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Original publish date 10/7/2015 — Updated 6/3/2023
High school shouldn’t be about labels. Unfortunately, when you’re 16 and going to class with the same people every day, labels are what people talk about. Don’t worry: They all disintegrate when you get your diploma, anyway.
For now, though, you’re trapped in this prison for four years. Know what would spice up your life and give you street cred in the halls? Your first high school car. You’ve begged your parents enough and raised a little bit of cash. You’ve earned this, right?
Considerations for Your First Car
Well — let’s be honest for a second. You don’t need a car like a Porche in high school. Or a new car in general. Here are a few factors that make the best cars for teens.
It Should Be Cheap
You’re still learning how to drive. I know, you think you know it all when you’re in high school. Trust me, I did too. However, now that I look back I realize that all of my speeding tickets were from when I was under 20, and the only times I ever ran into other vehicles were when I was high school-aged as well. Like anything, you get better as you go. You don’t want a super expensive car when you’re just learning how to drive — that’s just asking for trouble.
It Should Be Older
Your friends WILL ruin it. Even if you think you’re going to take good care of your car, you have very little control over your friends, who will not care one bit about your car. I distinctly remember an instance in high school where I looked back and my “friend” was stabbing holes in the back seat of my van with a screwdriver. He seemed surprised when I was upset by this.
If you think “Well, they wouldn’t do that to a nicer car,” then think again. One day after drumline, some friends and I were throwing water balloons at each other, and one of them purposefully chucked one through the open window of my friend’s Pontiac Firebird. Ouch.
It Should Be Reliable
You’ll be driving it everywhere. You want a car that can handle the miles without you worrying about it losing value. You’ll be taking it on road trips, taco runs, trips to concerts two states away and more. It will haul people, instruments, sports equipment, your girlfriend and anything that needs to get from Point A to Point B as fast as possible. Pick a car that’s durable and won’t mind hitting a few potholes or driving through a field.
The Best First Car for Teenagers
Here’s a selection of the best cars for teens that are safe, reliable and won’t break your budget. We’ve selected models that are new enough to last you for the next several years — through college if you maintain them. Each of these makes and models generally comes in under $20,000. This may seem like a steep price, but with inflation, even older cars are getting more expensive.
This is pretty much the quintessential high school student car, and there are many good reasons why it holds that title. It’s inexpensive, reliable and efficient. Any model from 2012-2015 will be easy on your wallet and includes more safety features than the previous releases. The 2012 Si has a manual transmission option if you like the extra control.
Plus, you can find these anywhere and everywhere, so you can shop around for the best deal and have an easier time finding replacement parts. You may not turn any heads, but you’ll save a ton of money in the long run.
Much like the Civic, Camrys can mold to anyone’s personality. Are you a straight-A student, a bit of a troublemaker or somewhere in between? The Camry might not look too exciting, but it’ll stick with you for the next several years.
Since Camrys are incredibly dependable, people usually rack up a lot of miles on them. Don’t be discouraged if the model you find has high mileage. The best model year for value, however, is the generation built between 2012 and 2017. The redesign in 2012 featured a larger trunk and better gas mileage over previous years. Starting with 2013 models you can also get rear cross-traffic alerts. You’ll get bang for your buck and a ride to fit any personality.
It’s sporty and it can hold a decent amount of cargo, too. The Jetta sweet spot is the 2016 model year. These cars have a 150 hp turbo base engine and plenty of active safety features. You’ll also enjoy the inclusion of Apple Car Play or Android Mirroring in many packages, keeping your hands free so you can focus on the road. The Jetta’s handling, acceleration and engine are legendary.
While Jettas used to be luxury cars, Volkswagen has attempted to change its designs over the years to appeal to a broader U.S. demographic. This model reflects the best meeting of luxurious design and money savings.
Eleventh-generation Toyota Corollas lasted from 2014-2016, and in terms of driving and features, they are very similar to future iterations. Impressive fuel mileage is evidenced by its 27 mpg city and 35 mpg highway, while a 1.8-liter engine provides plenty of power. Teenagers can safely consider eleventh-generation Toyota Corollas as affordable vehicles that offer many of the same amenities and specs as newer models.
