Consumer Reports, IIHS update recommended vehicles for Class of ’21

May 20, 2021

Consumer Reports (CR) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) have updated their list of affordable, safe and reliable vehicles for teens for 2021.

The new recommendations come at a time when soaring demand and tight supply related to the COVID-19 pandemic have pushed used vehicle prices way up. Young drivers and their parents should be prepared to do a little more research and a little more hunting to find something suitable.

“With used car prices so high this year, it may be tempting to have a newly licensed teen make do with a clunker or to buy them the smallest, cheapest new car available,” says IIHS President David Harkey. “As usual, we’re asking families to put safety at the center of this decision. Very old cars often lack adequate airbags and structure to protect their occupants. And minicars, even those that are brand new, can’t keep their occupants as safe in a crash when compared with a larger vehicle.”

“In compiling these lists, we found that some of the same models that were on last year’s lists are actually more expensive now even though they’re a year older,” says Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at Consumer Reports Auto Test Center. “This list is intended to point buyers toward vehicles that excel in performance and reliability ratings from CR’s tests and survey data and earn high marks for crash protection and crash avoidance from IIHS while staying within a defined budget.”

Even in this tight market, it’s possible to find some good options for young drivers. IIHS and CR identified 61 used vehicles ranging from $6,400 to $19,800 that meet safety and reliability criteria. A separate list of new vehicles with state-of-the-art protection has 29 models ranging in price from $19,900 to $39,500.

Although the lists are intended specifically for teen drivers, they can be a resource for anyone looking for a safe, reliable and affordable vehicle. The new vehicle list is especially useful for parents of younger children who might be buying a vehicle for their own use with an eye toward handing it down to a new driver in the future.

Consumers who consult the list won’t find any sports cars or other vehicles with excessive horsepower because these vehicles can tempt teens to test the limits and put themselves in high-risk situations. In addition, there are no minicars or vehicles under 2,750 pounds. The biggest, heaviest vehicles, including those in the large SUV class, have also been left off the list because they can be hard to handle and often have increased braking distances.

The list of recommended used vehicles is divided into Good Choices and Best Choices, which offer a slightly higher level of safety. Both Good Choices and Best Choices have:

  • standard electronic stability control
  • above-average reliability, based on CR’s member survey, for the majority of the years listed
  • average or better scores from CR’s emergency handling tests
  • dry braking distances of less than 145 feet from 60 mph in CR’s brake tests
  • good ratings in four IIHS crashworthiness tests — moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraints
  • four or five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (if rated)

In addition, the Best Choices have a good or acceptable rating in the IIHS driver-side small overlap front test, which was launched in 2012. The test replicates what happens when the front left corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object like a tree or utility pole.

The top tier of used vehicles also excludes vehicles that have substantially higher than average insurance claim rates under medical payment or personal injury protection coverage. Both coverage types pay for injuries to occupants of the insured vehicle. The Highway Loss Data Institute, an IIHS affiliate, collects and publishes insurance loss data by make and model every year. The results are adjusted for driver age, gender and other factors that could affect risk.

The recommended new vehicles offer an even higher level of safety. All of them are winners of the IIHS TOP SAFETY PICK or TOP SAFETY PICK+ award, meaning they have good ratings in all six of the Institute’s crashworthiness tests, advanced or superior ratings for front crash prevention, and acceptable- or good-rated headlights.

Only 2021 vehicles that come with vehicle-to-vehicle automatic emergency braking as standard equipment are included in the recommendations. In cases in which acceptable or good headlights aren’t standard, the list specifies the qualifying trim levels and options.

The new models are vehicles that CR has judged to be at the top of their respective classes. They have average or better predicted reliability, and they meet the same criteria for emergency handling as the used vehicles. Compared with the used vehicles, they are held to a tighter braking distance requirement of 140 feet. They also receive a rating of good or better from CR for ease of use of their controls.

“The high prices for used cars may lead more families to consider buying a new vehicle for their teen,” Harkey says. “If you go that route, make sure you are investing in safety and reliability for the future.”

Used-car prices are 18 percent higher than they were a year ago, the vehicle valuation company Kelley Blue Book said earlier this month. Demand for vehicles rose during the pandemic as some people abandoned public transit and others decided to put their government assistance checks toward cars. At the same time, supply chain issues have constrained new vehicle production.

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