The day has finally come for your teenager to gain some hard-won autonomy and get behind the wheel. This rite of passage maybe fraught for them, studying for the written exam, practicing for the driving exam, figuring out how late after curfew they push it before they get the keys taken away. For parents, aside from the nerve-wracking driving exam prep, possibly the hardest part of getting kids on the road is landing on the right vehicle. There are two major criteria when searching for a vehicle for your driving newbie teenager. First and foremost is safety. Despite their inexperience behind the wheel, piloting several thousand pounds of metal (hopefully at the regulated speed) shouldn’t put your teenager in undue danger. The second criterion is price. Unless your kid’s gotten themselves a paid summer internship at the local brokerage firm, they’re unlikely to be footing the bill for their first car, at least not in its entirety. That leaves it up to you, dear parents, to find the safest vehicle at the most affordable price. To help you in your search we’ve compiled a list of top safety-rated vehicles under $6,000, as analyzed by the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) and the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety).

Mid-Size Cars

2009–10 Volkswagen Jetta

Volkswagen Jetta
Volkswagen Jetta from

The 2009 and 2010 Volkswagen Jetta provide a slightly “sportier” drive than some of our other candidates, which may or may not be what you’re looking for in a teen’s car. The Jetta also boasts a highly respectable EPA gas mileage rating of 29 city / 40 highway. The Jetta proves a both fun and affordable option.

Read more about the Volkswagen Jetta here.

2011 Ford Fusion

Ford Fusion
Ford Fusion from

The 2011 Ford Fusion comes with many of its safety features standard, so unlike some models on this list you won’t need to pay more to get more. Traction control, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, and 6 front and side airbags all come standard.

The Fusion gets an EPA estimate of 22 city / 32 highway mpg, while the hybrid version improves to an impressive 41 city / 36 highway.

2008 Audi A3

Audi A3
Audi A3 from

A stylish five-door hatchback adding sophistication along with safety. This compact crossover version of the A4 grants a high-end driving experience without breaking the bank. Sorry in advance if, after starting out with an Audi, your teen ends up a bit spoiled when it comes to their taste in vehicles, but then again, the next car comes out of their pocket not yours, right? The Audi A3 averages an EPA estimated 29 highway and offers Electronic Stability, ABS with Break Assist, and an electronic locking front differential among its standard safety features.

Read our new vs used Audi A3 comparison here.

2010 Chevrolet Malibu

Chevrolet Malibu
Chevrolet Malibu from

A pillar of the past decade’s rental car scene, the Chevrolet Malibu has workman-like handling and a clear focus on basic practicality. The Malibu has a decently roomy interior along with a respectable 15.1 cubic foot trunk in which to pack all your kid’s belongings for when you eventually ship them off to college. The EPA estimated 22 city / 30 highway is par for the course. Six air-bags, ABS, and Electronic Stability System all come standard.

2011 Hyundai Sonata

Hyundai Sonata
Hyundai Sonata from

At the time, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata had received a substantial redesign both inside and out with improved safety features and modern stylings in the interior so that today it ends up feeling more like a product of this decade than the last. For instance, it comes with ABS, electronic stability and traction control as standard safety features as well as keyless entry, six-speaker stereo system, and Bluetooth and USB connection also standard. With a smooth ride and above average EPA estimated 24 city / 35 highway in gas mileage, the 2011 Sonata checks a lot of boxes.

Large Cars

Note: These three may nudge slightly over our $6,000 target, but we consider them a steal when it comes to quality and safety.

2007–10 Volvo S80

Volvo S80
Volvo S80 from

That’s right, a highly safety-rated luxury car for around $6,000. The Volvo S80’s high safety marks shouldn’t surprise, but the value on tap might. The most prized features all reside in the cabin. The Volvo S80 boasts plenty of leg room both front and back, plush seating (available in leather), and an elegantly designed and intuitive control panel. But under the hood this one’s pretty pedestrian, which, as a teen vehicle, is probably another point in favor of the S80. With that said, some models did come with an optional V-8, you’ve been warned. Other options you might be more inclined toward including are the blind-spot warning system and adaptive cruise-control equipped on some models. These and other perks might be worth going slight over the $6,000 mark to acquire. The S80 gets an EPA combined mileage rating of 21-22mpg.