Even if it’s not cutting-edge or defying norms, Corolla is a reliable compact sedan with good fuel economy and positive resale value.
The 2010-2012 Ford Fusion was one of the best midsize sedan options upon its release and remains in the top echelon, especially for high school students. A powerful V6, anti-lock brakes and side-curtain airbags are a few of the vehicle’s amenities. Plus, you can easily find these for under $10,000.
This model was Ford’s answer to competitors like the Chevrolet Malibu and Toyota Camry. With excellent mileage that beats those models, it’s a great vehicle that’s green-friendly and fit for an environmentally conscious student. It may be an older car, but it will still get you where you want to go.
The 2017 Toyota Prius made amazing safety features the standard, with pedestrian detection, lane departure among others. You also get the luxury of adaptive cruise control and automatic high beams. On top of that, it has excellent fuel economy — 58 mpg in stop-and-go traffic and 53 mpg on the highway.
While a hybrid car isn’t typically an ideal fit for a student, this is a reliable and trusted hybrid that saves ample money at the gas pump.
Ranking at the top of U.S. News and World Report’s list of the top compact cars for both newer and older models, the Kia Soul is an eye-catching option that has ample cargo space, great safety features and nifty interior tech. Its 61.3 cubic feet of potential cargo space is great for high school and college students alike, making the list of the best compact cars for decent fuel economy — 24 mpg in the city, 30 mpg on the highway. It has a powertrain warranty, premium cabin and forward collision and lane departure warnings.
The car also uses the UVO infotainment system, which enables passengers to connect their phone via Bluetooth to the system. This allows for hands-free access in addition to a 4.3-inch touch screen. The music, with the Infinity audio system, also produces a very clean sound, with subwoofer and external amp included. For a stylish and technologically impressive car for a student, the Kia Soul fits the bill.
Your high school years aren’t just about going to class. They’re about finding people to hang with and making trips that you’ll remember for a lifetime. The Subaru Outback is a perfect car for the job, and it can even follow you to college for more memories.
It has AWD and a whole lot of space, so you can tackle the winter with no problems. The 2013 model is a great bet. You can find them at a good price point and they feature a four-cylinder drivetrain and revised suspension. The seats also fold down leaving enough room for two sleepers, making it a great option for camping trips.
Safety features headline the affordable Chevrolet Malibu. The seventh-generation, 2008-2012, models are ideal for the student, with safety features that include side and side-curtain airbags, traction control, anti-lock brakes and the OnStar system. Plus, a remote starter is a feature any student will love to have on a cold day.
Hybrid Malibus are also an option, which can up the capacity to 35 mpg. Front-wheel drive, six-speed automatic and considerable rear-seat legroom are other highlights. You can still find these for sale for under $10,000.
The Subaru Forester is a stylish crossover with ample cargo space — 58 cubic feet to be precise. The four-cylinder engine clocks in at 2.5 liters and 170 horsepower, which is fine for highways. Some options in this range offer better fuel mileage, as the Forester sits at 20 mpg city and 26 mpg highway, though it’s a spacious and safe vehicle that can be ideal for a student without a very lofty commute.
It’s also a fit for those with more temperamental weather climates, as it comes with standard all-wheel drive, a plus for any schools with significant snowfall.
The Elantra is a compact sedan from Hyundai with sleek styling and powerful equipment, like a 148-horsepower, 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine. Showing off 29 mpg city and 40 mpg highway, it’s a fuel-efficient vehicle that’s also safe. Side-curtain airbags, stability and traction control, and anti-lock brakes are all included.
Heated rear seats and a backup camera are high-tech features that make this car look even more like a steal.
Your Best First Car Is Waiting
So when you’re looking for that perfect high school car, grab one of these and you won’t be disappointed. Then in a few years, after you’ve graduated and found a job, get a nice car that you can afford and take good care of it. Before long, you’ll be shopping for a car for your high school-aged son or daughter. Then you’ll be ready to convince them that they‘ll survive without the convertible they have their eye on.