Things I Wish I knew

The best used cars for teens: What to know before buying

While buying a used car is arguably less risky and fraught than it was decades ago, the experience still generates anxiety over possibly getting a lemon — a vehicle with hidden, often dangerous problems.

Now imagine buying that used car for a teenage child with a new license.

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Avoid cars with lots of horsepower.

Warm-weather driving season is approaching and many newly minted motorists will soon head out for solo drives to the beach, summer jobs and college. Sometimes it makes sense for young people to have their own vehicles instead of borrowing Mom’s keys several times a day. Managing your transportation helps build responsibility and independence, and few teen experiences match the rush of freedom that comes with taking the helm of your own ride.

But for many parents this is a time of emotional and financial struggle as they balance their desire for cars with the most up-to-date safety features with the need to meet strict budgets.

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The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an automotive safety group funded by the insurance industry, just released its latest list of used vehicles it recommends for young drivers. The new list reflects recent safety improvements that have trickled down to lower-cost used cars, SUVs, minivans and pickups. In the past, teenagers, who are among the riskiest drivers, have tended to wind up driving inexpensive vehicles that do not provide enough protection in a crash.

The latest update includes 49 “best choices,” starting under $20,000, and 82 “good choices,” starting under $10,000. While some of the vehicles may still be too expensive for many family budgets, there are also a few low-cost surprises.

Before we get to the list, here are a few IIHS tips to consider when buying cars for teens:

  • Parents should seek vehicles with the best crash-test ratings they can afford.
  • Avoid cars with lots of horsepower. Teens may be tempted to test the limits of a powerful engine.
  • Bigger, heavier vehicles are safer. There are no minicars or small cars on the latest lists. Small SUVs can make the cut because they weigh about the same as a midsize car.
  • Electronic stability control is a must. 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 listed vehicles have the feature standard.

Here are the IIHS lists, based on vehicle type and price range.

Under $20,000

Large Cars

Courtesy of Volvo
The Volvo S80 (2007 or newer) is one of the IIHS's top choices for teens in the 'large cars' category of used vehicles.
  • Volvo S80 (2007 and newer) $4,000
  • Toyota Avalon (2015 and newer) $18,800
  • Infiniti M37/M56/Q70 (2013 and newer) $19,800

Midsize Cars

  • Dodge Avenger (2011-14) $5,300
  • Chrysler 200 sedan (2011 and newer) $5,900
  • Kia Optima (2011 and newer) $7,600
  • Volkswagen Passat (2013 and newer; built after October 2012) $8,700
  • Volkswagen Jetta (2015 and newer) $9,200
  • Nissan Altima sedan (2013 and newer; built after November 2012) $9,500
  • Ford Fusion (2013 and newer; built after December 2012) $9,600
  • Volvo S60 (2011 and newer; price is for 2012, which had lower trim level available) $9,800
  • Subaru Legacy (2013 and newer; built after August 2012) $10,700
  • Chevrolet Malibu (2014 and newer) $10,900
  • Honda Accord sedan and coupe (2013 and newer) $11,100
  • Toyota Camry (2014 and newer; built after December 2013) $11,200
  • Mazda 6 (2014 and newer) $11,400
  • Hyundai Sonata (2015 and newer) $11,900
  • Acura TL (2012-14; built after April 2012) $12,400
  • Lincoln MKZ (2013 and newer) $13,300
  • Subaru Outback 2013 and newer; built after August 2012) $13,600
  • Chevrolet Malibu Limited (2016) $13,700
  • Toyota Prius v (2015 and newer) $16,300
  • Volvo V60 (2015 and newer) $18,400
  • Audi A3 (2015 and newer) $18,500
  • Infiniti Q50 (2014-15) $19,100

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Small SUVs

  • Mitsubishi Outlander Sport (2011 and newer) $6,900
  • Mitsubishi Outlander (2014 and newer) $10,700
  • Chevrolet Trax (2015 and newer) $11,800
  • Fiat 500X (2016 and newer; built after July 2015) $12,600
  • Nissan Rogue (2014 and newer) $12,900
  • Buick Encore (2015 and newer) $13,800
  • Subaru Forester (2014 and newer) $14,900
  • Honda CR-V (2015 and newer) $15,600
  • Hyundai Tucson (2016 and newer) $16,000
  • Toyota RAV4 (2015 and newer) $16,000
  • Mazda CX-3 (2016 and newer) $16,600

Midsize SUVs

  • Volvo XC90 (2005 and newer) $2,500
  • Ford Flex (2010 and newer; built after January 2010) $7,200
  • Chevrolet Equinox (2014 and newer) $12,100
  • GMC Terrain (2014 and newer) $13,300
  • Nissan Pathfinder (2015 and newer) $15,800
  • Kia Sorento (2016 and newer) $16,500
  • Volvo XC60 (2013 and newer) $16,500
  • Ford Edge (2015 and newer; built after May 2015) $17,400
  • Nissan Murano (2015 and newer) $19,100

