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Aaron Gold

Updated: Top Ten Cars for Teens

By August 25, 2009

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2010 Kia ForteSeptember is right around the corner, and that means it's time to update my list of the Top Ten Cars for Teens. Updating the list wasn't easy; there are a couple of new 2010s that I thought needed to be included, and picking which cars to cut proved to be very difficult. I found myself taking a long hard look at two cars that have long been a mainstay on this list: The Honda Civic and the Nissan Versa. Why? Because the Civic only offers electronic stability control on the priciest models, and the Versa doesn't offer it at all. In the end, I decided to let both of 'em stay -- it's hard to imagine the list without either car -- but with more and more cars offering standard ESC, it's very possible they won't be back next year. -- Aaron Gold

Top Ten Cars for Teens

Photo © Aaron Gold

August 25, 2009 at 7:18 am
(1) Bryan W says:

Aaron, I know you love electronic stability control (ESC), but I’m wondering why you are so obsessed with it. Have you seen a report or something showing how many lives it saves? I think it’s a very interesting technology and might be useful for new drivers, but I have a hard time believing that it is really as great as you make it out to be.

I’ve been driving about 20 years and have had a half-dozen accidents. None of them would have been prevented by ESC.

I’ve also had a ton of “near” accidents, but none of these could be attributed to ESC either. What has REALLY mattered in preventing accidents in my 20 years are:

1) The perfect, high-quality TIRES for conditions. High-performance summer tires in dry conditions and high-performance winter tires in wintry conditions.

2) ABS. I know for a fact I’ve avoided two rear-end collisions because of ABS. There was a 3rd incident when I was 16 that could have been avoided with ABS if I had had it.

3) Well-maintained brakes. This is often over-looked, but it’s worth every dime to check the rotors and replace the pads EVERY YEAR.

4) Clean windshield, inside and out. This is extremely cheap and may be the best bang-for-the-buck safety precaution.

August 25, 2009 at 8:30 am
(2) Aaron Gold - Cars Guide says:

Bryan –

A well-thought-out comment. (Sounds like a movie trailer. “One man… obsessed with electronic stability control.”)

There are stats on ESC; NHTSA estimates it reduces the chance of a crash by 34% for cars and 59% for SUVs, with annual accident prevention numbers of six figures. But I’m a big believer in it because I’ve seen it in action, usually intentionally, but on one or two occasions unintentionally. If you drive conservatively, you may never hear from your ESC system. But if you push your car too hard — either intentionally or unintentionally, as inexperienced drivers are likely to do, then ESC can save your bacon.

Consider that car accidents are the number one killer of teens in American. Number one. Our kids need every bit as much help as they can get. I don’t see a reason to equip your child with every available piece of safety equipment. I make my kids wear helmets when they go bike or horseback riding. If they go their entire lives without a potential head-injuring fall, do we look back and say the helmet wasn’t important? Of course not. I didn’t wear a helmet when rode my bike as a little kid, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t need it; it means I lucked out.

BTW, I agree with everyone one of your accident-prevention points — especially the tires — with the possible exception of yearly brake-pad changes. Worn pads stop just as well as new pads; I think that’s a common misunderstanding about brakes. But it’s important to know when they’re ready to be changed and do it (or have it done) promptly. — Aaron

August 25, 2009 at 9:27 am
(3) carol says:

I would take the Fit and SmartCar off the list. They’re way too small.

August 25, 2009 at 9:35 am
(4) Matt B. says:

I don’t understand why people rush out and buy brand new cars for 16 year olds. The kid is either going to trash the interior, ding the exterior or both. My first car was a 1986 Saab 900s. It was 12 years old at the time and had 155,000 miles. Lacked some modern safety features (no airbags) but it was built like a tank. Plus it was super slow (even with the MOMO shift knob and Ferrari stickers I installed).

August 25, 2009 at 12:16 pm
(5) Richard-LV says:


You’ve been in 6 accidnets in only 20 years! Do me a favor & never share the road with me!

I’ve been driving for over 50 years & more than 1.5 million miles & have been involved in 2 accidents, 1958 & 1971, none of them were my fault. In the last 43 years I’ve had one ticket & that was Feb. 1992. Oh btw, 30 of the 50 years were in SoCal.

Bryan, Whenver you come to Las Vegas, please us public transportation.


Personally, I think the SmartCar is a bad joke!

August 25, 2009 at 1:15 pm
(6) hunter1968 says:

Ahhhh…. I remember those days of teenage driving… 85+mph everywhere I went…a few accidents…never my fault!…

So my tips on teenager driving:
1) Speed limiters!!! 65mph tops!
2) Never enough safety devices! You’re right Aaron… please add as many as possible!
3) Can we wrap the whole car in foam? Maybe that help from bouncing off everything! Precious cargo after all!
4) Heck, let ‘em stay home and play Grand Theft Auto…i’ll take simulated accidents any day!

August 25, 2009 at 1:27 pm
(7) Jay says:

It’s great with all the safety features offered on cars like the Honda Fit and Kia Forte. I remember my 1993 Nissan NX 1600 had one airbag for the driver and I thought if I ever got in an accident at least they’d be able to identify my face.

