Best Cars for Teens: $20,000 or Less

Shopping for a car or truck can be stressful, and that stress doubles when looking for the perfect vehicle for your teenage son or daughter. 

Fortunately, there’s good news for parents and guardians seeking safe and reliable options without breaking the bank. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), renowned for its vehicle crash-testing expertise, has teamed up with Consumer Reports to compile a list of reasonably priced cars that are reliable and safe for teen drivers.

 These cars have earned good ratings in critical safety tests conducted by the IIHS, including moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraint tests. Additionally, they have received a good or acceptable rating in the driver-side small overlap front test. 

To ensure thorough safety scrutiny, the IIHS cross-referenced their recommendations with crash-test data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), ensuring that all recommended vehicles received either four- or five-star results from this federal safety agency.

This article suggests the best cars for teens, all available within a reasonable $20,000 budget. With over 40 vehicles of varying sizes and shapes making the IIHS list, it can be overwhelming for parents and guardians. So, without further ado, let’s explore our top picks based on what matters most to parents and their young drivers.

1. 2014-2020 Mazda3

The Toyota Corolla often tops the recommended cars for teens, and for a good reason. It has a longstanding reputation for reliability, affordability, and widespread availability in the used car market. 

However, if you’re an automotive enthusiast who believes your teen will share your passion for driving, consider the Mazda3 instead. This car offers a more engaging driving experience than the Corolla or most Honda Civics. It boasts communicative steering and a ride/handling balance that leans toward the sporty side.

We recommend targeting a 2017 or later model for maximum safety features and stylish design if it fits your budget.

2. 2013-2019 Chevrolet Volt

The Chevrolet Volt goes beyond being a fuel-efficient alternative to the Toyota Prius (Note that the Prius Prime used to be on this list but was removed due to its higher price). 

The Volt features a plug-in hybrid system with a substantial onboard battery pack, providing more than 30 miles of electric-only range per charge. 

After that, it operates as an efficient hybrid vehicle. Despite its sedan-like appearance, the Volt is a four-seat hatchback.

The Chevy Volt is a remarkable used-car bargain in America, suitable for teen drivers and anyone seeking a reliable commuter car.

3. 2018 Subaru Impreza Sedan or Wagon

For those living in regions with regular snowfall or challenging weather conditions, the Subaru Impreza offers a compelling choice for teen drivers. 

Standard with Subaru’s renowned Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive technology, it provides excellent traction and visibility. While its efficiency may not match some competitors, the Impreza’s all-weather capabilities come with minimal compromises.

4. 2014-2019 Subaru Outback

The Subaru Outback, a beloved lifted all-wheel-drive wagon, received significant updates and a stiffer chassis in 2014. We recommend starting your search with this model year. 

Unlike smaller cars on this list, the Subaru Outback offers a range of engine options. The base 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine provides sufficient power for new drivers. 

However, it’s worth noting that the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) may produce some droning noise under steady acceleration. For those seeking more power, a 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine is also available.

5. 2017-2019 Volkswagen Passat

The Volkswagen Passat stands out for its generous interior space, bridging the gap between midsize and full-size sedans. Despite its manageable exterior dimensions, it offers a rear seat comparable to larger vehicles. 

If you opt for the Passat for your teen driver, we recommend looking for a 2018 or 2019 model equipped with the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission. 

Older versions of this engine had some issues addressed in the third generation found in these Passat models.

6. 2014-2019 Mazda6

Mazda’s midsize sedan, the Mazda6, distinguishes itself as one of the most enjoyable-to-drive vehicles in its segment. Despite its many virtues, Mazda products sometimes lack the same stellar reputation among used-car buyers as competitors from Honda and Toyota. 

This means that you might find a well-equipped Mazda6 within the $20,000 budget of this list. It’s worth mentioning that the Honda Accord featured prominently in previous lists, but it’s becoming less attainable in this desirable price range.

7. 2018 Kia Niro

Kia made a smart move by introducing a crossover vehicle that prioritizes fuel efficiency, offers multiple powertrain options, has a stylish design, and is reasonably priced. 

The Niro comes in hybrid, plug-in hybrid (PHEV), and pure electric versions. The PHEV variant, highlighted here, can travel approximately 26 miles on a fully charged battery before the gasoline engine engages. 

The Kia Niro PHEV impressed when it was new in 2018 and remains a solid choice for a teen’s first car.

8. 2015-Newer Honda CR-V

The Honda CR-V has consistently been among the best-selling vehicles in America for its excellent balance between interior space and exterior dimensions, sportiness, and efficiency. 

It also enjoys a reliable reputation, making it a dependable choice for teen drivers. If you find a well-priced and well-equipped CR-V in your area, it’s a smart choice.

9. 2016 or Newer Toyota Tacoma

Among pickup trucks, only one model meets the IIHS and Consumer Reports’ criteria for teen drivers: the Toyota Tacoma. Renowned for its reliability and durability, the Tacoma has long dominated America’s midsize pickup truck segment. 

To find a Tacoma under $20,000, you may need to explore options with higher mileage or settle for base or SR5 trims rather than the upper or TRD models. 

It’s advisable to test drive a Toyota Tacoma before making a purchase, as the interior dimensions may not suit all drivers due to limited headroom and a legs-forward seating arrangement.

While buying a new car for less than $20,000 for your teen driver is technically possible, we don’t strongly recommend it. Currently, only three new vehicles in America are priced below $20,000: the Nissan Versa, the Kia Rio, and the Mitsubishi Mirage. Among these options, the Nissan Versa may be the best choice. 

However, considering the availability of reliable and safe used models within a similar budget, we recommend exploring the used car market for a more cost-effective and practical solution.


In conclusion, when selecting the best cars for teen drivers with a budget of $20,000 or less, several appealing options prioritize safety, reliability, and affordability. 

These vehicles provide peace of mind for parents and guardians while offering practical choices for their young drivers. 

Whether you prioritize a fun driving experience, all-weather capability, or spacious interiors, there’s a suitable car on this list to meet your needs. 

So, when you’re ready to find the ideal vehicle for your teen, consider these recommendations to make the process a little less stressful.

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