Few things unnerve parents quite like the thought of their kid behind the wheel. But it helps (a little) if that wheel belongs to a car that was purpose-built for safety.
All of our selections have a 5-star safety rating, a full complement of airbags, and a starting price around or below $20,000. That said, they’re hardly rolling bubble-mobiles.
1. Volkswagen Golf – Best Overall
The Golf may look unassuming, with its jellybean body and small stature, but it’s one of our very favorite cars to drive. A frequent recipient of our 10Best Cars award, it expertly blends practicality, affordability, and real driving chops for a delightful package that demands almost no compromises from its owner.
Its engine provides just the right amount of motivation for this little hatch, but the real stars of the show are the Golf’s dynamic, nimble chassis and its always accurate steering, which make this car as rewarding to swerve through harsh corners as it is to slide improbably large cargo through the wide hatchback.
Sure, big brother GTI has more power and better performance numbers, but for the everyday teen with a new job and new freedom, it’s hard to do better than a Golf.
- Vehicle Type: front-wheel drive compact hatchback
- Engine: 170-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine
- Transmission: five-speed manual transmission or six-speed automatic
STYLING AND APPEARANCE
We have used many words to describe the Golf, but “beautiful” is not one of them. The new LED taillights and daytime running lights look sharp. But the Golf, despite its many charms, is no looker.
However, we’ll trade appearances for a compact, utilitarian package any day.
Volkswagen has attempted to sharpen this functional compact’s looks in recent years, with angular headlights and an angled rear window. Its small proportions, short hood, and large windows all contribute to the Golf’s daily livability.
The interior is plain but comfortable and functional, perfectly embodying Volkswagen’s design ethos. You’ll never feel pampered, but you won’t be subjected to any ill-conceived design themes, either.
VALUE AND WARRANTY
The Golf starts at $20,715, and for buyers who are looking to keep the impact on their bank account minimal, the base Golf is a sufficient package.
The Wolfsburg trim carries significantly more content for a $1700 premium, including:
- Leatherette seating surfaces with heated front seats
- Forward-collision warning with automated emergency braking
- Blind-spot monitoring
- Rear cross-traffic alert
The final tally for a manual Golf Wolfsburg is $22,415.
The Golf’s warranty is impressive in this class, matching or besting its competitors in most categories. Longer limited and powertrain warranties top the offerings of most competitors in this set (both cover 6 years/72,000 miles). One dislike: No complimentary scheduled maintenance.
The Golf received excellent ratings from both major ratings agencies, and coveted pieces of active safety equipment (automated emergency braking, adaptive cruise control) are available in upper trim levels.
The 2018 Golf earned a five-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), but just missed maintaining its Top Safety Pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) after scoring slightly lower in the front crash prevention category.
2. Toyota Camry – Best Midsize Car
The Toyota Camry has been the best-selling passenger car in America for 15 straight years, but that doesn’t mean it has also been the best family sedan—quite the contrary.
We’ve spilled plenty of ink maligning the previous-generation Camry. But we’re happy to report that the Camry is finally a car we want to drive. For the first time in many years, it’s a compelling entry in the family-sedan class, one that can compete on more than its reputation for flawless reliability and great resale value.
Among the new model’s assets: the most fuel-efficient gasoline engine we’ve ever tested, a hybrid that scores the highest EPA ratings of all family-sedan rivals, much improved ride and handling, and nicer interiors.
And there’s more: Toyota’s commitment to providing heaps of standard active safety technology holds firm. Sadly, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto still aren’t on the menu at any price, and there are several other minor shortcomings. Still, there’s no mistaking that the Camry has been reborn.
- Vehicle Type: front-wheel drive sedan
- Engine: 203-hp 2.5-liter inline-four cylinder or 301-hp 3.5-liter V-6
- Transmission: eight-speed automatic
STYLING AND APPEARANCE
The Camry got a big attitude adjustment in its redesign. The new version has a substantial road presence but still slips easily into parking spaces and through traffic.
