Understanding that what you want doesn’t necessarily mean what you need

It goes without saying that buying your first car is a big deal. It’s one thing to just go and buy one car that suits your fancy; it’s another thing entirely to buy one that does more than that.

There are a lot of things to consider when buying your first car. Does the car suit your taste? Does it have a spacious interior? Is it fuel efficient? How well does it ride? Is it fast? Is it powerful? While you’re not obligated to answer all these questions, you need to find the ones that you want answers to. That’s going to shape your decision-making process. Of course, the ultimate question still has to be answered: how much does it cost? Get an idea on what you can and can’t buy, and you’re on your way to taking that next big step in your life.

Honda Civic

Top 10 Best Cars for New Drivers High Resolution Exterior
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You can’t go wrong with a Honda Civic, especially if you’re in the market for the 2018 model. Sure, the Civic is one of the best bang-for-your-buck models around, but it’s also ideally suited for new drivers who are looking for a cheap ride that also offers impressive driving dynamics. The Civic checks a lot of those boxes. It has a comfortable ride and it’s agile enough that new drivers can get quickly accustomed to how the car drives.

Honda also offers several engine options for the ’18 Civic, including the base 2.0-liter four-cylinder unit that produces 158 horsepower — are suitable for those who want to get a little heavy-footed with their new cars.
2017 Honda Civic Hatchback – Driven High Resolution Exterior
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If you’re a new driver, the base Civic that’s powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine — it produces 158 horsepower — is a solid choice. If you’re looking for splashes of extra power, opt for the 205-horsepower Civic Si that’s powered by a 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. The best part, though, is that the 2018 Civic received five out of five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Likewise, the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety gave the Civic a top safety score of Good in all crash tests.

Safety Features

  • Anti-lock brakes
  • Stability control
  • Front-impact airbags
  • Side impact airbags
  • Overhead airbags
  • Pretensioners
  • Security system

You can find decent, slightly used examples on cars.com

Toyota Corolla

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If the Honda Civic is on this list, so too should the Toyota Corolla. It is, after all, the best-selling car model in the world. The 2020 Corolla comes with a lot of features that new car buyers will greatly appreciate. For its stature, the Corolla provides a smooth ride that’s easy to get used to. It’s also loaded on active safety features, and when it comes to overall reliability, few models in the business can claim to boast the same reliability as the Corolla.

If you’re a new car buyer, you can buy a brand new Corolla without worrying about changing your car for the next couple of years, provided, of course, that you take good care of it.
2019 Mitsubishi Triton L200 Interior
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The best part about the 2020 Corolla is the fuel economy you get out of it. On average, the Corolla sips one gallon of gas every 32 miles. Hop on to the highway and that number shoots up to 43 miles per gallon. That’s the kind of savings you get from the Corolla. Like the Civic, the Corolla also received five out of five stars in the NHTSA’s overall safety rating and a Good score — the highest any car can get — in the IIHS’s six crash tests. The 2020 Toyota Corolla starts at $19,600 for the base L trim. Spend a little more — $22,050 — and you can buy the much more equipped Corolla SE trim.

Safety Features

  • Driver Air Bag
  • Passenger Air Bag
  • Front Head Air Bag
  • Rear Head Air Bag
  • Front Side Air Bag
  • 4-Wheel ABS
  • 4-Wheel Disc Brakes
  • Brake Assist
  • Electronic Stability Control
  • Daytime Running Lights
  • Child Safety Locks
  • Traction Control
  • Lane Departure Warning
  • Lane Keeping Assist

Check cars.com for a great list of slightly used Toyota Corollas!

Kia Rio

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Not every cheap and affordable first-time car can be like the Honda Civic or the Toyota Corolla. Take the 2020 Kia Rio, for example. On the surface, the Rio doesn’t attract the kind of excitement you get when you buy either the Corolla or the Civic. It doesn’t have a lot of advanced safety features, either.

That said, for a car of its size and cost, the Rio scored a predicted reliability rating of 4.5 out of 5 from J.D. Power.

It also boasts impressive fuel economy — 33 mpg in the city and 41 mpg on the highway — and it comes with a user-friendly infotainment system, two important qualities for new car drivers.

