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When it’s time to buy a teen driver a good used car, most parents want the safest, most reliable, and most affordable vehicle they can find. They want a vehicle that won’t break down or break the bank, but it must provide adequate crash protection. Teenagers are, after all, among the nation’s riskiest drivers, especially in Georgia.
To help you and your newly licensed driver find the safest and most reliable vehicle for less than $10,000, we’ve put together this list of 13 cars and SUVs that the data suggests will be your best bet. These vehicles performed well in crash testing executed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Most have been awarded good or acceptable ratings in the IIHS driver-side small overlap front test, which replicates the front left corner of the vehicle hitting another vehicle or large object. These vehicles also have standard stability control, good ratings in four IIHS crashworthiness tests, above-average reliability (based on Consumer Reports member surveys), and four- or five-star overall safety ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Ford Taurus (2011 or 2014)
The Ford Taurus was discontinued in 2019 after sales lagged well behind its full-size sedan competitors, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Despite the sixth-generation Taurus lasting nearly a decade without significant changes, there are a few model years and trims worth cherry picking. According to the IIHS, any 2013-or-newer Taurus had longer side-curtain airbags that improved protection in the event of a crash. However, although Taurus SHO models had HID projector headlamps, they scored just as poorly as the halogen projector lights on base SEL trims during IIHS headlight testing. If we were after a Taurus, we’d jump on the 365-hp twin-turbo all-wheel-drive Taurus SHO, but remember we’re shopping for the kids on this one. To stay in the sub-$10,000 range, you’ll need to shop for the 2014-or-older Taurus.
Honda Accord (2013 or newer)
We’ve been suggesting the Honda Accord to adults since many of them were kids. Since 1985, nine generations of Accord have won our 10Best trophy. It’s been pretty dang popular too. In 2013, with 366,678 sales, the Accord was the second-best-selling car in the United States and set the bar for driving excellence at a reasonable price. We lived with a 2013 Accord Sport manual for 40,000 miles, and it was celebrated as a car several staffers would own. The 2013 Accord was offered as a coupe or a sedan, with either a 278-hp V-6 with a six-speed automatic transmission or a 185-hp four-cylinder with a six-speed manual or CVT. In any configuration, the Accord earned an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ rating.
Honda Civic (2012—2015)
No, the ninth-generation Honda Civic doesn’t have a cult-following like the high-revving coupes and hatchbacks for the 1990s, but it’s far safer and better on gas than the Civics before it. Its base engine is a 140-hp inline-four with an EPA-estimated 39 mpg on the highway. And it’s available with a manual gearbox, arguably the most important prerequisite for a high school diploma. It’s relatively easy to score a sub-$10,000 Civic sedan with less than 100,000 miles on it, although most listings are for economical CVT-equipped models. For a more thrilling ride, try the 201-hp Civic Si, available only with a six-speed manual transmission. To keep the budget under $10,000, however, Civic Si listings will likely have more than 160,000 miles.
Hyundai Tucson (2012)
In 2012, we ranked the 176-hp all-wheel-drive Hyundai Tucson dead last in a six SUV comparison test. Our review of the Tucson, in summary: meh. But time has passed, the same Tucson can be had for less than $10,000, and, meh, it ain’t so bad. And although we picked that particular Tucson last, it did have a few selling points versus the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, and Mazda CX-5 of the time. Not only did the Tucson have the most front interior space at 55 cubic feet, it had the quietest idle, and the lowest top speed. So, even if it’s not our first, second, or even fifth pick, it’s not a bad choice for a kid just hitting the road.
Mazda 3 (2011 or newer)
There’s an old saying that the best new cars make the best used cars, and this has been one of the best compacts for most of the past decade. The Mazda 3, which has always been available as a small sedan or hatchback, is not only safe, fuel efficient, and reliable, it’s also a hoot to drive, with sharp handling, good power, and a fun, sporty disposition. These cars are also spacious for their size and have stylish, high-quality interiors. Prices start as low as $5000 for models from 2011 to 2013, but it’s best to spend a little more if you can and get a 2014 or newer Mazda 3, which have higher safety ratings. They look better too and offer more interior space. They’re so good that from 2014 to 2017 we selected the Mazda 3 for our 10Best Cars list.
Mazda CX-5 (2014 or newer)
Mazda’s compact crossover, the CX-5, has only been around for two generations, and we’ve been fans since the beginning. The little SUV’s first generation debuted in 2013 and ran until 2017, when the present design arrived. Both offer class-leading athleticism and driver enjoyment, well-crafted interiors, and smart styling. Even the older models still look good. The CX-5’s design has always been more soccer player than soccer mom. In the second half of 2016, the crossover got a few updates such as a backup camera, touchscreen audio system, and a navigation system, which became standard on the Touring and Grand Touring trim levels. Some first-gen CX-5s were sold with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder and a five-speed manual transmission, but they are unicorns. Most have a 2.5-liter and an automatic. They aren’t muscle cars, but they’re quick enough. All-wheel drive was optional. Prices start at a little more than $8000.
