Safe, practical, and inexpensive. You don't have to pick two.
Buying any car for a new driver is stressful. Unless money isn't a concern at all, not only does the car need to be affordable to buy, but it also needs to be affordable to run and insure. Young drivers are also developing their skills at driving on the road. That means that safety features and driving aids become essential, even if it is mainly to help satiate a parent's nerves. To help navigate the field of cars suitable for new drivers, we've put together this list, although it's worth remembering it's not all-encompassing. All automakers are chasing good safety ratings from the NHTSA and IIHS as well as good economy numbers. Some are doing it better than others, though.
The Honda Civic is a staple for new drivers, and with good reason. The Civic has had consistently strong safety ratings for a long time, and the current generation is no different. The sedan is the least expensive option for 2020, starting at $19,850, while the hatchback starts at $21,750 and the coupe at $21,050. Fuel economy weighs in at an EPA estimated 32/42/36 mpg city/highway/combined from the 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. However, that engine is only available on the Civic EX trim level and above on the sedan and coupe, starting at $23,800 and $23,600, respectively. The 2.0-liter naturally aspirated engine is still remarkably fuel-efficient with an EPA estimated 30/38/33 mpg city/highway/combined. The 1.5-liter turbo engine is standard through the hatchback's trims, but Honda's Sensing Safety Suite and driver-assistive technologies are standard throughout the range.
Subaru has been beating the safety drum in its TV advertising of late. As promised, the Subaru Impreza's safety ratings are unimpeachable. All-wheel-drive is standard, making it an excellent choice for families in areas that receive all the weather a four-season year can throw at them. However, the drivetrain has a drawback when powered by Subaru's 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine in the form of fuel efficiency. It has an EPA estimate of 28/36/31 mpg city/highway/combined for CVT equipped models. That drops when choosing the Sport trim or a manual transmission option. We're not huge fans of the Subaru Impreza's engine in terms of power, but that's not going to be a drawback when handing the keys over to a new driver.
Some would call making a teenager drive a Prius a form of punishment, but a fuel economy of 55/53/54 mpg city/highway/combined and exemplary safety ratings are not to be sniffed at. The Prius Prime plug-in starts at $27,900, which is more expensive than a standard Prius, but the ability to get 25 miles of gas-free travel can be a huge advantage. Overall performance isn't for enthusiasts, but for a new driver to get from A to B efficiently and safely, it's well worth a look. If having the plug-in option isn't ideal, the standard Prius starts at $24,325.
We blow hot and cold on the Nissan Kicks, but we can't deny that it comes with excellent standard safety features, is wonderfully practical for a small vehicle, and, starting at $18,640, is an excellent deal within the subcompact vehicle segment. Effectively, the Kicks is a lifted hatchback and that makes it a great little utility vehicle. It has solid safety ratings and includes automatic forward braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning, blind-spot warning, and rear cross-traffic alert as standard. The engine is on the anemic side, so a teen driver shouldn't be able to get into too much trouble, but they will be getting an EPA estimated 31/36/33 mpg city/highway/combined.
The Hyundai Venue is a new kid on the block, and the IIHS hasn't crash-tested it yet, but the NTHSA has given it four stars. That's not ideal as most cars on this list manage a five-star rating there. However, the smallest vehicle in Hyundai's lineup is priced at $17,350 and comes standard with safety features focusing on preventing an accident in the first place. That includes pedestrian detection, forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, and lane-keep assist. The EPA rates the Venue at 30/34/32 mpg city/highway/combined for cars fitted with the CVT transmission and 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine.
The Kia Sportage is a sophisticated compact crossover with an interior that could trick you into thinking the $23,990 entry point is a typo. It has more than respectable safety ratings, and its base 2.4-liter inline-four-cylinder isn't underpowered. The Sportage is rated at 23/30/26 mpg city/highway/combined in front-wheel-drive guise, while opting for all-wheel drive brings it down to 22/26/23 mpg. We also like that it comes with standard safety tech that includes forward collision-avoidance assist with pedestrian detection, lane-keeping assistance, and driver attention warning. As this is a Kia car, it also comes with a five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and an industry-leading ten-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
Subaru's second entry on this list takes the lifted hatchback concept but gives it genuine off-road chops as standard. It also comes with excellent safety ratings and Subaru's EyeSight suite of driver and safety assist technology on all CVT-equipped models. The Crosstrek starts at $22,145 but without the CVT, which is a $1,350 option, expect 22/29/25 mpg city/highway/combined from the two-liter flat-four Boxer engine. With the CVT, fuel economy rises to 27/33/30 mpg, and all-wheel-drive is standard. For adventurous new drivers, this is the vehicle we would be looking at first.
Kia is getting a lot right at the moment, and the Optima checks all the boxes as an all-around proposition. The entry point for the mid-size sedan boasting both a Top Safety Pick+ rating from the IIHS and a five-star rating from the NHTSA is $23,390. It also comes standard with Kia's outstanding warranty and standard blind-spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, backup camera and rear parking assist. There are three powerplant choices across the range, including a 1.6-liter, 2.0-liter, and 2.4-liter engine. The base 1.6-liter engine is the most economical trim with an EPA estimate of 30/38/33 mpg city/highway/combined.
Ford is doing something with the Fusion that not many automakers are willing to commit to, and that's including blind-spot monitoring as standard. It's part of the Co-Pilot360 suite of driver-assist features that also includes auto high beam headlamps, lane-keeping assist, and pre-collision assist. The Ford Fusion has excellent safety ratings, is a reliable mid-size sedan, and starts at $23,170. Fuel efficiency isn't its strong suit though, with the base 2.5-liter engine making 21/31/24 mpg city/highway/combined and the more powerful 2.0-liter EcoBoost system reporting in at an almost identical 21/31/24 mpg. Going with the all-wheel-drive option brings mpg down to 20/29/23 mpg, which can be bettered by the $28,000 hybrid model at the expense of both money and trunk space.
The CX-30 is a new model for Mazda but has already ranked impressively in safety tests. We also like it for its style, upscale and ergonomic interior, and base price of just $21,900. Standard safety tech includes smart brake support, driver attention alert (with visual and acoustic warnings), high beam control, lane departure warning, radar cruise control with stop & go, and lane-keep assist. Power comes from Mazda's Skyactiv-G 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and returns 25/33/28 mpg city/highway/combined. The all-wheel-drive system comes in at 25/32/27 mpg with cylinder deactivation, but that's only standard on the $29,600 range-topping model.