2018 Kia Rio - Driven Exterior
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But the best part about the Kia Rio is its price tag. The base Rio LX trim starts at only $15,750, and it already boasts a stellar roster of features, including the aforementioned infotainment system with a seven-inch touchscreen, six speakers, a rear-view camera, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. The 2020 Rio proves that you don’t have to spend more than $20,000 to buy a decent start-up car. If you have a teenager in the family, the Rio is one of the best first cars for them.

Safety Features

  • Driver Air Bag
  • Passenger Air Bag
  • Front Head Air Bag
  • Rear Head Air Bag
  • Front Side Air Bag
  • 4-Wheel ABS
  • Front Disc/Rear Drum Brakes
  • Brake Assist
  • Electronic Stability Control
  • Child Safety Locks
  • Traction Control

Find a Kia Rio For Sales Near You!

Nissan Frontier

Top 10 Best Cars for New Drivers
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You’d be surprised how many first-time car drivers actually prefer SUVs or pickups as their first cars instead of the typical sedans. For those folks, the Nissan Frontier is a good choice to get those feet wet in the world of pickups.

Admittedly, it’s not the best pickup in the market. The interior is bland and space is lacking in the rear seats. The Frontier also comes with lower towing and hauling capacities, at least compared to rivals in its segment.
2016 - 2020 Nissan Frontier
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But the Frontier is cheap; pricing for the base Frontier S starts at just $19,090, and that comes with a decent 152-horsepower, four-cylinder engine, and a choice between a five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic transmission.

Apart from its price tag, the Frontier is a good choice for a daily driver truck. If you’re a new car buyer that’s in the market for a truck, don’t go straight to the Ford F-150s and RAM 1500s of the world. Get your feet wet first so you have a good understanding of what it’s like to drive a truck. Once you get a feel of what pickups have to offer, then that’s the time that you move on the big boys. For now, though, the Nissan Frontier will do.

Safety Features

  • Driver Air Bag
  • Passenger Air Bag
  • Front Head Air Bag
  • Rear Head Air Bag
  • Front Side Air Bag
  • 4-Wheel ABS
  • 4-Wheel Disc Brakes
  • Electronic Stability Control
  • Traction Control

Car Gurus has a decent inventory list of Nissan Frontiers for sale right now

Honda Fit

Top 10 Best Cars for New Drivers High Resolution Exterior
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The Honda Fit makes in on our list because it comes with a lot of features that are ideally suited for first-time car buyers. Aesthetically, the Fit holds its own against other models in its class. It’s not your typical looking sedan and it boasts a lot of available safety features that should put your parents at ease if they’re the ones buying the car for you.

Inside, the Fit comes with a spacious and well-equipped cabin. Cargo space is one of the model’s biggest advantages with 16.6 cubic feet of cargo room. That’s more than what you’ll get with other small sedans like, say, the Kia Rio. Performance-wise, the Fit doesn’t pack a lot of power in its 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine; you’ll have to accept that the engine only produces 128 horsepower and 113 pound-feet of torque. But at least it’s going to get you from point A to point B without a problem.

2015 Honda Fit EX-L - Driven High Resolution Exterior
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Safety Features

  • Driver Air Bag
  • Passenger Air Bag
  • Front Head Air Bag
  • Rear Head Air Bag
  • Front Side Air Bag
  • 4-Wheel ABS
  • Front Disc/Rear Drum Brakes
  • Brake Assist
  • Electronic Stability Control
  • Daytime Running Lights
  • Child Safety Locks
  • Traction Control

Check out cars.com to find a massive list of Honda Fits for sale!

MINI Cooper

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If you want your first car to be stylish, powerful, and carry a certain flair to it, the MINI Cooper is one of the best options. Visually, the Cooper sets itself apart with its unmistakable design. One look at the MINI and you know it’s a Cooper. Step inside and you’ll enter a cabin that screams premium.

In addition, MINI prepared the Cooper with a variety of engine options, though the 189-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine in the Cooper S offers the best bang for your buck. You’ll have to pay more for it, but the added cost is worth it with a car that punches above its weight class as far as handling and drivability are concerned. The Cooper S starts at around $28,000, and for what you’re getting, that’s a good bargain.

