• Insurance Institute for Highway Safety compiles list of safe and affordable used vehicles
  • Larger low-horsepower vehicles equipped with ESC best for keeping young drivers safe
  • Many teenagers driving cars with low safety ratings

The latest research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) shows that a large number of teenagers are driving vehicles that have low crash ratings and lack key safety features and technology. To that end, the organization -- recognized widely for its annual list of Top Safety Picks -- has put forth its first-ever list of top used vehicles for teen drivers. The goal is to help parents select safer vehicles for their newly licensed teenagers.

Acknowledging that more than 80 percent of families cannot afford a new car for their high-school-aged kids, IIHS has compiled a list of used vehicles that meet or exceed important safety criteria. With two tiers of recommendations based on price point, this list will help guide parents to buy the highest level of safety within their respective budget, ranging from $5,000 to $20,000.

"A teenager's first car is more than just a financial decision," says IIHS President Adrian Lund. "These lists of recommended used vehicles can help consumers factor in safety, in addition to affordability."

The vehicle recommendations are dictated by four primary principles:

  • Stay away from high horsepower. More powerful engines can equate to faster, more reckless driving.
  • Bigger, heavier vehicles protect better in an accident. For this reason, there are no small cars on the recommended list.
  • Electronic stability control (ESC) is a necessity. This feature reduces the chance of losing control, and reduces risk on a level comparable to the protection afforded by safety belts.
  • Vehicles should have the highest safety ratings: Good ratings in IIHS's moderate-overlap front test, Acceptable ratings in their side crash test, and four or five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should be the lowest accepted ratings in order for vehicles to be selected.

"Unfortunately, it's very difficult to get a safe vehicle for a teenager at the prices most people are paying," says Anne McCartt, IIHS senior vice president for research. "Our advice to parents would be to remember the risks teens take and consider paying a little more."

Parents who don't find a suitable vehicle on the list should seek out a larger car, SUV or minivan with ESC and the highest level of overall safety that they can afford. Bear in mind that SUVs and pickup trucks are susceptible to rollover crashes when not equipped with ESC. Even then, AutoTrader recommends staying away from these types of vehicles because the generally large size and tall stance can be too much for an inexperienced driver to handle in an emergency such as extreme swerving or braking.

Here are the top three used vehicles (with model years) from each of the six categories recommended by IIHS:

Large Cars

Saab 9-5 sedan -- 2010 and newer

Lincoln MKS -- 2009 and newer

Buick Regal -- 2011 and newer

Midsize Cars

Toyota Prius v -- 2012 and newer

Mercedes Benz C-Class sedan -- 2009 and newer

Honda Accord sedan -- 2012 and newer

Small SUVs

Honda CR-V -- 2012 and newer

Kia Sportage -- 2011 and newer

Hyundai Tucson -- 2010 and newer

Midsize SUVs

Volvo XC60 -- 2010 and newer

Saab 9-4X -- 2011-12

Toyota Highlander -- 2008 and newer

Large SUVs

Buick Enclave -- 2011 and newer

GMC Acadia -- 2011 and newer

Chevy Traverse -- 2011 and newer


Chrysler Town & Country -- 2012 and newer

Honda Odyssey -- 2011 and newer

Toyota Sienna -- 2011 and newer

What it means to you: There are plenty of affordable used-car choices that can offer safety and security for your teenage driver.

author photo

Jessica Shea Choksey is an automotive journalist and former writer/reporter for the PBS/Discovery Channel television series "MotorWeek." She began her career in journalism as an editor for numerous magazines and publications mainly outside of the automotive field. Jessica currently resides with her family, in Southern California.

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