There's an unfortunate misconception out there that the first-time buyer can't have it all. Since most car shoppers in this category are on a budget, they tend to think that safety is bound to be compromised and that fun-to-drive is out of the question.

But the truth is, today's automotive marketplace is teeming with well-rounded new vehicles that protect and entertain in equal measure.

Whether you're fresh from the DMV with your first driver's license or fresh out of college and starting a new job, you'll want to check this out. Here are AutoTrader.com's top 10 cars that will keep you safe and put a smile on your face without breaking the bank. 

Chevrolet Sonic

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) crash-test stars (5 = best) 

Overall: 5

Frontal: 5

Side: 5

Rollover: 4


Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) crash-test ratings (Good = best) 

Frontal Offset: Good

Side Impact: Good

Roof Strength: Good

Rear Impact: Good


Safety Equipment

Ten standard airbags (front, front side, front knee, rear side, side curtain), OnStar (free for six months), stability control, front disc/rear drum ABS

For less than $15,000 to start, the Sonic is remarkably fun and good looking. Desirable features like OnStar and satellite radio with an available upgraded stereo make it feel more expensive than it is. We also like the motorcycle-inspired gauges. Our favorite Sonic is the hatchback, which adds versatility and drives like a bargain-priced Volkswagen Golf (that's a good thing).

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Ford Fiesta

NHTSA stars (5 = best) 

Overall: 4

Frontal: 4

Side: 5 (though with a safety concern about the rear passenger)

Rollover: 4


IIHS ratings (Good = best) 

Frontal Offset: Good

Side Impact: Good

Roof Strength: Good

Rear Impact: Good


Safety Equipment

Seven standard airbags (front, front side, driver knee, side curtain), stability control, front disc/rear drum ABS

Like the Sonic, the Ford Fiesta is a lot of car for not a lot of money. Tuned on Europe's winding roads, the Fiesta is a sporty little thing, and its interior is a cut above in quality. We like its spunky styling, too, and its available Sync voice-command system. The hatchback is again the most desirable, but the sedan has a base price of less than $14,000. 

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Kia Forte Koup

NHTSA stars (5 = best; ratings for Forte sedan/hatchback only)

Overall: 4

Frontal: 4

Side: 4 (including a safety concern about the rear passenger)

Rollover: 4


IIHS ratings (Good = best; ratings for sedan/hatchback only)

Frontal Offset: Good

Side Impact: Good

Roof Strength: Good

Rear Impact: Good


Safety Equipment

Six standard airbags (front, front side, side curtain), stability control, 4-wheel disc ABS

Despite its $17,000-plus starting price, the Forte is genuinely peppy, and it can take a corner with surprising composure. Plus, just look at the thing--Kia hired a former Audi designer to spice up its offerings, and the sleek, angular Koup is one of the company's most appealing efforts yet. An industry-leading 100,000-mile powertrain warranty is nice, too.
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Kia Rio

NHTSA stars (5 = best)

Overall: 4

Frontal: 4

Side: 5 (though with a safety concern about the rear passenger)

Rollover: 4


IIHS
ratings (Good = best) 

Not tested


Safety Equipment

Six standard airbags (front, front side, side curtain), stability control, 4-wheel disc ABS


What impresses us in the subcompact segment is when a car doesn't feel cheap or dumbed down. The new Kia Rio fits this description to a T. It has one of the coolest and highest-quality interiors in its class, and it's a hoot to drive with its short wheelbase and firm (though not harsh) suspension. What's more, the Rio's edgy styling--especially in hatchback trim with the big wheels--is one more example of how Kia is pushing the envelope.

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Subaru Impreza

NHTSA stars (5 = best; ratings for 2012 model)

Overall: 4

Frontal: 4

Side: 4

Rollover: 5


IIHS
ratings (Good = best) 

Frontal Offset: Good

Side Impact: Good

Roof Strength: Good

Rear Impact: Good


Safety Equipment

seven standard airbags (front, front side, driver knee, side curtain), stability control, 4-wheel disc ABS

At around $18,000 to start, the Impreza isn't the least-expensive small car, but it does have the all-weather and performance benefits of all-wheel drive. That's a big deal for folks in snowy climes. Take a stroll through any town in New England, for example, and you're likely to see enough Imprezas to fill a dealer lot. Oh, and get this: The Impreza finally has competitive fuel economy despite the drag of all-wheel drive, achieving an awesome 36 mpg highway with the new 2.0-liter engine. As usual, we prefer the hatchback for both its practicality and looks. 