2015 Mini Cooper Sport Pack High Resolution Exterior
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Safety Features

  • Driver Air Bag
  • Passenger Air Bag
  • Front Head Air Bag
  • Rear Head Air Bag
  • Front Side Air Bag
  • 4-Wheel ABS
  • 4-Wheel Disc Brakes
  • Brake Assist
  • Electronic Stability Control
  • Daytime Running Lights
  • Traction Control
  • Auto-Leveling Headlights

Check out this inventor of various MIni Coopers for sale!

Chevrolet Cruze

Top 10 Best Cars for New Drivers High Resolution Exterior
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It’s easy to appreciate the Chevrolet Cruze for all the things it comes with and disregard the things that it lacks. No car is perfect, after all, especially in this segment. What you see is what you get, and, fortunately, what you get from the Cruze is a sedan that offers a well-appointed interior, a long list of standard safety features, and excellent fuel economy.

Sure, it doesn’t offer the most exciting performance capabilities among the models in its class, but that’s really the only thing you can say the Cruze lacks compared to other models.

If you can live with that, you’ll get a model that also netted five out of five stars from the NHTSA and a Good rating from the IIHS.
2016 Chevrolet Cruze High Resolution Exterior
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Lackluster performance capabilities notwithstanding, the Chevrolet Cruze is worth a strong look as the first car for all of you first-time car buyers.

Standard Safety Features

  • Driver Air Bag
  • Passenger Air Bag
  • Front Head Air Bag
  • Rear Head Air Bag
  • Front Side Air Bag
  • 4-Wheel ABS
  • 4-Wheel Disc Brakes
  • Electronic Stability Control
  • Daytime Running Lights
  • Traction Control

Check out this long list of various Chevy Cruze models for sale!

Toyota Prius

Top 10 Best Cars for New Drivers
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First-time car buyers who are into the eco-friendly lifestyle will naturally gravitate towards hybrids and electric cars as their first cars.

Unfortunately, a lot of these models carry premium price tags so if money’s an issue, it shouldn’t be too hard to sell you on the merits of buying one of the OGs of the hybrid game: the Toyota Prius. Buying a Prius means buying a car that offers tremendous fuel mileage. The Prius doesn’t disappoint in that regard, thanks to an estimated fuel economy of 58 mpg in the city and 58 mpg on the highway.

2019 Toyota Prius
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Even if you buy the more premium all-wheel-drive Prius, mileage still sits at an impressive 52 mpg in the city and 48 mpg on the highway. The Prius’ fuel economy is one of its strong suits, but it also handles surprisingly well. It’s composed over rough roads and has an engagement to it that you necessarily don’t expect to feel when you start driving it. It’s not fast by any means and acceleration is hilarious, but you don’t buy the Prius because of its performance capabilities.

You buy it because it saves you those three-times-a-week trips to the gas station. The Prius is one of the best first cars you can buy.

Safety Features

  • Driver Air Bag
  • Passenger Air Bag
  • Front Head Air Bag
  • Rear Head Air Bag
  • Front Side Air Bag
  • 4-Wheel ABS
  • 4-Wheel Disc Brakes
  • Brake Assist
  • Electronic Stability Control
  • Daytime Running Lights
  • Child Safety Locks
  • Traction Control
  • Lane Departure Warning
  • Lane Keeping Assist

You can always find a well-maintained Prius for sale!

Honda CR-V

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SUVs run the roost in the industry these days, so if you’re a first-time car buyer, there’s a tendency to look at the SUV market and see what’s ripe for the picking. There are a lot of crossovers and SUVs in the market that make for great first-time cars.

The Honda CR-V is one of them, and for the amount that you have to pay to bring one home, it’s also one of the best value models in the business today.
2017 Honda CR-V – Driven High Resolution Exterior
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The CR-V has a lot going for it. The crossover looks more premium than it actually is, and that’s both the exterior and interior. It also has a spacious and upscale cabin, a large cargo room, and versatile engine options. All of this ties up to make the CR-V one of the most popular crossovers/SUVs in the market today. It handles remarkably well on the road, too, carefully striking that delicate balance between comfort and agility that few in its segment can replicate. If there’s one thing that the CR-V lacks, it’s that it doesn’t have the same kind of agility and driving dynamics as, say, the Mazda CX-5. But every other requirement you may have as a first-time buyer checks out.

