The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has some recommendations when it comes to the safety of your teenage child's first car, and even though they may sound a bit restricting, we agree with every single one.
IIHS defines a safe vehicle using three principles, and they are exactly what you should take into account before you start surfing Craigslist for a used beater or opening your checkbook for a flashy sports car.
The first rule is to absolutely not, under no circumstance, let your teen convince you that buying a high-powered sports car will be fine and that he/she is responsible enough to handle something like a used Corvette or a Mustang.
Let's put it this way, resisting the temptation to floor it in a sports car is hard enough for us older folks, no matter if we're in traffic or not. Just imagine what a teenage boy looking to impress his high-school buddies would do if you gave him the keys to an RWD, 300+ hp vehicle.
Secondly, plain physics is telling us that larger and heavier vehicles are inherently safer. They are also more expensive, obviously, and car safety has evolved tenfold for smaller cars, but a head-on impact between a sub-compact and a mid-size sedan will still keep the large sedan's occupants safer. That said, do stay away from mid-size and full-size SUVs, since a higher weight also comes with higher propensity to roll over if the driver loses control of the wheel.
Last but certainly not least, the car you're looking for should be fitted with the minimum of active and passive safety features. Stuff like the anti-lock braking system (ABS), electronic stability control (ESC) and at least four airbags (two frontal and two side airbags) should be mandatory, and most modern cars built after 2010 do have these. ESC has been mandatory for new cars in the U.S. since 2012, for example.
With that out of the way, we decided to do some research for you and put together two separate short lists into one. The first is of new cars while the second includes each of their used and cheaper alternatives.
New Compact Sedan: 2016 Mazda3 4-Door
For that MSRP, you get seating for five, a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 155 hp and a six-speed manual transmission to infuse your teenage child with the joy of driving a well-sorted manual. The EPA-estimated MPG is 29/41 city/highway, which is no mean feat for a non-turbocharged engine of this displacement and power.
The best thing about it is probably the fact that the Mazda3 sedan is also one of the safest cars in its segment, with the NHTSA giving it 5 stars while the IIHS bestows it with a top safety pick+ award.
Older Sedan Alternative: 2011+ Volvo S60
No matter the trim level or engine option you go for, any S60 from 2011 onwards comes with Volvo's City Safety system as standard, which automatically brakes the car in the event of an impending collision below 19 mph. Just like the Mazda 3, the NHTSA gave the S60 5 stars, while the IIHS crowned the model with a Top Safety Pick award in 2011.
New Cool Compact: 2016 Volkswagen Beetle
For $19,795 you can pick up a 2016 Volkswagen Beetle 1.8T, which, despite being the base model, is reasonably well equipped and has decent oomph without being scary. The turbocharged, 1.8-liter four-cylinder under that curved hood has Audi credentials and delivers 170 horsepower. EPA-estimated MPG is 25/34 city/highway.
Even though the NHTSA awarded the latest Beetle with 5 stars, the IIHS didn't give it a Top Safety Pick award for one single reason. It seems that the model only had a “Marginal” rating in the newly introduced “small overlap front” crash test. While that is definitely a bummer, the 2016 Beetle did score “Good” ratings in every other type of crash test.
Older Cool Compact Alternative: 2011+ Volvo C30
The NHTSA hasn't tested any C30 from 2011 onwards, but the IIHS gave it a Top Safety Pick award and “Good” ratings in every crash test that it performed. Last but not least, it's probably the coolest-looking compact in recent years and not just an old, boring Volvo.
New Compact Crossover with AWD: 2016 Fiat 500X Easy AWD
The least expensive AWD version is the “Easy” trim level, which starts at $24,510. Not exactly cheap, but for that MSRP, you get 180 horsepower, all-wheel-drive, a nine-speed automatic transmission and 21/30 city/highway MPG. Not to mention that it looks like a larger, five-door Fiat 500, which is not something to be ashamed of.
One of the coolest bits is probably its safety, even though only the IIHS has managed to crash test it until now. Thanks to a “Good” rating in every single test, including the dreaded “small overlap front” crash test, the IIHS awarded the 2016 Fiat 500X with a Top Safety Pick+ rating, which is as good as it gets.
Older Compact Crossover Alternative: 2011+ MINI Countryman
The NHTSA hasn't tested any Countrymans, but the IIHS found nothing wrong with it back in 2011, when it gave it the Top Safety Pick award after MINI's first crossover managed to get “Good” ratings on every single test, including the “small overlap front.” You can't really go wrong with it from a safety point of view.