-13 $3,500
Midsize SUVs Ford Taurus X 2008-09 $4,100
Large SUVs Saturn Outlook 2008-09; built after March 2008 $5,400
Minivans Kia Sedona 2006-14 $2,900
Pickups Toyota Tundra Double Cab 2007-13 $9,100
Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety


Parents on a tight budget might want to start with the IIHS second list of cars under $10,000. While many of the least expensive models listed may be more than 10 years old, they are still worth considering: 10 years is not necessarily very “old” for a modern car. Advances in design and manufacturing standards mean cars can last longer and rack up hundreds of thousands of miles if properly maintained.

If you find an older used car that seems to be in especially good condition, it is still worthwhile to pay a mechanic to inspect it for you and note any areas that might need work.

Vehicles on the second list for less-expensive models received good ratings in the IIHS moderate overlap front, side and head restraint tests. If rated by NHTSA, they received four or five stars overall, or in the front and side tests under a previous rating scheme. Like vehicles on the higher-priced chart, they all come standard with electronic stability control.


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