It's a highly anticipated (and scary) time in every parent’s life: Your son or daughter has just turned 16 and is about to get their driver’s license. But what will they drive? Will you let them use the family car or buy them a new one? New cars have more and better safety features, warranty, and are likely to be more reliable than cars even several years old. So if you’re in the market for a new car, how do you pick one?

Your teen might want a fast sports car or a big SUV. That’s understandable—but those vehicles aren’t the best match for new drivers. For one thing, teens may struggle to control their impulses, and buying them a sporty car is practically an open invitation to drive aggressively. Insurance costs are likely to be much higher, too. And big SUVs are harder to control and more prone to rolling over at their handling limits.

So what should you buy? AAA recommends a midsized sedan or crossover with a 4-cylinder engine, automatic transmission, and high crash-test scores.

Here's why:

  • A midsized car—based on EPA interior volume classification—is big enough to protect occupants in a crash but small enough for a new driver to handle easily.
  • A crossover can be a good alternative to a midsized car. With their higher seating position, crossovers afford a better view of the road.
  • A 4-cylinder engine limits a car’s acceleration (and hopefully a teen’s desire to show off) and generally provides better fuel economy and a smaller carbon footprint.
  • Cars with automatic transmissions are easier to drive, allowing teens to focus on steering, proper speed, and braking.
  • Traffic crashes are the leading cause of teen deaths. A car with a high crash-test score could reduce the chance of your teen being killed or seriously injured in a crash.

The Automotive Research Center, operated by the Automobile Club of Southern California, has developed the following list of 2016 midsized cars and crossovers, all of which meet the above criteria. Crash-test scores come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website; we chose only vehicles with the maximum 5-star overall rating at the time our list was compiled. Finally, we used criteria from the EPA’s 2016 Fuel Economy Guide to determine that a vehicle met the definition of a midsized sedan or small crossover.

The manufacturer’s suggested retail prices listed are for 2016 base-model vehicles with automatic transmissions, including destination charges. You may want to consider all-wheel drive for your teen’s new car, especially if you live in an area with a lot of rain and snow, because it improves traction in poor weather. Finally, avoid cars with too many electronic gadgets or complicated controls, as they can distract teens from the task at hand: driving.

AAA’s List of Recommended Cars for Teens

Make Model MSRP (including destination charge)
Acura TLX $32,840
BMW X3 $39,945
Buick Encore $24,990
Buick LaCrosse $34,735
Buick Regal $27,990
Chevrolet Malibu $22,500
Chevrolet Trax $21,195
Chrysler 200 $22,990
Ford Fusion $22,995
Ford Fusion Hybrid $26,060
Ford Fusion Energi $31,995
Ford Edge $29,595
Honda Civic $20,275
Honda Accord $23,840
Honda Accord Hybrid $30,440 (2017 price and crash rating)
Honda CR-V $24,745
Honda HR-V $20,915
Hyundai Elantra $18,985 (2017)
Hyundai Sonata Hybrid $26,835
Hyundai Santa Fe Sport $26,245
Hyundai Tucson $23,595
Kia Forte $17,340
Kia Optima Hybrid $26,845
Kia Sorento $25,995
Kia Sportage AWD $23,885 (2017 price)
Lexus NX 200t $35,915
Lincoln MKZ $35,935
Mazda Mazda 3 5-Door $20,430
Mazda Mazda 6 $23,830
Nissan Altima $23,335
Subaru Forester $24,470
Subaru Outback $26,520
Subaru Legacy $22,815
Subaru Crosstrek $22,445
Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid $27,245
Toyota Avalon Hybrid $38,995
Toyota Camry $23,965
Toyota Camry Hybrid $27,685
Toyota Corolla $18,195
Toyota Highlander $31,450
Toyota RAV4 $25,310
Toyota RAV4 Hybrid $29,420
Toyota Prius $25,095
Volkswagen Passat $23,260
Volvo XC60 $37,595

Safety Features Worth Considering

In the past few years, more and more vehicles have come equipped with advanced driver-support systems—such as back-up cameras, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, and rear cross-traffic alert—that make driving easier, less stressful, and safer. These systems can be especially helpful to teen drivers, who are relatively inexperienced and may be more easily distracted than someone who has been driving for a longer time. The systems, though not infallible, act as a safety net that can help prevent certain kinds of driver errors and reduce the harmful consequences. Some of the most popular and effective driver-support systems are:

Back-Up Cameras

NHTSA estimates that 210 people are killed and 15,000 are injured annually by cars backing over them. Of those killed, 31 percent are children under 5 years of age. Additionally, millions of dollars in property damage occur every year when drivers reverse into light poles, buildings, other cars, etc. Back-up cameras can help reduce these incidents. A recent Automotive Research Center study showed that both factory-installed and aftermarket rearview cameras work well, increasing visibility in blind zones by an average of 46 percent.

