Carmakers have a love-hate relationship with young people. Youthful demographics are among the most desirable in the car market, but people who wear suits are also concerned that teenagers and 20-somethings are more interested in smartphones than cars.
Regardless, most people will need a set of wheels eventually. The question is: what kind?
Here is a list of sensible choices spanning several categories. While some models listed here (and the categories themselves) are very new, most are available on the used market at a significant discount.
New or used, these cars combine value, reliability, and safety without being tragically boring.
Micro Car: Honda Fit
The Fit is one of the last glimmers of Honda’s past greatness. Honda used to be known for small, simple cars like the CVCC and CRX that were economical, reliable, and fun to drive.
The Fit isn’t as sporty as a CRX, but it is economical, reliable, and doesn’t feel like a toy or a car built to a price. Instead, it feels like a real car that happens to be small.
It’s also surprisingly roomy, with trick folding rear seats providing wagon-like cargo space. That could come in handy for future moves to and from college dorms.
Hatchback/Sedan: Mazda 3
The Mazda 3 covers all of the first car bases: it’s reliable, affordable, and a high performer in crash tests. Added benefits include high-fuel economy and an interior eloquently mirroring luxury sedans, rendering it ideal for the new driver possessing an affinity for the design of a much more expensive vehicle.
Though it’s sure to be please parents given its safety ratings, the Mazda 3 also has a long list of available tech features aimed to satisfy the appetites of today’s you, tech-savvy drivers. Moreover, the 2.0-liter engine provides just enough kick it up to highway speeds, but not enough to truly capitalize on those youthful inclinations to speed over legal velocities.
Pickup: Toyota Tacoma
The car industry is shying away from compact trucks, but something less gargantuan than an F-150 or Tundra would be a good choice for a new driver. Learning how to drive one is much easier when you can see the end of the hood.
Like all Toyotas, the Tacoma is also legendarily reliable. After the apocalypse, the only things left on Earth will be some cockroaches, Keith Richards, and Toyota trucks.
Coupe: Hyundai Elantra
Most teenagers don’t have many possessions or children to lug around, so it’s the perfect time to buy an impractical car.
Other than looking good, coupes don’t really serve a purpose. The Hyundai Elantra looks better than most, so logically it deserves a spot on this list.
Like its competition, the Elantra Coupe is really just a sedan shorn of two doors. That’s not necessarily a bad thing here: the four-door Elantra is well built and reliable, and someone who is still learning to drive shouldn’t hop into a muscle car, anyway.
SUV: Subaru Forester
Subaru is known for putting all-wheel drive on every car it makes (except the BRZ sports car, that is), and that makes the Forester admirably unpretentious.
It may look like a boxy utility vehicle, but the Forester is more like an Impreza wagon than an SUV. That means it won’t be able to negotiate the Rubicon Trail, but it also means this Subie handles like a car, making it less of a handful for new drivers.
Of course, there are other car-based CUVs out there, but few of them can take as much abuse as the stolid Forester. There just isn’t much on it to damage.
Hybrid: Toyota Prius c
The Prius c is a good compromise between affordability and fuel economy. At $19,080, it’s cheaper than the original Prius ($24,200), but gets significantly better fuel economy (53 mpg city, 46 mpg highway) than the slightly less expensive Honda Insight ($18,600; 41/44 mpg).
Toyota intended the Prius c to be an entry level model into a “family” of hybrids. Hopefully that means owners will get good deals when they trade in their cars for bigger models.
EV: Chevrolet Spark
The high prices and low ranges of electric cars make them less than ideal for new drivers, but anyone more interested in saving the planet than being practical should consider the Chevy Spark EV.
The Spark undercuts the Nissan Leaf in both price and size, making it perfect for younger drivers who don’t need a midsize vehicle. Yet its more substantial than the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which is based on a tiny Japanese-market kei-car.
The Spark’s 400 pound-feet of torque should also make it decently entertaining to drive.
Sports Car: Mazda MX-5 Miata
The Miata is a great first car because it will teach its owner the joys of driving. It’s the embodiment of the phrase “fun to drive,” thanks to its light weight and nimble rear-wheel drive chassis.
That doesn’t mean that parents need to worry about their kids getting out of control. The Miata is definitely fun, but it’s not really fast.
Like other Japanese cars, the Miata is also known for reliability. It’s also incredibly cheap, whether you buy new or dip into the seemingly limitless supply of used examples.
Uncategorized: Nissan Juke
Car companies are always trying to pitch oddball cars, like the Honda Element and Scion xB, to young drivers for no apparent reason. They only seem to make sense as first cars because anyone over the age of 30 would be embarrassed to be seen in one.
The Nissan Juke is one of these cars, but somehow it manages to be cool. It’s truly different, blurring the line between CUV and compact hatchback. It has a high driving position, but also handles like a car. Its styling is so ugly that it’s actually kind of cute.
Staff Writer Joe Donovan contributed to this guide.