Minivans

  • Kia Sedona (2015 and newer) $14,700
  • Honda Odyssey (2014 and newer) $16,100
  • Toyota Sienna (2015 and newer) $18,100

Pickups

  • Toyota Tundra Double Cab (2014 and newer) $15,600

Under $10,000

Large Cars

  • Ford Taurus (2009 and newer) $4,300
  • Mercury Sable (2009) $4,600
  • Audi A6 (2007 and newer) $5,600
  • Toyota Avalon (2009-14) $6,500
  • Buick LaCrosse (2010 and newer) $7,500
  • Lincoln MKS (2009 and newer) $7,800
  • Buick Regal (2011 and newer) $8,000
  • Saab 9-5 (2010-11) $9,700
  • Acura RL (2009 and newer) $9,900

Midsize Cars

  • Saab 9-3 (2005-11) $2,000
  • Suzuki Kizashi (2010-13) $3,600
  • Volkswagen Jetta sedan and wagon (2009-14) $3,900
  • Audi A4 sedan and wagon (2007 and newer; built after July 2006) $4,100
  • Volkswagen Passat sedan and wagon (2009-12) $4,500
  • Mercury Milan (2010-11) $5,200
  • Volkswagen CC (2009 and newer) $5,200
  • Ford Fusion (2010-12) $5,300
  • Subaru Legacy (2009-12) $5,400
  • Volvo C30 (2008-13) $5,400
  • Audi A3 (2008-13) $5,700
  • Chevrolet Malibu (2010-13) $5,800
  • Honda Accord sedan (2008-12) $5,900
  • BMW 3-series sedan (2009 and newer) $6,700
  • Lincoln MKZ (2010-12) $6,900
  • Hyundai Sonata (2011-14) $7,200
  • Subaru Outback (2010-12) $7,700
  • Acura TSX (2009-14) $8,300
  • Acura TL (2009-11) $8,400
  • Buick Verano (2012-15) $8,600
  • Mercedes-Benz C-Class (2009 and newer) $8,600
  • Toyota Camry (2012-13) $9,100

Small SUVs

  • Mitsubishi Outlander (2007-13) $3,900
  • Nissan Rogue (2008-13) $4,400
  • Subaru Forester (2007-13) $4,400
  • Ford Escape (2009 and newer) $4,900
  • Mazda Tribute (2009-11) $4,900
  • Mercury Mariner (2009-11) $5,100
  • Honda Element (2007-11) $5,300
  • Honda CR-V (2007-14) $5,400
  • Volkswagen Tiguan (2009 and newer) $5,800
  • Toyota RAV4 (2009-14) $7,000
  • Hyundai Tucson (2010-15) $7,500
  • Kia Sportage (2011 and newer) $7,700

Midsize SUVs

  • Ford Taurus X (2008-09) $3,700
  • Saturn Vue (2008-09; built after December 2007) $4,000
  • Honda Pilot (2006 and newer) $4,000
  • Hyundai Santa Fe (2007 and newer) $4,300
  • Subaru Tribeca/B9 Tribeca (2006-14) $4,700
  • Ford Edge (2007-14) $5,200
  • Dodge Journey (2010 and newer) $5,400
  • Hyundai Veracruz (2008-12) $5,700
  • Nissan Murano (2009-14) $5,900
  • Ford Flex (2009) $6,100
  • Acura RDX (2007 and newer) $6,900
  • Chevrolet Equinox (2010-13) $6,900
  • GMC Terrain (2010-13) $7,100
  • Lincoln MKX (2007 and newer) $7,100
  • BMW X3 (2008 and newer) $7,300
  • Mercedes-Benz M-Class (2007-15) $7,700
  • Toyota Highlander (2008 and newer) $8,100
  • Honda Crosstour (2010-15) $8,200
  • Infiniti EX (2008-13) $8,200
  • Volvo XC60 (2010-12) $8,200
  • Acura MDX (2007 and newer) $8,300
  • Kia Sorento (2011-15) $8,400
  • Toyota Venza (2009-15) $8,400
  • BMW X5 (2008-13) $8,600

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Large SUVs

  • Saturn Outlook (2008-09; built after March 2008) $5,000
  • Chevrolet Traverse (2009 and newer) $6,300
  • GMC Acadia (2008 and newer; built after March 2008) $6,900
  • Buick Enclave (2008 and newer; built after March 2008) $7,300
  • Audi Q7 (2008 and newer; built after December 2007) $9,100
  • Mercedes-Benz R-Class (2009-12; built after September 2008) $9,100

Minivans

  • Kia Sedona (2006-14) $2,500
  • Hyundai Entourage (2007-08) $3,300
  • Honda Odyssey (2008-13) $4,800
  • Volkswagen Routan (2010-12) $5,600
  • Chrysler Town & Country (2010 and newer; built after March 2010) $6,100
  • Dodge Grand Caravan (2010 and newer; built after March 2010) $6,100
  • Nissan Quest (2011 and newer) $8,500

Pickups

  • Toyota Tundra Double Cab (2007-13) $8,400
  • Ford F-150 SuperCrew (2009 and newer) $9,800
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