Five best used cars for teens

Choosing a car for a teen can be tough, as there are so many factors to consider. We emphasize safety, reliability, and ease of use for inexperienced drivers in making our ultimate recommendations.

We recently posted "Best used car deals for teens" featuring many affordable models that meet that criteria and are generally available for less than $15,000. This time, we're taking it a step further. Our automotive experts winnowed the list down to the five cars they would personally recommend, looking at traditional empirical data and their own subjective insights.

The vehicles on this short list are from the 2008-2010 model years and have at least average reliability, according to our latest subscriber survey. Some have the latest safety equipment and are still affordable but key safety features such as curtain air bags and electronic stability control (ESC) may not have been standard in others until later years. As always we encourage purchasing as many safety features--and electronic stability control in particular--as your budget allows.

We list the average price for suitably equipped models available in that year when buying from a dealer. On average, figure that vehicles from 2008 will generally have 66,000 miles, 2009 models around 51,000 miles, and 2010 about 40,000 miles.

The models selected are all traditional cars; large pickups and SUVs are not recommended for young, inexperienced drivers because they are more prone to roll over and may be more difficult to handle than many other vehicles. Sports cars increase the risk of speeding and have a higher rate of accidents, and consequently, they carry tuition-sapping and head-spinningly high insurance premiums.

Here's where to start your teenager-targeted used-car vehicle search:

Chevrolet Malibu
For 2008, Chevrolet redesigned the Malibu and made it much more competitive, producing a sedan that's quiet, handles responsively, and with a good ride. The base 169-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine paired with a four-speed automatic transmission delivered 23 mpg overall on regular fuel. The interior was significantly upgraded, with better materials and fit and finish. Not exciting, but a good solid car at an attractive price. Beginning in 2008, ESC was standard for most trim lines.

Make & model Average price buying from dealer Average drop in retail value vs. MSRP Used-car pricing
 2009 Chevrolet Malibu $12,925 45% View detailed pricing
 2010 Chevrolet Malibu $14,483 39% View detailed pricing

Hyundai Sonata
Electronic stability control and curtain air bags are standard in these used models. The base 162-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder in the 2008 model delivers adequate performance and returns 23 mpg overall. For 2009, the Sonata got a stylish redesign with a 175-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. While a bit slower than competing four-cylinders, it delivers impressive fuel economy with 26 mpg overall on regular fuel. The highway ride is quite relaxed and most noises are suppressed. Most controls are very simple.

Make & model Average price buying from dealer Average drop in retail value vs. MSRP Used-car pricing
 2008 Hyundai Sonata $9,917 51% View detailed pricing
 2009 Hyundai Sonata $11,167 50% View detailed pricing
 2010 Hyundai Sonata $13,317 40% View detailed pricing

The Mazda6 retained its sporty character with the 2009 redesign. Not only is the 6 fun to drive, it's also roomy and quiet. The four-cylinder engine returns a fairly economical 24 mpg overall. Handling is nimble. Road noise is a bit pronounced. The interior has a high-quality feel.

Make & model Average price buying from dealer Average drop in retail value vs. MSRP Used-car pricing
 2009 Mazda6 $10,800 49% View detailed pricing
 2010 Mazda6 $12,625 38% View detailed pricing

Ford Focus sedan
The Focus has agile handling, a composed ride, and a roomy interior, but fit and finish and noise remain weak points. The 130-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine delivers average performance and 26 mpg overall. It had a commendable speed in our avoidance maneuver. ESC became available starting with 2009 models and standard by 2010.

Make & model Average price buying from dealer Average drop in retail value vs. MSRP Used-car pricing
 2009 Ford Focus $10,388 38% View detailed pricing
 2010 Ford Focus $12,313 30% View detailed pricing

Volkswagen Jetta
This generation VW Jetta is a jewel; it is a beautifully finished, sharp-handling premium small car. The 170-hp, 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine delivers better-than-average performance and chalked up 24 mpg overall on regular fuel. A thrifty diesel engine is available. The five-cylinder 2009 model, in particular, has better-than-average reliability and standard ESC. Other strong points include a composed ride and roomy interior.
Crash test scores are good.

Make & model Average price buying from dealer Average drop in retail value vs. MSRP Used-car pricing
2009 Volkswagen Jetta $13,831 39% View detailed pricing

Buying a used car has many benefits. Most important is that the original owner takes the initial depreciation hit, as new cars lose much more value in the first and second years than those that follow. When shopping, look for cars that scored well in Consumer Reports' tests when new, have proven reliability, and perform well in government and insurance industry crash tests, just like the five models spotlighted here. Before handing over the cash, have the vehicle inspected by a trained and trusted mechanic to make sure there are no hidden problems.

See our complete list of used-car deals across a variety of vehicle categories. Also, see our list of best new and used cars for teens, as well as our special section on teen driving safety. For detailed used car pricing based on the mileage and condition of the vehicle, try Consumer Reports Used Car Price Reports.

—Liza Barth

More from Consumer Reports:
2013 New Car Preview
Best and worst used cars
Complete Ratings for 200 cars and trucks

Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.

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