The split-level, catamaran-inspired grille gives the Camry a wide-open maw that’s reminiscent of a whale shark in search of krill. In L, LE, and XLE models, the bottom half of the grille is finished with a series of horizontal bars that look more than a little like venetian blinds. The sportier SE and XSE models have a black mesh lower grille instead, and the XSE has an available color-contrasting black roof package, if you’re into that kind of thing.
As for the interior, there’s a serious gap in material quality between the entry-level and more expensive models, and the redesigned center stack left some of wanting more from its uninspired design.
The trim pieces in our SE test car were plasticky, beige, and wouldn’t look out of place in a dentist’s office. Stepping up to the top XLE or XSE trim nets buys buttery leather seats—expensive-looking quilted leather in the XLE—plus cushy door trim instead of hard surfaces and a larger infotainment screen in the dashboard.
We don’t begrudge young drivers for deciding on the middle trims and pocketing the extra money, but beware of the significant discrepancy in interior ambience between the top and lower trims.
3. Mazda 3 – Best Sports Car
What makes the Mazda 3 one of our favorite cars—not to mention a multi-time 10Best Cars winner? Its winning formula is simple and continues to win us over: sharp looks, a near-premium interior, and sublime driving dynamics.
As a daily driver, it’s practical, comfortable, and stylish. Blend those virtues with its driving pleasure and it’s no wonder the 3 finds itself at the top of our list for teen drivers.
- Vehicle Type: front-wheel drive sedan or hatchback
- Engine: 155-hp 2.0-liter four cylinder or 184-hp 2.5-liter four cylinder
- Transmission: six-speed manual or six-speed automatic
STYLING AND APPEARANCE
Mazda’s entire lineup is handsome, and the revisions made to the 3 for 2017 brought additional crispness to its taut, athletic lines, which look particularly fetching on the profile of the hatchback. While many of its competitors are either overstyled or downright boring to behold, the 3 strikes a beautiful balance of aesthetics that lend it greater street presence than most small cars.
A new, dark-colored wheel design graces the silhouette of Touring trims for 2018. Otherwise, the Mazda 3’s handsome looks mirror that of the 2017 lineup.
VALUE AND WARRANTY
Our favorite trim is the Grand Touring hatchback, starting at $24,770; that’s $750 more than a similarly optioned Mazda 3 sedan, but the hatchback’s extra versatility is worthy of the upcharge.
Standard equipment on the GT trim includes 18-inch wheels, rain-sensing wipers, power and heated exterior mirrors, dual-zone automatic climate control, a head-up display, and an upgraded Bose nine-speaker stereo system. It also includes Blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert.
We’d opt for the $1600 Premium Equipment package and its navigation system, adaptive LED headlights, a heated steering wheel, and the aforementioned active safety technologies. The final outlay comes to $26,370, which, combined with the 3’s other attributes, makes it highly attractive for the money.
Mazda’s warranty is good, but it’s not as comprehensive as competitors such as Hyundai, with its 10-year or 100,000-mile powertrain coverage, or Chevrolet, with its two free maintenance visits over the course of two years or 24,000 miles. But of note for those in the Snow Belt, which might as well be called the Salt Belt, Honda matches Mazda’s terms on corrosion protection. But Chevy, Hyundai, and Volkswagen all have more extensive coverage in this area.
The Mazda 3 scores very well with safety agencies, despite having a rather modest suite of active safety and convenience features. Both the sedan and the hatchback received IIHS’s highest Top Safety Pick+ honor for 2018, and both get five stars from NHTSA.
Mazda has made some changes to its active safety technologies for 2018. Automated emergency braking is now standard across the lineup, and the i-Activsense suite of advanced features—lane-keeping assist, automatic high-beam headlamps, adaptive cruise control, and more—are now a part of the Premium Equipment package on Grand Touring models rather than as a standalone $1100 option package.