2010 Buick LaCrosse

Buick LaCrosse
Buick LaCrosse from

The Buick LaCrosse offers a smooth and quiet ride, which, in this price range isn’t necessarily easy to come by. As you might expect it’s the LaCrosse’s interior that earns it highest marks. Nice touches include the plentiful leg-room, heated and cooled front seats, and the CXS Blue Interior lighting, which comes to life as the sun dims. An 11-speaker sound system with USB port ensures the beats keep bumping. Safety features include stability and traction control, full side-curtain airbags, and anti-lock brakes. The LaCrosse gets a combined 20 mpg.

2010 Ford Taurus

Ford Taurus
Ford Taurus from

It’s too bad Ford has decided to bow out of the sedan business because their redesign of the Ford Taurus in 2010 was a quality contribution to the segment. The Taurus’ interior is a mixture of quality and comfort and provides plenty of room both in the cabin and in its sizable 20.1 cubic-foot trunk. The one notable detraction from some reviewers was the substantial curb weight (and reduced agility), but for the safety focused consumer, bigger means better. Speaking of safety, the Taurus features five-star crash test ratings, along with rollover sensors and stability control standard. Keep an eye out for the SHO version which features an EcoBoost twin-turbocharged V-6 engine. That could be fun for when you borrow your teen’s car but may not be the kind of temptation you want sitting under the hood. The Taurus gets an EPA estimated 18 city / 28 highway mpg.

Small SUVs

2007–11 Honda Element

Honda Element
Honda Element from

They don’t get much boxier than the Honda Element, but that fact ends up contributing both to its charm and its functionality. The Element is truly a unique vehicle intended to turn heads and inspire devotees. A forerunner in the “boxy” body craze, the Element has oodles style including unique painted bumpers, a lowered ride height, and 18-inch wheels as a standard feature. What really sets the Element apart however is the versatility of its cargo area. In addition to the accommodating rear hatch, the Element’s side doors swing wide to allow ease of ingress and egress for passengers and cargo alike. The rear seats can be both laid flat or folded up and to the side for maximum capacity. For standard safety features the Element is equipped with standard front side airbags with passenger-side Occupant Position Detection System (OPDS) and supplemental restraint system (SRS) to minimize potential airbag injuries. The Element averages 25 mpg.

2009 Volkswagen Tiguan

Volkswagen Tiguan
Volkswagen Tiguan from

Perhaps your teen has a playful streak, if so, the Volkswagen Tiguan might be the right fit. This Volkswagen’s most compelling feature could actually be its name, a portmanteau of Tiger and Iguana in German (turns out this works in English too). The Tiguan works hard to straddle the line between practicality and fun. There’s plenty of room in the rear seat for taller passengers and quality trim throughout the interior. The console controls are laid out intuitively, so changing the radio or adjusting the climate control can be done with minimal distraction. The ride is fairly smooth and responsive for a crossover and drives more like a car than an SUV. While not the top of its class, the Tiguan offers ample cargo space which can be supplemented by sliding the variable rear seats backward and forward 6 inches allowing for a full 56 cubic feet of space. The Tiguan gets an 18 city / 25 highway mpg rating.

2009 Subaru Forester

Subaru Forrester
Subaru Forrester from

Like many entries on this list, the 2009 Forester was a redesign. As you might expect from a Subaru, the Forester offers a roomy interior, the solid reliability which has become a hallmark of the brand, and, of course, high safety ratings. The standard all-wheel drive is an especially nice feature for teens who will be dealing with snowy or otherwise challenging road conditions on a regular basis. The interior might be less refined than either the Tiguan or Element, but what the Forester might lack in style it makes up for in practicality with plenty of head and leg room for passengers and a cargo area featuring a whopping 68 cubic feet at its max. The four-cylinder version clocks a 24 city / 27 highway mpg.

Mid-Size SUV

2010 Dodge Journey

Dodge Journey
Dodge Journey from

The Dodge Journey may not be the most sophisticated or athletic among its segment competitors, but the reason it makes this list is due to its safety to cost ratio. The Ford Edge might give you a bump in handling and the Toyota Vensa might provide a smoother ride with comparable safety features, they will both cost quite a bit more than the Journey. Our sweet-spot of affordability and safety is squarely occupied by the Dodge. The Journey comes with an optional third-row in case your kid happens to be, like, super popular or something. For the best gas mileage look for the four-cylinder which averages 23 city / 25 highway mpg.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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1 Comment

  1. kks June 4, 2019

    My nephew just graduated from Driver Ed … time for an upgrade!


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