Many luxury cars—and some midrange vehicles—come with back-up cameras as standard equipment. Drivers like them: More than 90 percent of drivers who have back-up cameras on their current cars want one on their next car, according to a AAA study. They’re going to get their wish; NHTSA has ruled that by May 2018, all new cars sold must have back-up cameras. The systems will cost about $140 per vehicle, or less for vehicles that already have in-dash displays.

Blind-Spot Monitoring

Even with properly adjusted mirrors, blind spots can still exist beside and behind a car. Blind-spot monitoring systems use radar technology to spot vehicles in the lanes on either side of a vehicle, from about the rear half of the car to half a car length behind.

If the system senses a car in those zones, a small icon light—typically on a car’s side mirror—alerts the driver not to make an unsafe lane change. If the turn signal is activated when a vehicle is in a blind spot, the light flashes and a warning tone sounds. Some systems use cameras and an in-dash display to show what’s in the car’s blind spots. Blind-spot monitoring may also have cross-traffic alerts, which help the driver safely back out of a parking spot. Sensors on the sides of the car activate audible and/or visual alerts if traffic is coming from either direction.

Lane-Departure Warning/Lane-Keeping Assist

Teenage drivers sometimes make minor driving mistakes—like drifting from their lane. Lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assist systems use cameras and sensors mounted near the rearview mirror to read ordinary road markings—painted lines and raised center-line pavement markers—to help keep cars in their lane.

If a driver starts to drift out of their lane, the lane-departure warning system alerts them with a sound, a flashing icon on the instrument panel, a pulsing or vibration in the steering wheel or driver’s seat, or a combination of all three. Some seats will even alert you on the same side as the direction of your unintended lane departure.

Lane-keeping assist systems go even further, actively helping keep the vehicle in the correct lane by applying a corrective torque through the steering wheel, or by selectively braking a single wheel to guide the vehicle back into the lane. But this doesn’t mean a teen can just take their hands off the wheel and let the vehicle do all the steering. When a vehicle with lane-keeping assist doesn’t sense steering input from the driver, after about six seconds of hands-off steering, the system will instruct the driver to take hold of the wheel.

Rear Cross-Traffic Alert

Backing out of a parking space in a garage or at the mall can be a harrowing experience. Cars can zip past, and it may be difficult to turn around and check for traffic. Now add a couple of vehicles parked on either side of you, people pushing shopping carts, and wandering pedestrians, and . . . well, you get the idea.

Your car’s back-up camera will help—somewhat. But it still may be difficult to see other vehicles crossing behind you and around the cars parked next to you. If you had a way to see down the row of vehicles on either side of you, that might be helpful in making a safe exit from your parking space.

Rear cross-traffic alert uses radar embedded in the back portion of a vehicle to detect other vehicles crossing behind. When it detects a crossing vehicle, audible and visual alerts warn drivers not to proceed.

Pedestrian Detection and Braking

Pioneered by Volvo as its City Safety feature in 2008 and now available in Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, and Toyota vehicles, pedestrian detection and braking systems use radar and cameras to help drivers avoid hitting pedestrians and other vehicles (including motorcycles and cyclists) in low-speed situations such as urban intersections. They also minimize injuries by warning a driver of a potential crash with visual or audible signals, then slowing or stopping the vehicle if the driver doesn’t react in time. These systems function best in daylight and clear weather conditions to bring a car to a full stop from speeds up to about 20 mph. At greater speeds, the system will slow the vehicle but not bring it to a full stop. However, the lower impact speed will mitigate the effects, and hopefully the injuries, of a crash.

A Final Note

Driver-support systems can be a great boon, especially to inexperienced drivers like teens, but as with any electronics system, they don’t always work, nor are they infallible. The cameras and radar may not always detect other vehicles, and many times they don’t sense other objects in the road. Your teenage driver should always be in control of the vehicle, and understand that driver-support systems are no substitute for safe and mindful driving.


AAA Membership

Is Your Teen Covered?

Add your teen driver to your membership and let AAA be there when you can’t.

Car Buying Services

No-hassle Car Buying

Receive dealer pricing and get a great deal on new and pre-owned cars.

Teen Driving School

Teen Driving School

We're here to help your teen get on the path to safer driving.

Contact Us