Safety Features

  • Driver Air Bag
  • Passenger Air Bag
  • Front Head Air Bag
  • Rear Head Air Bag
  • Front Side Air Bag
  • 4-Wheel ABS
  • 4-Wheel Disc Brakes
  • Brake Assist
  • Electronic Stability Control
  • Daytime Running Lights
  • Child Safety Locks
  • Traction Control
  • Lane Departure Warning
  • Lane Keeping Assist

You should find something that fits your new driver well in this list of Honda CR-Vs for sale!

BMW 3 Series

Top 10 Best Cars for New Drivers
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You’re probably wondering what the BMW 3 Series is doing on this list. This is a sedan that carries a starting price tag of over $40,000. Spending that much money on a car doesn’t fall in the category of best cars for new drivers, right? Right? Well, you’d be surprised. Let’s throw it out there.

The BMW 3 Series is one of the best cars in the market, regardless of its size, classification, and yes, price tag. It’s the kind of car that first-time car buyers dream of buying as their first ride, and, if money isn’t an issue, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be someone’s first car. The 3 Series not only comes with all the trademark elements of a BMW — premium look, spacious and upscale cabin, powerful engine options — but it also carries an effervescent quality that makes people drool at the sight of a 3 Series in their midst.

2019 BMW 3 Series
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Simply put, the BMW 3 Series comes with a lot of things you want in a first-time car, including the ability to stop people in their tracks, wondering what kind of horseshoe you have stuck in your derrière for you to be able to afford a car like this as your first car.

Safety Features

  • Driver Air Bag
  • Passenger Air Bag
  • Front Head Air Bag
  • Rear Head Air Bag
  • Front Side Air Bag
  • 4-Wheel ABS
  • 4-Wheel Disc Brakes
  • Brake Assist
  • Electronic Stability Control
  • Daytime Running Lights
  • Child Safety Locks
  • Integrated Turn Signal Mirrors
  • Traction Control
  • Blind Spot Monitor
  • Auto-Leveling Headlights
  • Lane Departure Warning
  • Lane Keeping Assist

As long as you don’t mind paying a slight premium, you can easily find a BMW 3 Series for sale near you.

New Driver Q & A

What are the best cars for new teen drivers?

The best cars for teen drivers are low-maintenance cars that they can ease into while they’re learning how to drive. Models like the Kia Rio make for good cars for teen drivers. In other cases, used cars also make for good cars for teen drivers, provided that they work well enough to meet safety standards.

What are good first cars?

If you’re looking for a brand-new first car, don’t splurge on a luxury car or a sports car. Go for an affordable compact car like the Toyota Corolla or the Honda Civic. They won’t break your wallets, but they’re also sophisticated enough that you can learn about car functionalities as you drive them.

What are good first cars for 16-year-olds?

For 16-year olds, the best cars are cheap subcompacts. Models like the Toyota Yaris, Mitsubishi Mirage, and Honda Fit are ideally suited for teenagers who are just ready to start driving. Alternatively, second-hand cars are also good options, though they at least have to be safe to drive in.

What are the best cars to buy for a first-time driver?

It depends on how much money you’re willing to spend. If finances are an issue and you just need a car that you can learn to drive in, go to the second-hand market. If you need a car that you can call your own, buy a model like a Chevrolet Cruze or maybe go the hybrid route and buy a Toyota Prius. Whatever you end up choosing, buy a car that you’ll enjoy driving.

Kirby Garlitos
Automotive Aftermarket Expert - kirby@topspeed.com
Kirby’s first exposure into the world of automobiles happened when he caught Knight Rider on television as a five-year old boy. David Hasselhoff didn’t leave much of an impression on him (that happened later on in Baywatch), but KITT certainly did. To this day, Kirby remains convinced that he will one day own a car with the same ‘spirit’ as the original KITT (not the 2008 monstrosity). He doesn't know when that will be, but until then, he’s committed to expressing his love for KITT, and all cars for that matter, here at TopSpeed.  Read More
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