Woman in her car buckling her seatbelt.

The Best Used Cars For New Drivers

David Collins9-minute read
UPDATED: December 12, 2022


The cliché that immediately comes to mind when we think “new driver” is an eager, impulsive 16-year-old kid who can’t wait to get in a car – any car – and dive straight into the adventure that driving can bring. This is only partly accurate, of course. Some young drivers are reluctant, even terrified, to get behind the wheel. They correctly recognize the enormous responsibility one takes on when guiding a multi-thousand-pound vehicle on the road, where mistakes can quickly cause damage to property and even lives.

And not all new drivers are young. Cars are expensive, and some people are not able to afford a one until they are older. Not everyone has the opportunity to learn how to drive when they’re younger. Maybe they grew up in a big city with very accessible public transportation, or in a rural community where walking was the way to get around.

But America has been largely built up by and around the automobile, particularly over the last 100 years. Outside of large cities that have cheap and reliable public transportation, most American communities, even smaller ones, are scaled such that people need a car to function. If you can’t drive one, your options are very limited, even to just buy groceries.

What Matters Most For New Drivers

When considering the purchase of a used car for a new driver in the family, there are a number of factors to keep in mind. First, the car should be relatively small. A small car is easier to handle, especially in tight spaces. Anyone who has ever tried to park a full-size pickup truck in a suburban parking lot will know this. Second, the car should be fuel-efficient. Assuming most new drivers are young people, they will not have a lot of extra cash to fill their gas tank, especially with current soaring gas prices.

But the #1 consideration for new car drivers is safety. American roads are well-built and well-regulated, and drivers are fairly experienced, but there is always a danger to driving, especially in urban and suburban areas with lots of traffic. Thanks to consumer protection laws, modern cars are safer than they have ever been, dramatically so when compared to 40 or 50 years ago.

Features To Look Out For

Today’s cars benefit tremendously from the development of sensor technologies and computer-assisted guidance systems that greatly enhance driver safety. A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), for instance, found that cars equipped with forward automatic emergency braking are half as likely to crash into a vehicle in front of them as those without the technology. With each new model year features keep getting better, but many of them exist in used cars that are 10 years old or more. Before purchasing a used car for your new driver, be sure to find out which (if any) safety technology the car comes equipped with. While each automaker uses slightly different terminology for these features, they all offer them as options and many trim packages include all of the following:

Automatic emergency braking system: Uses a forward collision warning system to sense an imminent collision ahead and uses automated emergency braking to apply the brakes faster than a person could react.

Electronic stability control: Detects when one or more wheels have lost traction and compensates by applying the brakes until traction is restored. This is important for inexperienced drivers because the loss of traction can cause them to lose control of the vehicle.

Anti-lock braking system: Keeps the wheels from locking so that the car can still be steered to avoid a collision while the brakes are depressed. Anti-lock brakes are now standard on most vehicles.

Blind spot monitoring: Uses sensors to detect vehicles in adjacent lanes and provides the driver with a visual or auditory warning when they get too close.

Lane departure warning: Alerts distracted drivers if they begin to veer out of their lane so they can make a quick correction to get back on course.

There are lots of ways to determine the best vehicles for a new driver, but we’ll concentrate on used small and medium-sized cars and SUVs that have some mileage on them. These are non-luxury cars that scored very well when tested by the IIHS and/or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). We’ll assume that most new drivers are teenagers who live in a household that already has one or more cars in the driveway – so budgeting for under $10,000 or $20,000 is likely necessary. If your new driver is an adult who wishes to drive a newer car, the more recent models of most of these vehicles typically score high on safety as well.

Great Cars For New Drivers Under $10,000

Small Car: 2012-2018 Ford Focus

Front and side view of a bright blue Ford Focus.

Aside from earning a Top Safety Pick designation from the IIHS, the 2012 Focus was a very successful complete re-design of a Ford brand that had lost its way. Critics raved about the new Focus, including Edmunds which deemed this car “the segment’s new benchmark.” The 2012 Focus benefitted from all of the new technology features available at the time, including a backup camera and the MyFord Touch system, which did away with a number of knobs and buttons in favor of a prominent touchscreen as well as voice commands. The inline 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine achieves 160 hp, which more than adequate for a small car. The suspension and handling grade out well, too, with comparisons to top European small cars. A well-maintained 2012 Ford Focus with less than 100,000 miles would be a reliable, fuel-efficient car for a young person commuting to school or a job.

Midsize Car: 2011 Hyundai Sonata

Light gray Hyundai Sonata driving down a street.

Source: vector_master - stock.adobe.com

The 2011 Hyundai Sonata was the first year of a redesigned model that garnered excellent reviews for its spacious, well-equipped interior and sophisticated styling, as well as its safety features, which earned this car a Top Safety Pick from the IIHS. A number of features we take for granted in 2022 were available back when this model of the Sonata was built, including convenience features like keyless entry, USB ports, push-button start, and Bluetooth. Among the safety features that were standard in 2011 are six airbags, electronic stability control and traction control, and anti-lock brakes. The 2011 Sonata was a popular seller when new, and there is now a good number to choose from in the used car market, many of which can be had for less than $10,000.

Small SUV: 2012 Nissan Rogue

Front view of a gray Nissan Rogue parked in a desert area.

