Automotive Research

How to find the right car for your teen in 2023

Teen poses with his new AAA membership card as he gets ready to drive

It's a highly anticipated (and scary) time in a parent’s life: Your son or daughter has just turned 16 and is about to get their driver’s license.

Or maybe they're going off to college and will need their first vehicle. But what's the best car for a teen driver? Will you let them use the family vehicle or buy them a new or used one? New cars have more and better safety features, warranties, and are likely to be more reliable than cars even just a few years old. If you’re in the market for something new, how do you pick a safe car that meets your needs and budget?

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

What should you buy for your teen driver?

AAA recommends considering small or midsized sedans and crossover SUVs with available advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), automatic transmissions, and high crash-test scores.

  • 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.
  • Cars with automatic transmissions are easier to drive, allowing teens to focus on steering, proper speed, and braking.
  • Another important consideration is visibility. Many vehicles have good front visibility, but large C-pillars and small rear windows can greatly reduce side and rear visibility.
  • Many states have graduated driver's license laws that limit when teen drivers can have young passengers. Even if your state doesn't, new drivers can easily get distracted by friends along for the ride. If your teen is driving a vehicle that can seat a lot of people (like a minivan), discourage them from having large numbers of friends ride with them. 
  • 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.

Our recommended models for a teen's first car, from the AAA Car Guide

The Automotive Research Center, operated by the Automobile Club of Southern California, has developed the following list of 2022 and 2023 models that meet the above criteria. Crash-test scores come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS); we chose only vehicles with a 4- or 5-star overall rating from NHTSA or an IIHS Top Safety Pick designation from IIHS.

All have a base price under $50,000; 23 of the vehicles have a base price under $40,000. For comparison, the current average price of a new vehicle is around $42,000. The manufacturer’s suggested retail prices listed are for 2022 and 2023 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.

VehicleBase PriceSafety Ratings
2023 Acura Integra A-Spec Tech$35,800IIHS Top Safety Pick +
2022 Audi A3 40 TFSI quattro$35,900IIHS Top Safety Pick with specific headlights
2022 Chevy Bolt EV 2LT$34,200NHTSA 5-star 
2022 Chevy Bolt EUV Premier$37,500NHTSA 5-star 
2022 Ford Maverick XLT FWD$22,280NHTSA 4-star
2022 Honda Civic 2.0L 4D Sport$23,100NHTSA 5-star, IIHS Top Safety Pick+
2023 Honda CR-V Hybrid Sport Touring$38,600IIHS Top Safety Pick+
2023 Honda HR-V AWD EX-L$28,950IIHS Top Safety Pick+
2023 Hyundai Elantra Hybrid Limited$29,000NHTSA 5-star, IIHS Top Safety Pick with specific headlights
2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz Limited AWD$39,720IIHS Top Safety Pick with specific headlights
2022 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Limited$35,550NHTSA 5-star , IIHS Top Safety Pick with specific headlights
2022 Hyundai Tucson Limited AWD$36,100NHTSA 4-star, IIHS Top Safety Pick+
2022 Hyundai Tucson Hybrid Limited AWD$37,350NHTSA 4-star, IIHS Top Safety Pick+
2023 Kia Carnival SX$41,100IIHS Top Safety Pick with specific headlights
2023 Kia Sportage Hybrid EX AWD$30,990IIHS Top Safety Pick with specific headlights
2022 Lexus UX 250h Luxury$40,240NHTSA 5-star, IIHS Top Safety Pick with specific headlights
2023 Mazda CX-50 2.5T Premium Plus$41,550IIHS Top Safety Pick
2022 Mazda MX-30 EV Premium Plus$36,480NHTSA 5-star
2022 Mitsubishi Outlander SE 2.5 S-AWC$30,645IIHS Top Safety Pick+
2022 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X Crew Cab 4X4$37,240NHTSA 5-star
2023 Nissan Leaf SV Plus$35,800NHTSA 5-star
2022 Nissan Pathfinder Platinum 4WD$48,090NHTSA 5-star, IIHS Top Safety Pick+
2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness$32,820NHTSA 5-star, IIHS Top Safety Pick+
2023 Toyota Camry Hybrid SE Nightshade$30,615NHTSA 5-star, IIHS Top Safety Pick+
2022 Toyota Corolla Cross LE FWD$24,545IIHS Top Safety Pick+
2022 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Bronze Edition$45,480NHTSA 5-star, IIHS Top Safety Pick+
2022 Toyota RAV4 Prime XSE AWD$43,125IIHS Top Safety Pick+
2022 Toyota Sienna XLE$39,850NHTSA 5-star, IIHS Top Safety Pick+
2022 Volkswagen Taos 1.5T SEL$31,490NHTSA 4-star

Safety features worth considering

Back-up cameras

An 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%.

Blind spot monitoring

Even with properly adjusted mirrors, blind spots still exist beside and behind a car. Monitoring systems use radar to alert drivers to vehicles in the lanes on either side, from about the rear half of the car to half a car length behind.

Lane departure warning

Teen drivers sometimes make minor driving mistakes, like drifting from their lane. Lane departure warning and lane-keeping assist systems read ordinary road markings and warn drivers when they’re drifting over the line.

Rear cross traffic alert

This technology uses radar to detect objects crossing behind a vehicle when it’s in reverse. When a possible collision is detected, audible and visual alerts warn drivers not to proceed.

Pedestrian detection & braking

These 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.

A final note

Driver-support systems can be a great boon to inexperienced drivers like teens, but as with any electronics system, they’re not infallible. Remind your teen driver that driver-support systems are no substitute for safe driving.

Looking for a dealer you can trust?

AAA members can enjoy a great car buying experience with AAA Car Buying Service. Find the car you want from a certified dealer and feel confident in the price you’re paying.

AAA Car Buying Service is only available to AAA members. Outside of Southern California, AAA Car Buying Service is managed by TrueCar, Inc. Only car buying research tools are available in Hawai‘i.


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