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Jeep Compass

NHTSA stars (5 = best) 

Not tested.


IIHS ratings (Good = best) 

Not tested. However, the very similar Jeep Patriot was tested and received all Good ratings.


Safety Equipment

Four standard airbags (front, side curtain), two optional airbags (front side), stability control, 4-wheel disc ABS


In general, SUVs aren't a great idea for first-time car buyers. They have a higher center of gravity, which makes their handling less secure, and their fuel economy isn't stellar, either. But the car-based, recently rejuvenated Compass offers safe handling, respectable efficiency (up to 30 mpg highway) and useful versatility (nearly 54 cu-ft of maximum cargo space). Of course, the Compass also comes with Jeep's go-anywhere attitude, and its baby Grand Cherokee styling might strike a chord with adventurous drivers.

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Toyota-Corolla

NHTSA stars (5 = best) 

Overall: 4

Frontal: 4

Side: 5

Rollover: 4


IIHS ratings (Good = best) 

Frontal Offset: Good

Side Impact: Good

Roof Strength: Good

Rear Impact: Good


Safety Equipment

Six standard airbags (front, front side, side curtain), stability control, front disc/rear drum ABS


Those who just want a good, reliable car that will likely run for decades without worry will be drawn to the Corolla. Other cars in this price range might be flashier, but the Corolla's proven dependabilty, safety, and high resale value are perfect for the more grounded first-time buyer. Additionally, the Corolla offers the smooth ride of a larger car like the Camry, and it's big enough now that adults will have no problem getting comfortable in the back seat.

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Nissan Versa

NHTSA stars (5 = best) 

Overall: 4

Frontal: 3

Side: 4

Rollover: 4


IIHS ratings (Good = best) 

Frontal Offset: Good

Side Impact: Good

Roof Strength: Good

Rear Impact: Good


Safety Equipment

Six standard airbags (front, front side, side curtain), stability control, front disc/rear drum ABS

The Versa sedan is all about two things: value and interior space. Those who want a big car but have a small-car budget will love the Versa's rock-bottom $10,990 starting price and enormous back seat. Headroom is likewise ample all around. We're a bit concerned about the so-so NHTSA ratings, but the IIHS report is solid, so the Versa might still pass muster on the safety front.

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Nissan Cube

NHTSA stars (5 = best) 

Not tested.


IIHS
ratings (Good = best) 

Frontal Offset: Good

Side Impact: Good

Roof Strength: Good

Rear Impact: Good


Safety Equipment

Six standard airbags (front, front side, side curtain), stability control, front disc/rear drum ABS

The funky Nissan Cube is all about attracting attention, and with its $15,000 base price, even folks on a shoestring budget can afford to get noticed. The Cube has been all the rage among young Japanese drivers for years, and now Americans can get theirs, too. The great thing about the Cube is that it's more than just a styling exercise, as passenger and cargo space are both quite generous.

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Scion tC

NHTSA stars (5 = best) 

Overall: 5

Frontal: 4

Side: 5

Rollover: 4


IIHS ratings (Good = best) 

Frontal Offset: Good

Side Impact: Good

Roof Strength: Good

Rear Impact: Good


Safety Equipment

Eight standard airbags (front, front side, front knee, side curtain), stability control, 4-wheel disc ABS

The Scion tC is an affordable ride for those who really want a sports car like the rear-drive FR-S but just can't swing the cash. Lots of features and a sleek look make the tC compelling at around $19,000 to start. The tC is actually pretty quick with its Camry-sourced 2.5-liter engine, and it handles respectably, too. Plus, it's got an undeniably cool interior with standard 300-watt Pioneer audio, and there's even a great-looking optional touchscreen stereo with more power and Pandora integration.

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author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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