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Status Report, Vol. 49, No. 5 | SPECIAL ISSUE: VEHICLES FOR TEENS | July 16, 2014 Subscribe

Safety rides shotgun: the best used vehicles for teen drivers

When children are very young, parents have no shortage of information about how to ensure the safety of their precious offspring. Most know to keep small objects out of reach, vigilantly heed recall notices for cribs and strollers, and research the right child restraint for the family vehicle.

But what happens when those kids, who just yesterday were taking their first steps, reach that other mobility milestone — getting their first car? Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers, and the type of vehicle a teenager drives has a big effect on the degree of risk. Nevertheless, many teenagers are driving — and dying in — the least protective types of vehicles, new studies from IIHS and HLDI show. Parents need more information about which vehicles are the safest choices for young drivers.

IIHS is known for its ratings of new vehicles, but for many families, a 2014 TOP SAFETY PICK or TOP SAFETY PICK+ isn't in the budget for a teen's vehicle. In a national phone survey conducted for IIHS of parents of teen drivers, 83 percent of those who bought a vehicle for their teenagers said they bought it used.

With that reality in mind, the Institute has compiled a list of affordable used vehicles that meet important safety criteria for teen drivers (see below). There are two tiers of recommended vehicles with options at various price points, ranging from less than $5,000 to nearly $20,000, so parents can buy the most safety for their money, whatever their budget.

"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."

Defining safety

The recommendations are guided by four main principles:

  • Young drivers should stay away from high horsepower. More powerful engines can tempt them to test the limits.
  • Bigger, heavier vehicles are safer. They protect better in a crash, and HLDI analyses of insurance data show that teen drivers are less likely to crash them in the first place. There are no minicars or small cars on the recommended list. Small SUVs are included because their weight is similar to that of a midsize car.
  • Electronic stability control (ESC) is a must. This feature, which helps a driver maintain control of the vehicle on curves and slippery roads, reduces risk on a level comparable to safety belts.
  • Vehicles should have the best safety ratings possible. At a minimum, that means good ratings in the IIHS moderate overlap front test, acceptable ratings in the IIHS side crash test and four or five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). IIHS has been conducting frontal tests since 1995 and side tests since 2003, so it is possible to factor these in even for relatively old vehicles. NHTSA's tests have been around even longer.

In the survey of parents, the mean purchase price for a teen's vehicle was about $9,800, while the median was just $5,300. There are many options on the recommended list for under $10,000 but just three that cost less than $5,300.

"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."

All of the recommended used vehicles have standard ESC and provide good protection in moderate overlap front crashes. Those considered "best choices" for under $20,000 also have good ratings for side crash protection, good head restraints and seats for rear crash protection, and good roof strength to protect occupants in rollover crashes. Vehicles considered "good choices" for under $10,000 have good or acceptable side crash protection and head restraints rated better than poor.

The good choices list is meant to provide consumers with a wider array of affordable options. However, compared with the best choices, this second-tier list is somewhat limited and includes many low-volume vehicles that may be hard to find.

"For the list of good choices, we compromised on the things we thought we could compromise on. Standard ESC is not one of those things, and that, frankly, is what is keeping this list so short," Lund says. "That's how important we believe this feature is."

ESC is an offshoot of antilock braking systems that prevents sideways skidding and loss of control that can lead to rollovers and other kinds of crashes. The technology monitors how a vehicle responds to steering input and selectively applies the brakes and modulates engine power to keep the vehicle on the right path. ESC reduces fatal single-vehicle crash risk by about half and fatal multiple-vehicle crash risk by one-fifth (see "Stability control reduces fatal crash risk by a third," June 19, 2010).

Vehicles that have been rated by NHTSA were included in the recommended lists only if they earned four or five stars in the front and side tests under the agency's original testing regime or an overall rating of four or five stars under the newer, more stringent rating system that began with 2011 models. One vehicle, the Hyundai Santa Fe, was excluded from the list of best choices because its 2012 model had an overall rating of just three stars.

High-horsepower vehicles also were left off the lists, but many of the recommended models have high-horsepower versions that should be avoided. The base engines of all the listed vehicles have adequate power for teens.

