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The best cars for teens

Teens and their parents have trouble agreeing on most things these days. Finding the best car for a teen driver is often a contentious subject, needing to find the balance of safety, affordability, and features. When it comes down to it, it’s the Mazda 3.

Digital Trends had nearly 90 hands-on reviews of new cars in 2019 and can attest to other great options for teens, too. From sporty to spacious, all with an eye on safety, these are our picks for the best rides for teens. 

The best car for teens: Mazda 3

2019 Mazda Mazda3 AWD review
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Why should you buy this: It’s safe and reliable, but not boring.

Who’s it for: Budding car enthusiasts.

How much will it cost: $21,500+

Why we picked the Mazda 3:

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The Mazda 3 is a great car for teens because it’s simply a great car. It will indoctrinate them into the concept that cars can be fun and entertaining even when they have to be practical, and it also checks important boxes like reliability, value, and safety.

Unlike many other compact cars, the Mazda 3 gives its driver more than just basic transportation. Handling is above average, exterior styling is pleasing to the eye, and even the base 2.0-liter engine is pretty zingy, making the most of its 155 horsepower (a 184hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder is available on higher trim levels).

The Mazda 3 also offers plenty of tech features like a nine-speaker Bose audio system and head-up display, albeit as optional extras. The rotary controller paired with the standard touchscreen display is easy to use, and paranoid parents can spec safety features like autonomous emergency braking and rear cross traffic alert.

Read our Mazda 3 review

The best green car for teens: Hyundai Ioniq

Hyundai Ioniq hybrid

Why should you buy this: It’s a solid car with a choice of three green powertrains.

Who’s it for: Up-and-coming environmentalists.

How much will it cost: $23,200+ (hybrid)

Why we picked the Hyundai Ioniq:

The Hyundai Ioniq may look like just another hatchback, but that’s because the company put all of the effort into the powertrain. Developed to take on the Toyota Prius, the Ioniq is offered in hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and battery-electric flavors.

Whichever powertrain you pick, the Ioniq offers impressive efficiency. The Ioniq Hybrid gets an EPA-rated 55 mpg combined (58 mpg in the efficiency-focused Blue trim), while the Ioniq Plug-In Hybrid can operate solely on electric power for up to 29 miles with an efficiency rating of 119 MPGe combined. Finally, the Ioniq Electric offers 170 miles of range at 133 MPGe combined. With this kind of efficiency, trips to the gas station will be a rare occurrence.

Hyundai also tried to make the Ioniq fun. The Ioniq Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid use a six-speed dual-clutch transmission for snappier responses, and the chassis was tuned for relatively lively handling. The combination of efficiency, a focus on driving dynamics, and typical Hyundai value makes the Ioniq a worthy contender.

Our Hyundai Ioniq review

The best sports car for teens: Subaru BRZ

2018 Subaru BRZ
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Why should you buy this: It’s all the sports car you’ll ever need.

Who’s it for: Wannabe racers.

How much will it cost: $28,845+

Why we picked the Subaru BRZ:

The Subaru BRZ is exactly the kind of car enthusiasts beg car companies to make. Like its nearly identical sibling, the Toyota 86 , the BRZ is a relatively inexpensive, small rear-wheel-drive sports car that offers a high ratio of fun per dollar.

With its low-slung two-door coupe body and exciting driving experience, the BRZ is one cool item. But it’s not exactly the fastest car in the world, which should be a relief to parents. The 2.0-liter flat-four engine produces 205hp, which is enough to let the BRZ get out of its own way, but not too much for new drivers to handle.

As driving skill and bank accounts expand, the BRZ still has a lot to offer. The Subaru sports car has become a darling of the aftermarket, so there are plenty of opportunities to boost performance with modifications.

The best pickup truck for teens: Toyota Tacoma

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Why should you buy this: It can stand up to all kinds of abuse.

Who’s it for: People with things to haul and trails to scour.