Source: Santi Rodríguez - stock.adobe.com

For an adult new driver who is a bit more accustomed to living in style than your average American teenager, the 2012 Nissan Rogue is an excellent choice that can now be found priced below $10,000. Reviewers consistently lauded the Rogue for comfortable seating and stylish interior finishes. While some SUVs sacrifice performance and handling for utility and cargo space, the 2012 Rogue was notable for its sedan-like handling that rivals segment superstars Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. While the 2012 model did not earn top safety honors, it did get 4 out of 5 stars from the IIHS. Standard safety features include active front head restraint, front seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags, antilock brakes and stability control. The biggest detraction for the ’12 Rogue has been a noisy continuous variable transmission.

Midsize SUV: 2008 Honda Pilot

Front view of a Honda Pilot driving through shallow water.

Source: art_zzz - stock.adobe.com

First, safety. The 2008 Honda Pilot was the beneficiary of several key safety features becoming standard equipment in the years leading up to its release, including a significant structural upgrade in 2006 that bolstered the SUV’s integrity in front end crashes. That year also saw the addition of side head curtain airbags for all three rows of seats. The ’08 Pilot received an IIHS Top Safety Pick thanks to these efforts and more. For a new driver with a growing family, the ’08 Pilot delivers with three rows of seating and room for eight passengers plus another 87.6 cubic feet of cargo space for camping equipment or groceries.

Great Cars For New Drivers Under $20,000

Small Car: 2018 Mazda 3

Front and side view of a dark blue-gray Mazda 3.

Mazda is a brand that has been trending up, not only challenging established Japanese super-brands like Toyota and Honda, but also bringing a kind of design and luxury feel that relates more to Lexus and Acura. In fact, Mazda had the first ever Japanese car to win the World Car Design of the Year award with the 2016 Miata – as well as the second with the 2020 Mazda 3. A later model Mazda 3 found a place on our list of Best Looking Used Cars in 2022. And yet the Mazda 3 is still marketed in the affordable small car class. Not only did this car earn IIHS Top Safety pick in both its sedan and hatchback models, but it also consistently won praise for both styling and performance – an automotive trifecta of sorts. This is a fun, sporty, safe car that can now be found on the used car market for less than $20,000. An Edmunds review summed it up well: “In the competitive budget-conscious compact sedan and hatchback class, the 2018 Mazda 3 is a rarity for exceeding expectations and delivering far more than its price would suggest.”

Midsize Car: 2015 Subaru Legacy

Front and side view of a dark blue-gray Subaru Legacy.

Subaru is synonymous with safety and reliability, so when looking for a quality used car for a new driver that costs less than $20,000, the 2015 Legacy is an excellent choice. With a stylish design, low cost of ownership and impressive safety ratings, the Subaru Legacy is as reliable as it is fun to drive. Like its family-sized siblings the Forester and the Outback, the 2015 Legacy sedan got a five-star safety rating from the NHTSA and was an IIHS Top Safety Pick. It received a good rating in every category tested, and with optional safety equipment, it received superior ratings. The Legacy comes with rear collision alert, electronic stability control, side-impact beams and braking assist. Teens will enjoy SiriusXM radio with speed-compensated volume, a USB port and outlet to charge their devices on the go and the ability to manage the onboard entertainment system through controls located on the steering wheel. This keeps their eyes on the road so they’re less likely to be distracted.

Small SUV: 2018 Kia Sportage

Front and side view of a deep red Kia Sportage.

2018 was the second year of this fourth iteration of the Kia Sportage, which is the longest running nameplate for the Korean automaker. Surviving and thriving for so long in an extremely competitive market class is a great endorsement for this vehicle as one of the most reliable small SUVs you can purchase. The 2018 Kia Sportage was the #1-rated small SUV overall for that model year, according to J.D. Power, and had a reliability score of 87 out of 100. Perhaps most importantly for new drivers, the ’18 Sportage received five out of five stars from the NHTSA, which gave it five stars in the side crash test and four stars in both the frontal crash and rollover tests.

Midsize SUV: 2016 Chevy Equinox

Front and side view of a black Chevrolet Equinox.

The 2016 Chevrolet Equinox received an 89/100 reliability rating from J.D. Power & Associates, best in the Compact SUV class, as well as 56% 5-star ratings from consumers reporting to Kelley Blue Book. The top-end 3.6-liter V-6 engine topped its class with 301 hp, contributing to a 3,500-pound tow rating in all-wheel drive. The Equinox is one of the top-selling SUVs of the last decade, which means there is a large number of them available on the used car market for less than $20,000. This is a solid, practical SUV. Equinox drivers enjoy a spacious, flexible interior. The rear seat slides forward or back up to 8 inches to create extra leg room or a maximum 63.7 cubic feet of cargo space. The best safety configuration includes forward collision warning and earned Equinox a top safety rating from the IIHS.

The Bottom Line: The Best Cars For New Drivers Have High Safety Ratings

Cars are not only fun and give an individual a whole new level of freedom in modern society, they are also pretty much essential. Except for people who live in a high-functioning city that is walkable and has excellent public transportation, most Americans need a car to do basic things like go to work or buy groceries. But driving a car is not without its perils – it can be dangerous, especially for a new, inexperienced driver. In shopping for a car for a new driver, safety is the highest priority. Fortunately, every vehicle on the road has undergone rigorous safety testing by independent, objective agencies such as the IIHS and the NHTSA. The results of these tests are easy to find on the internet and should be consulted when considering the purchase of any car. Other considerations should be fuel efficiency and overall vehicle size. Smaller cars and SUVs generally get excellent gas mileage and are easier for inexperienced drivers to maneuver in a tight parking lot or heavy traffic.

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David Collins

David Collins is a staff writer for Rocket Auto, Rocket Solar, and Rocket Homes. He has experience in communications for the automotive industry, reference publishing, and food and wine. He has a degree in English from the University of Michigan.