Parents who don't find a suitable vehicle from the lists of recommended models should seek out a midsize or larger car, an SUV or a minivan with the most safety they can afford. Besides ESC, specific things to look for in a used vehicle are side airbags and low horsepower. In some cases, it may be possible to find an ESC-equipped vehicle for a model on which the technology was optional. Those models aren't included in the recommended lists because equipped vehicles can be difficult to locate. Keep in mind that SUVs and pickups are particularly risky when not equipped with ESC because they are the most prone to rollover crashes. Information about the availability of ESC and side airbags can be found here.

Planning ahead

All of the best choices among the recommended used vehicles and many of the good choices on the list are prior winners of the Institute's TOP SAFETY PICK award.

However, most of these vehicles wouldn't meet the current TOP SAFETY PICK criteria. In addition to good ratings in the moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests, 2014 winners must have a good or acceptable rating in the Institute's newest crash test, the small overlap front test, which replicates what happens when one edge of the vehicle's front hits another vehicle or an object such as a tree or pole. Until recently, few manufacturers designed vehicles with this kind of crash in mind, though many are doing so now because of the IIHS test.

Although there are few affordable used vehicles with good small overlap protection today, in a few years it will be easier to factor in ratings from this new evaluation. Parents whose children still are years away from driving should consider planning ahead for that day. If possible, when buying the next family vehicle, choose one with the most up-to-date safety features, with an eye to giving it to your teenager to drive when the time comes. Look for an IIHS TOP SAFETY PICK or TOP SAFETY PICK+ winner that also earns at least 4 of 5 stars from NHTSA.


BEST CHOICES:
Recommended used vehicles for teens starting under $20,000

Vehicles on this list earn good ratings in the IIHS moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests. If rated by NHTSA, they earn 4 or 5 stars overall or 4 or 5 stars in the front and side tests under the old rating scheme. All come with standard ESC.

Prices, rounded to the nearest $100, were taken from Kelley Blue Book on July 1, 2014, for the lowest trim level and earliest applicable model year based on the following criteria: vehicle in good condition, typical mileage and private party purchase in Arlington, Va.

LARGE CARSMODEL YEARSPRICE
Saab 9-5 sedan2010 and later$17,500
Lincoln MKS2009 and later$15,500
Buick Regal2011 and later$13,500
Ford Taurus2010 and later$13,500
Buick LaCrosse2010 and later$12,900
Volvo S802007 and later$9,000
MIDSIZE CARSMODEL YEARSPRICE
Toyota Prius v2012 and later$19,100
Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan2009 and later$16,000
Honda Accord sedan2012 and later; coupe 2013-14$14,400
Audi A42009 and later$14,300
Toyota Camry2012 and later$14,300
Buick Verano2012 and later$14,100
Subaru Outback2010 and later$14,000
Lincoln MKZ2010 and later; built after April 2010$13,500
Kia Optima2011 and later$13,300
Hyundai Sonata2011 and later$12,100
Subaru Legacy2010 and later$11,900
Dodge Avenger2011 and later$11,600
Audi A32008 and later$11,300
Volkswagen CC2009 and later$11,200
Chevrolet Malibu2010 and later; built after November 2009$10,900
Chrysler 200 sedan2011 and later$10,700
Mercury Milan2010-11; built after April 2010$10,700
Ford Fusion2010 and later; built after April 2010$10,200
Volkswagen Passat2009 and later$10,000
Volvo C302008 and later$9,800
Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen2009 and later$9,400
Volkswagen Jetta2009 and later$8,200
SMALL SUVsMODEL YEARSPRICE
Honda CR-V2012 and later$18,100
Kia Sportage2011 and later$13,800
Hyundai Tucson2010 and later$13,100
Subaru Forester2009 and later$12,800
Mitsubishi Outlander Sport2011 and later$12,000
Volkswagen Tiguan2009 and later$10,200
Honda Element2007 and later$8,900
MIDSIZE SUVsMODEL YEARSPRICE
Volvo XC602010 and later$18,000
Saab 9-4X2011-12$17,800
Toyota Highlander2008 and later$17,100
Toyota Venza2009 and later$15,900
Ford Edge2011 and later; built after February 2011$15,500
Ford Flex2010 and later$15,100
GMC Terrain2010 and later$14,900
Kia Sorento2011 and later$14,500
Infiniti EX2008 and later$14,400
Chevrolet Equinox2010 and later$13,700
Dodge Journey2010 and later$11,200
Subaru Tribeca/B9 Tribeca2006 and later$8,500
Volvo XC902005 and later$7,300
LARGE SUVsMODEL YEARSPRICE
Buick Enclave2011 and later$19,900
GMC Acadia2011 and later$17,800
Chevrolet Traverse2011 and later$16,600
MINIVANSMODEL YEARSPRICE
Chrysler Town & Country2012 and later$18,100
Honda Odyssey2011 and later$17,100
Toyota Sienna2011 and later$16,400
Dodge Grand Caravan2012 and later$15,200
Volkswagen Routan2012$14,000

