10 best cars to give to teen

Robert Duffer
Chicago Tribune

The first car is one of the most memorable purchases of a lifetime. For teens, it offers independence and tangible confirmation that they are driving headlong into adulthood. In a word, a first car is freedom.

Many of us purchase a car with the idea of eventually handing it off to our teen. Keeping in mind safety, cost and technology, we have come up with list of 10 good cars to keep in the family.

Our suggestions are based on new cars because their costs are easier to calculate. Chances are a used model would save you money and still satisfy your priorities. We only recommend cars with a Top Safety Pick rating or above and tried to keep the MSRP for base models under $20,000.

MSRP and total cost of ownership numbers come from Kelley Blue Book’s online calculator. Total cost of ownership factors in fuel, insurance, maintenance, registration, depreciation and possible financing fees.

Honda Fit

The Civic, or even the subcompact crossover HR-V could, ahem, fit here, but the collapsible magic seats and overall wagon versatility in the Fit are a deal-maker. The 60/40 rear split-seat bottoms fold up to provide 4 feet of vertical space, ideal for teens on the move in their bohemian phase.

■Base price: $16,060

■MPG: 29 city, 37 highway

■Total cost of ownership: $28,018

Kia Soul

The quirky Soul is one of the more fun cars on the list — not fun to drive so much as fun to be in. Similar to the expressive, distinctive Scion youth brand from Toyota, the Soul is a tall urban hatch with a lot of personality couched in family-oriented practicality. Don’t opt for the 18-inch wheels, as they lead to a rougher ride. You may struggle keeping it under $20,000 with all the customizable options, such as the panoramic sunroof and 8-inch touch screen, but the base model comes well-equipped.

■Base price: $16,015

■MPG: 24 city, 30 highway

■Total cost of ownership: $29,900


Mazda makes some of the most complete cars on the road, perfectly balancing striking designs with modern interior appointments, along with the SkyActiv blend of optimizing fuel economy while maximizing driving pleasure. The 3 embodies all these traits and comes in hatch and 4-door varieties. It’s a Top Safety Pick + when you ante up for the advanced safety features.

■Base price: $18,815

■MPG: 30 city, 41 highway (automatic)

■Total cost of ownership: $30,069

Chevy Sonic

The only all-U.S.-built subcompact, Chevy’s Sonic offers enough interior touches and roominess to elevate it over its competitors at this price point. The technological capabilities, including the MyLink infotainment system with some of the better voice recognition on the market, is what will sell it, however. We like the large vehicle info display and prefer the sedan over the hatchback, which is unusual. Top Safety Pick was for models built after February 2015.

■Base price: $15,070

■MPG: 26 city, 35 highway

■Total cost of ownership: $30,108

Hyudai Elantra

This sedan could be the most adult car on the list and, subsequently, the best value. We were impressed with the overall value when we tested it in 2014, and that’s only going to improve since the 2017 redesign will hit the market in early 2016. It’s one of the roomiest for passengers on the list and is a seamless bridge car from college to career.

■Base price: $18,075

■MPG: 28 city, 38 highway

■Total cost of ownership: $31,793

Subaru Impreza

You know what you’re getting with Subaru: standard all-wheel-drive and an available suite of safety features from its EyeSight advanced crash avoidance system. The Impreza comes as a four-door compact or the preferred wagon ($500 more). Consumer Reports ranked it a top pick of 2015. Even though the Starlink infotainment system has been updated to be competitive, the 7-inch touch screen is not cutting edge. It does offer parents a chance to educate kids on the joys of a CD player, however.

■Base price: $18,990

■MPG: 28 city, 37 highway (automatic transmission)

■Total cost of ownership: $31,864

Ford Focus

The Fiesta is smaller in every aspect yet gets nearly the same fuel economy as the Focus. The refined Focus can be had for under $20,000, and economy can be boosted to 40 mpg highway with the 1.0-liter 3-cylinder turbo EcoBoost engine.

■Base price: $19,785

■MPG: 26 city, 36 highway

■Total cost of ownership: $34,153

Toyota Prius

Any of Toyota’s compacts can make a safe and reliable — if not bland — first car. The subcompact Yaris has hatchback versatility, while the Corolla has a better engine (go with the CVT, not the 4-speed), is better appointed and is larger inside. The Corolla got five stars from NHTSA; Yaris got four. Neither was a Top Safety Pick from IIHS, but the 2015 Prius was, which is why we recommend it, though it’s all about function over form. The longer you own the Prius, the more money you’ll save over the initial hybrid upcharge. With Toyota set to roll out a new and needed Prius for 2016, some good deals should be available on the outgoing model.

■Base price: $25,035

■MPG: 51 city, 48 highway

■Total cost of ownership: $34,633

Volkswagen Golf

The Golf and its six variants have swept the best of 2015 lists and earned North American Car of the Year and Motor Trend’s Car of the Year. For good reason. Only the Mazda 3 can compete with the Golf for fun, economy, versatility and value. Great first car, great urban car, great road car, a Top Safety Pick, the Golf is all-around good.

■Base price: $18,815

■MPG: 25 city, 37 highway

■Total cost of ownership: $35,710 (based on 2014)

Jeep Renegade

The Renegade is the outlier on this list. The subcompact crossover is a Jeep, so it’s not very fuel-efficient or roomy, and it hasn’t been safety tested by IIHS or NHTSA. But it has removable roof panels. Remember the friend with the Jeep Wrangler, the beach car, the party car, the truly unsafe-for-teens car? The Renegade has a feature called My Sky, which lets you remove the roof panels manually over the front and back seats. It’s like a Jeep but simpler, safer and full of teen appeal.

■Base price: $18,990

■MPG: 24 city, 31 highway

■Total cost of ownership: Not available