Subaru Legacy or Outback (2013 or newer)
Also considered workhorses with impressive safety are Subaru’s mid-size offerings, the Legacy sedan and the Outback, which is based on the Legacy but is part wagon and part crossover. Combine their sales and these have been among Subaru’s best-selling models for the last decade. Both offer standard all-wheel drive, and the Outback has a higher riding suspension, which gives it more ground clearance for light off-roading. The fifth generation of the Legacy was sold through 2014, while its replacement was offered from 2015 to 2019. Most have a four-cylinder engine, but a more powerful six-cylinder was available. These Subarus also have a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), which can feel different than a conventional automatic. Older Legacys start around $7500, and Outbacks usually cost about $1000 more.
Toyota Camry (2012 or newer)
The Toyota Camry is responsible for phrases like “old-man tan” and “50 shades of beige,” but even as the butt of many jokes, it’s been the best-selling car in the U.S. each year since 2002. The seventh-generation Camry won’t match the fit and finish of a Volkswagen Passat or offer as much comfort as the Kia Optima, but where it does shine is its promise of an unobtrusive commute. A quiet throttle, ride, and strictly business looks is the formula. In fact, thanks to a 178-hp four-cylinder engine and better fuel economy, the seventh-generation Camry can go 65 miles farther on a tank of gas than today’s Camry. Who’s laughing now?
Toyota Highlander (2008 or newer)
The Toyota Highlander Hybrid was the most fuel-efficient SUV Toyota made at the time, earning just 1 mpg less in the city than the subcompact Toyota Matrix, according to the EPA. And yeah, you can easily find a 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited, complete with all-wheel drive, heated leather seats, and navigation for less than $10,000 today, but it’s going to have at least 200,000 miles on it. The rest of the 2008 Highlander models were powered by a 270-hp V-6 and were available in either front- or all-wheel drive. A 187-hp four-cylinder engine became available in 2009, and offered a 3 to 5 mpg improvement over V-6 models. If you’re eager to empty the nest, it might be useful knowing Highlanders equipped with a towing package can pull up to 5000 pounds.
Toyota Prius (2011 or newer)
As folks who love the thrill of driving, it pains us to suggest the third-generation Toyota Prius to anyone. But the Prius lives in reality, not some twisty traffic-free fantasy. As of this writing, the national gas average is $3.20 a gallon according to AAA Insurance. Now the ol’ Prius, with its EPA-estimated 48 mpg combined fuel economy, seems to be a pretty awesome suggestion. Easy to drive and quiet, the Prius also has more cargo space than every new Ford EcoSport, Chevrolet Trax, Toyota C-HR, and Jeep Renegade. The EPA says it can travel almost 580 miles between fill-ups. And with today’s ridiculous fuel prices, refilling a Prius from empty would cost about $38.
Toyota Prius V (2012—2014)
If you’re already a Prius fan, here’s one that’s 6.0 inches longer, with 70 percent more cargo space. The Prius V has the interior cargo space of a Honda CR-V or Ford Escape but in the shape of a wagon. There are four trim levels, aptly named Two, Three, Four, and Five. Top trim Prius V Five models come with heated seats and LED headlights, the latter giving it top marks in IIHS safety ratings. Although all Prius V models earned Good ratings in IIHS crash testing, every Prius V below the top trim came standard with halogen projector headlights that scored poorly during testing. Every Prius V uses a 134-hp four-cylinder hybrid engine with a CVT and front-wheel drive. It’s also got the slowest acceleration on this list, with a time of 10.3 seconds to 60 mph during our testing.
Toyota Sienna (2011—2014)
It’s unlikely any kid will beg for a minivan as their first car, especially if they’ve spent their entire elementary career being carted around in one. But if a third-generation Toyota Sienna is already in the family, it might be a good idea to keep it there. The Sienna was available in both eight- or seven-passenger versions and powered by either a 187-hp four-cylinder for base Siennas and LE trim models or a 266-hp V-6 engine available on any trim but standard for Sienna SE, XLE, and Limited models. At the time, the Sienna was the only minivan that offered all-wheel drive (only available on V-6 models), but that dropped EPA-estimated fuel economy to 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway from the front-wheel-drive four-cylinder Sienna’s 19 mpg in the city and 26 mpg highway. That said, it’d be a lot easier to move them to college in the bread van that is the Sienna than anything else on this list.
Toyota Venza (2009—2015)
Putting your teenager behind the wheel of a Toyota Venza grants a few promises. Even if your youngster launches from a stoplight, a full-throttle pin to 60 mph in 8.4 seconds (for all-wheel-drive V-6 models) will likely take long enough to be interrupted by another stoplight before 60 mph happens. With an EPA-estimated 24 mpg on the highway, it’s probably not the thirstiest SUV in the parking lot at field-hockey practice. And you can get a full night of sleep, knowing the Venza was an IIHS Top Safety Pick from its debut and until it was discontinued in 2015. The new Venza is a fancier RAV4 Hybrid, and is still too new to fit under a $10,000 budget.
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