GOOD CHOICES:
Recommended used vehicles for teens starting under $10,000

Vehicles on this list earn good ratings in the IIHS moderate overlap front test and good or acceptable ratings in the side test. If rated by NHTSA, they earn 4 or 5 stars overall or 4 or 5 stars in the front and side tests under the old rating scheme. They also have standard ESC and a better-than-poor rating for head restraints and seats.

Prices, rounded to the nearest $100, were taken from Kelley Blue Book on July 1, 2014, for the lowest trim level and earliest applicable model year based on the following criteria: vehicle in good condition, typical mileage and private party purchase in Arlington, Va.

LARGE CARSMODEL YEARSPRICE
Acura RL2005 and later$9,700
Mercury Sable2009$9,700
Kia Amanti2009$9,500
Ford Taurus2009$9,100
Audi A6 sedan2005 and later$8,300
Hyundai Azera2006 and later$5,700
MIDSIZE CARSMODEL YEARSPRICE
Subaru Legacy2009$9,900
BMW 3-series sedan2006 and later$9,300
Mazda 62009 and later$8,900
Saturn Aura2009$8,800
Acura TL2004 and later$7,900
Volvo S402007 and later$7,700
Audi A32006-07$7,400
Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan2005-08$6,900
Suzuki Kizashi2010 and later$6,600
Volvo S602007-09$6,500
Audi A42005-08; built after October 2004$6,200
Volkswagen Passat2006-08$5,100
Saab 9-32005 and later$4,000
SMALL SUVsMODEL YEARSPRICE
Nissan Rogue2008 and later$9,800
Ford Escape2009 and later$8,700
Mazda Tribute2009 and later$8,100
Mitsubishi Outlander2007 and later$6,300
Suzuki Grand Vitara2006 and later$5,600
MIDSIZE SUVsMODEL YEARSPRICE
Mazda CX-92007 and later$9,800
Ford Edge2007-10$9,600
Hyundai Veracruz2007 and later$9,600
Hyundai Santa Fe2007-10$8,900
Honda Pilot2006 and later$8,800
Saturn Vue2008-09$7,700
Ford Taurus X2008-09$7,500
Mazda CX-72007-11$7,200
Suzuki XL72008-09$6,200
MINIVANSMODEL YEARSPRICE
Volkswagen Routan2009-11$8,600
Dodge Grand Caravan2008-11$8,200
Chrysler Town & Country2008-11$8,100
Honda Odyssey2005-10$6,700
Hyundai Entourage2007-08$6,300
Kia Sedona2006 and later$4,600

Note: Some listed models include a "built after" date. This applies when a manufacturer makes changes to improve safety in the middle of a model year. Information about when a specific vehicle was manufactured can be found on the certification label typically affixed to the driver door or near it.

SIDEBAR
Certain cars elevate risk for teens

Teens' high risk of crashing is amplified by certain vehicles, and teens are more likely than other drivers to have the least safe types of cars, new studies show.

©1996-2014, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Highway Loss Data Institute | www.iihs.org