10 smart cars for teens, starting them off right on the road of life

Graduation season is upon us, and many teens are looking for a car to drive to a summer job, out with friends, and possibly on to college. But before you hand your teen the keys to any old car, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure their safety and your peace of mind.

We know parents and teens don't have a lot of money to buy a car, but it's important to put an inexperienced driver behind the wheel of the safest and most reliable vehicle you can afford. Consumer Reports urges parents to find vehicles that have ABS, electronic stability control (ESC), and curtain air bags. The vehicle should perform well in government and insurance-industry crash tests, as well as in our dynamic tests, such as accident avoidance, braking, and handling, but not overly powerful.

These guidelines set a high standard and for good reason: car crashes are the number-one killer of teens. These drivers need all the protection available to beat the odds on the dangerous roads while they gain experience. In 2010, over 3,000 teens died in car crashes, which account for 10 percent of all motor vehicle crash deaths.

For the types of vehicles to buy, we recommend family sedans and small cars as they have a good balance of safety, visibility, and control. It may be tempting to purchase an SUV, as the cargo-carrying ability can come in handy when it comes time to move out, but SUVs can be challenging for inexperienced drivers to control in an emergency situation and generally are more prone to dangerous rollover accidents.

The models listed below are readily available with the recommended safety equipment and have performed well in safety-related tests. All are Consumer Reports recommended vehicles, meaning that they scored well in our testing and have had average or better reliability. They also have sufficient acceleration to merge onto busy highways, good brakes, and scored well in emergency handling.

Chevrolet Malibu (4-cyl., 2008 or later)
Ford Focus sedan (2009-2011)
Honda Accord (4-cyl., 2008 or later)
Hyundai Sonata (4-cyl., 2006 or later)
Kia Optima (non-turbo, 2010 or later)
Mazda3 i Touring (2009 or later)
Nissan Altima (4-cyl., 2010 or later)
Subaru Impreza (non-turbo, 2009 or later)
Toyota Corolla (2010 or later)
Volkswagen Jetta (2007-2010)

After a lifetime of sacrifices and tough decisions in raising your child, making the right choice for your teen's first car is one more that can make a real difference.

For more on cars for teen drivers, see our complete list.

Visit our guide to distracted driving and teen safety.
Guide to distracted driving & teen safety

—Liza Barth

10 smart cars for teens, starting them off right on the road of life