How much will it cost: $26,050+

Why we picked the Toyota Tacoma:

For someone who is just learning how to drive, it’s probably best to go with a smaller, more maneuverable truck than the full-size rigs that dominate the market. The midsize pickup truck segment has experienced a rebirth lately, with reinvigorated entries from General Motors, Jeep, Ford, and Honda showing up over the past couple of years. But Toyota has been there all along.

The Tacoma stuck it out through the lean times, and got a full redesign for the 2016 model year. The current-generation truck features tough-looking exterior styling and a wider range of tech features than before. It still has everything you want from a truck, including a basic-but-functional interior and an old-school four-wheel drive system.

Even if a brand-new Tacoma is out of reach, the previous-generation model is a solid truck as well. Because it was made for about a decade, there should be plenty of used examples on the market. The Tacoma also has a great reputation for reliability, even more so than other Toyota models, but keep an eye out for rust. After the apocalypse, the only things left on Earth will be some cockroaches, Keith Richards, and Toyota trucks.

The best crossover/SUV for teens: Jeep Renegade

2020 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Why should you buy this: It’s fun, distinctive, and can play in the dirt.

Who’s it for: Young explorers.

How much will it cost: $22,470+

Why we picked the Jeep Renegade:

The Renegade is the smallest and least-expensive vehicle Jeep makes, so it’s the easiest entry point for fans of this well-known brand. Sharing a platform with the Fiat 500X, it’s part of a wave of subcompact crossovers that undercut more traditional models like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, and Jeep’s own Cherokee in size and price.

Unlike most other vehicles in its class, the Renegade actually feels like a real SUV. That’s partly due to a tall, upright driving position and styling that mimics more traditional Jeeps. But the Renegade also has genuine off-road abilities, at least as long as you choose the high-end ($27,545) Trailhawk model. It gets the same Selec-Terrain system offered in larger Jeeps, and a sophisticated all-wheel drive system.

On the road, the Renegade offers the car-like handling typical of crossovers, and its small size makes it a better fit for urban areas than larger models. A distinctive-looking interior and intuitive Uconnect infotainment system round out the package.

The best luxury car for teens: Audi A3

2019 Audi A4 (European-market version)
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Why should you buy this: It’s small but luxurious and high-tech.

Who’s it for: Future CEOs.

How much will it cost: $33,300

Why we picked the Audi A3:

The A3 comes with a turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 184 horsepower and 222 pound-feet of torque. Obviously, the A3 has more than enough of a spark to handle busy highways, parents aren’t going to find their kids trying to drag race with it. It also handles well, a perk for newer drivers. 

This vehicle comes standard with front-wheel drive. While front-wheel drive is a vast improvement over rear-wheel-drive vehicles, some parents may still have concerns about winter driving. Luckily, you can always spring for the all-wheel-drive option for added safety during the winter months.

When it comes to upgrades, there are plenty of options available if you want to splurge.  If you live in warmer climates and are looking for great value, the Audi A3’s standard features will satisfy most drivers.

How we test

If a vehicle is featured on Digital Trends, rest assured that it has undergone extensive reviewing and rigorous testing. Each vehicle is judged by multiple qualified experts who have the experience needed to guide you towards a knowledgeable decision.

Our test drivers put each vehicle through real-world testing, spending extensive time behind the wheel to get an accurate picture of the vehicle’s capabilities. They will test the vehicles in various road conditions that include highway and back road driving in all types of weather. If the vehicle is built for off-roading or racing, our drivers test those conditions as well.

Our experts also evaluate each vehicle’s interior and exterior, testing all of the safety features that can be evaluated in controlled environments. After this extensive review, we rank the vehicles against other similar models so you’re able to see the bigger picture of a specific type of vehicle before you make your final choice.

Editors' Recommendations

Stephen Edelstein
Stephen is a freelance automotive journalist covering all things cars. He likes anything with four wheels, from classic cars…
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