Getting a first car is a huge moment in the life of a teenager. That first car is always memorable, but whether those memories are good or bad depends on exactly what kind of vehicle one ends up with. Our list of the best cars for teens includes six solid choices from different categories. All of them cover important bases like affordability, but they each offer something extra that elevates them above basic transportation.
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: $18,100-plus
Why we picked the Mazda 3:
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 (it’s an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick).
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 184-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder is available on higher trim levels).
Mazda 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 7.0-inch touchscreen display is easy to use, and paranoid parents can spec safety features like autonomous emergency braking and rear cross traffic alert.
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: $22,200-plus (hybrid)
Why we picked the Hyundai Ioniq:
The Hyundai Ioniq may look like just another hatchback, but that’s because Hyundai put all of the effort into the powertrain. The Ioniq is offered in hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and battery-electric flavors. It’s the only car currently on sale in the United States to offer that combination of options.
Whichever powertrain you pick, the Ioniq offers impressive efficiency. The Ioniq Hybrid gets an Environmental Protection Agency-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 124 miles of range at 136 MPGe combined. The Ioniq Electric is the most energy efficient car currently sold in the U.S.
Hyundai also tried to make the Ioniq fun. The Ioniq Hybridand 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 full Hyundai Ioniq review
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: $25,600-plus
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 boxer-four engine produces 205 hp (200 hp in automatic models), 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.
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: $25,400-plus
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 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 Tacoma 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 Toyotas. After the apocalypse, the only things left on Earth will be some cockroaches, Keith Richards, and Toyota trucks.
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: $18,400-plus
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 ($26,945) 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.
Why should you buy this: It’s small but luxurious and high-tech.
Who’s it for: Future CEOs.
How much will it cost: $31,950
Why we picked the Audi A3:
The Audi A3 is for parents who want to spoil their kid. It’s the smallest and least expensive member of Audi’s North American lineup but it doesn’t feel cut-rate or basic. Leather upholstery, a panoramic sunroof, and heated front seats come standard, and it’s available with technology features that trickle down from bigger models like the A4 and the A6, including the digital instrument cluster Audi calls virtual cockpit and an in-car Wi-Fi connection. If safety is a priority, it’s offered with driving aids like adaptive cruise control and park assist.
The A3 comes with a turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 186 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque. It’s peppy enough to pass or merge on the highway but it’s not a supercar either, so parents don’t need to worry about their kid illegally drag racing on public roads. Front-wheel drive comes standard and Audi’s winter-friendly quattro all-wheel drive system is offered at an extra cost.
The Digital Trends automotive team tests vehicles through a comprehensive scrutinization process. We examine the qualities of the exterior and interior and judge them based on our expertise and experience in the context of the vehicle’s category and price range. Entertainment technology is thoroughly tested as are most safety features that can be tested in controlled environments.
Test drivers spend extensive time behind the wheel of the vehicles, conducting real-world testing, driving them on highways, back roads, as well as off-road and on race tracks when applicable.