I Just Got My License. What Kind of Car Should I Buy?
Once a young adult receives a freshly minted driver’s license or college diploma, a set of car keys is often next on the agenda.
Opinions vary when it comes to deciding upon the best vehicle for a first-time driver. New or used? Big or small? Fun or reliable?
The choice should be driven by the driver’s lifestyle: city or suburbs, single or attached, budget-minded or willing to splurge? Of course, safety equipment, crash test scores, reliability ratings, and fuel-efficiency matter, too.
Read ahead for a look at the best first cars for drivers from high school age to their early 20s.
Keep in mind that U.S. News scores are updated constantly based on the latest expert reviews and data, so the scores listed in the following slides may differ slightly from those in our rankings.
2017 Kia Soul
$16,100 | U.S. News Score: 8.9/10 | Safety Score: 9.7/10 | Reliability Score: 4.5/5 (Details Below)
Play in a band and need to carry gear from gig to gig? The funky Kia Soul offers near best-in-class cargo space and an impressive roster of standard equipment, especially considering its $16,100 starting price.
The base model comes with Bluetooth, a USB port, and satellite radio. The top trim even adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel and smartphone integration.
It should come as no surprise then that the Soul dominates our rankings of compact cars, small cars, and hatchbacks. However, it also won two of our awards this year: 2017 Best Compact Car for the Money and 2017 Best Compact Car for Families.
2017 Mazda Miata
$24,915 | U.S. News Score: 8.9/10 | Safety Score: N/A | Reliability Score: 3/5 (Details Below)
Are you set on enjoying your freedom before life’s big responsibilities hit? Few cars are as fun, affordable, and easy to park as the Mazda MX-5 Miata.
The two-seat convertible sits atop our rankings of sports cars and convertibles. The standard soft-top folds down manually, but buyers can upgrade to an automatic roof that raises and lowers on its own.
Starting at $24,915, the Miata is a true enthusiast’s car. Want to learn the lost art of the stick shift? Keep the standard manual transmission; not only will fuel economy improve to 26 mpg city and 33 mpg highway, your driving skills will advance, too. Once new drivers master the manual transmission, they’ll have the fundamental skills to drive well no matter the vehicle.
$17,845 | U.S. News Score: 8.7/10 | Safety Score: 9.7/10 | Reliability Score: 2.5/5 (Details Below)
Named a finalist for our 2017 Best Compact Car for the Money award, the Mazda3 seats five, features a standard 155-horsepower four-cylinder engine that delivers a fun drive and stellar fuel economy, and boasts excellent safety scores.
All models are equipped with Bluetooth, a rearview camera, and the Mazda Connect infotainment system with a 7-inch touch screen, which feels like a bonus for the price.
2017 Toyota Corolla
$18,500 | U.S. News Score: 8.0/10 | Safety Score: 9.3/10 | Reliability Score: 4.5/5 (Details Below)
Do you want to avoid pricey repairs and maintenance issues? Try the Toyota Corolla, which celebrates its golden anniversary this year and is one of the most reliable cars on the market.
Starting at $18,500, the Corolla – now available in the popular hatchback style as well as the traditional sedan body – is a steady workhorse that has been known to push its odometer past 200,000 miles. It also delivers decent fuel economy at 28 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway.
The standard Toyota Safety Sense suite of advanced safety features is ideal for newer drivers. The system includes a rearview camera, lane departure alert with steering assist, and a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection.
2017 Honda Civic
$18,740 | U.S. News Score: 8.8/10 | Safety Score: 10/10 | Reliability Score: 3.5/5 (Details Below)
Want a car that can take you from your high school years to your 30s? When purchased new, the Honda Civic has been known to last a new driver well over a decade.
Named a finalist for our 2017 Best Compact Car for Families award, the Civic is safe, versatile, and – beginning at just below $19,000 – affordable.
The car earns a perfect score in our safety evaluations. The Honda Sensing suite of safety features, available in all Civic trims, adds lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, and forward collision warning.
Bluetooth, a USB port, and a rearview camera come standard.
2017 Honda Fit
$16,090 | U.S. News Score: 8.9/10 | Safety Score 9.7/10 | Reliability Score: 3.5/5 (Details Below)
Want a new car for the price of a used car? Try the Honda Fit, winner of our 2017 Best Subcompact Car for the Money award. Our top-ranked subcompact car offers a roomy cabin, the optional Honda Sensing suite of advanced safety features, and an affordable starting price of $16,090.
Its footprint is small enough to park easily in big cities, but its cargo hold is large enough to suit the active lifestyle of the first-time driver. It comes with Honda’s 60/40-split rear Magic Seat, which can configure cargo in four ways. That’s a helpful feature for hauling the accouterments of college life, like suitcases, a bike, or dorm room furniture.
2017 Toyota Prius
$23,475 | U.S. News Score: 8.6/10 | Safety Score: 9.3/10 | Reliability Score: 2.5/5 (Details Below)
Now in its fourth generation, the Prius has had plenty of time to refine its look. Its formerly bug-like profile has been smoothened, revealing a sleek and modern body. The Prius’ powertrain has evolved too – drivers can now wring 54 mpg in the city and 50 mpg on the highway from its 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and two electric motors.
Furthermore, the Toyota Safety Sense suite of driver assistance features, which adds forward collision warning, adaptive cruise control, and pedestrian detection, now comes standard on every model.
2017 Chevrolet Malibu
$21,680 | U.S. News Score: 8.7/10 | Safety Score: 9.7/10 | Reliability Score: 4/5 (Details Below)
Are you buying a car for a first-time driver? Parents will appreciate Chevrolet’s Teen Driver system, which teaches safety and good driving behavior by allowing you to program restrictions on speed and audio volume. Shoppers can find that technology in the Chevrolet Malibu, our top-ranked midsize carand winner of our 2017 Best Midsize Car for Families award.
Starting at $21,680, the Malibu comes in four trims. The Teen Driver system comes standard in all but the base model. It’s a small price to pay for peace of mind.