August 25, 2009 at 1:31 pm
(8) DFI says:

First of all, I too would like to respond to Bryan’s comments. I have also been driving in SoCal for 20 years and in that time I’ve had my share of speeding tickets and close calls but I’m proud to say ZERO accidents. That’s right, not even a bump or scratch on another vehicle nor my own. Now of course ESC has not been available in most of the seven vehicles I’ve driven over the years but I can say in my current Infiniti G35 I’m glad it is there. I commonly drive 80 on the freeway but I never tailgate so I have plenty of room to avoid falling debris from other vehicles (you’d be surprised at how many times I’ve had to make a quick lane change or swerve onto the shoulder to avoid hitting some jack***’s garbage he failed to tie down in the bed of his pickup truck). And that is where ESC really shines allowing me to avoid the impact without losing control. So I agree with Aaron, that for an inexperienced teenager who may be more inclined to speed, tailgate, or just not pay attention; ESC is a key component to ensuring the safety of your teen as well as those around him/her.

Now I’d like to comment on the SmartCar being on this list. Here is the rational my cousin used when deciding to allow his 17 year old daughter to buy one.
1. As Aaron said, it’s small engine limits possible incidents with slow acceleration where sudden burst of HP at low speeds often get teens in hot water.
2. Excellent crash safety rating.
3. Not much smaller nor any less safe than a Honda Civic when put up against a Chevy Suburban so why squabble over the size. The point is moot when you consider she is just as likely to be seriously injured in ANY small car. Now the response to that may be to insist on letting your teen drive a behemoth tank but really what will that do? Increase insurance costs, increase fuel costs, and give your teen a false sense of security that may promote them taking more risks in their driving. Not good no matter which way you slice it.
4. And finally the most compelling reason, limited passenger space. A common cause of teen driving accidents is distraction created by passengers. Not having a back seat means no friends sitting behind her trying to talk to her while she is driving. Sure there are laws in California to disallow teens from having any passengers under the age of 18 (unless they are siblings and certain restrictions apply there too). But ultimately how many of us really obey laws like that when we’re teens and out on the town with friends. Limited space means limited opportunity for danger.

As for the rest of the list, I like it. It will be quite some time before I have to make a decision on what my daughter will be driving when she’s a teenager but it’s always interesting to think about such things and prepare for future decisions.

For all you other parents out there pondering this list for your teen today, I wish you good luck and there is one thing I’ve learned about Aaron and his driving; I’ve ridden with him during some extreme test conditions a few times and when it comes to controlling a car beyond normal limits he undoubtedly knows what he’s doing so I would trust his judgement on this.

August 25, 2009 at 3:12 pm
(9) Kevin from Bellingham says:

I have to agree with Aaron on ESC. Remember, we don’t all live in Southern California, many of us live where there is this thing called weather. Anything that helps prevent a loss of control when our kids are involved is a necessity in my mind. When my daughter is old enough to drive, I’m thinking of taking a welding class so I can weld armor on her car and install a full roll-cage. Hmmm…I wonder if you can retrofit more airbags? She WILL be attending a performance driving school too, no ifs ands or buts. I’d add that anyplace where you get a lot of rain or snow, put an all wheel drive car at the top of the list. A perusal of ditches along the road after a snowstorm here will attest to the effectiveness. You don’t see many Subarus, you do see TONS of front wheel drive cars.

Regarding the Smart, I think it is a good choice. Agree with the 1 passenger thing but also, remember most teens have limited financial resources so the fact it sips fuel is also a plus. Why SMART doesn’t bring the diesel version in (you can get them in Canada) which gets something like 70 MPG+ is beyond me.

August 25, 2009 at 3:15 pm
(10) Eric says:

I’ll have to chime in and agree with Matt. Although I know there are some out there who can somehow afford to buy their 16-18 year olds a brand new car, I’m not one of them. If I could afford to buy my kids a car at all, it would be a 5-8 year old $3500 used car, and it would certainly not have ESC because it wasn’t available on most models at that time. I’d be happy with anti-lock brakes and air bags, both of which have saved my bacon on numerous occasions. It would also not be a car with a ton of power.

August 25, 2009 at 3:38 pm
(11) hunter1968 says:

Hey Aaron… why not rate the top USED CAR models? Maybe some within the last few years that have gone beyond expectations?

I know, new cars only!

August 25, 2009 at 4:56 pm
(12) Teddy Bear says:

Unless you hate your teen I wouldn’t buy any of these cars. Putting the most dangerous drives in the least safe cars is nuts. Buy a stripped Ford 500 or some other larger car if it must be new. Nuts Nuts Nuts.

August 26, 2009 at 6:36 am
(13) Bryan W says:

When his twin sons started driving, a good friend of mine bought some kind of device that would plug into their car’s computer, record all of the details of their driving, then allow him to review it later. It shows miles driven, average speed, acceleration, braking, and top speed. He used it to moderate their driving by taking away their truck every time the numbers broke his rules. It was very clever.

As mentioned a lot of cars’ computers now allow you to set a maximum speed, and probably more important a maximum ENGINE SPEED. If you look around you can find hand-held devices that plug in to set these things. On my car, I have an engine tuning device that I can use to set the maximum RPM. This is an excellent way to limit acceleration by teens. I’ve used it myself as a way to save gas. I set it to 4500 RPM (out of 7500) and it made a huge difference. It slowed the care down a great down, was very annoying, but once you get used to it, it’s like having a smaller engine.

August 27, 2009 at 3:31 pm
(14) slideman says:

Any new car would be fine for a teen as long as the car has a cellphone disabling device that operates when the car is in gear! Anything to stop txtng while drvng.

August 29, 2009 at 1:23 pm
(15) HAWAIIAN DON says:

Wow, I love how everyone is content discussing how they’ll choose this or that car to give to their kids. Mine never asked for a car, because they new well that question would be greeted with the same sarcastic remark. “You earn the money, you buy the car”. Without the work/achievement ethic the car will never be appreciated and will be driven hard, kept dirty and be abused just like any toy in their past. When they have to sweat for it like the rest of us, it’s amazing how well the car gets treated!

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