The 2004 Mini Cooper Coupe landed on's list of teen-friendly cars thanks to a base price of $16,449 and solid safety ratings.
updated 2/3/2004 1:23:20 AM ET 2004-02-03T06:23:20

Hopefully Volvo won't forget the little people on its way to Beverly Hills.

Volvo will always make safety their top priority, but the Swedish wing of Ford Motor's Premier Automotive Group is also moving upscale with modern new vehicles like the XC90 sport utility, S60 R performance sedan and overhauled S80 flagship sedan. The man who directed Volvo's design department for 11 years, Peter Horbury, has risen through the ranks after injecting Volvo's range with modernity and sex appeal to become Ford's executive director of design for North America.

While Volvo must be pleased with its newfound vitality and would-be glamour, enjoying the company's safe cars is becoming an expensive proposition. The cheapest Volvo is the $25,000 2004 S40 entry-level sedan, which was just overhauled. It is the most expensive new car on this list of smart buys for teenagers, and even though the government has not crash tested it yet, Volvos receive excellent safety ratings — and the new S40 is a much better car than the old one.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration still has more 2004 model year cars to crash test. The organization is a part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and it sets and enforces safety performance standards for motor vehicles.

An early look at the '04 cars that NHTSA has inspected reveals that safety can be hard to find if you're also looking for affordability and style — potentially bad news for parents and teenagers shopping together. While we managed to find ten nuggets — smart buys according to the government, the insurers and the sticker price — we were surprised at how few vehicles came out looking good under these terms.
Honda's CR-V sport utility vehicle is popular because its excellent safety ratings and all-wheel drive make it both safe and cheap.
The differences between good and bad NHTSA crash-test ratings are significant. A five-star frontal crash rating, the highest, indicates that a belted person's chance of serious injury in a head-on collision between two vehicles each moving at 35mph is 10 percent or less. A one-star frontal crash rating, the lowest, means a chance of serious injury — one that requires immediate hospitalization and may be life-threatening — of 46 percent or greater (A five-star side-crash rating means 5 percent or less chance of serious injury; one star means 26 percent or greater. A five-star rollover resistance rating means a risk of rollover of less than 10 percent in a single-vehicle crash; one star means a risk of over 40 percent. See the NHTSA Web site for more details on their methodology).

Except for the yet-untested 2004 Volvo S40, all of the coupes and sedans on our list also had crash-test performances that earned their cars the designation of "Best Pick" from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a nonprofit research and communications organization funded by auto insurers.

Different vehicle types generate different levels of insurance rates. Sports cars, for example, cost more to protect than hatchbacks because they tend to be driven more aggressively. Boys cost more to insure than girls. Newer cars, also, are generally more expensive to insure as well. So, parents, make sure you comparison shop insurance as much as you do cars. listed the Subaru Imprezza Wagon as one of the safest vehicles a teen can drive due to its all-wheel drive -- standard on every Subaru -- and four-wheel antilock breaks.
For new coupes and sedans, we did not consider any vehicle that did not have a NHTSA rollover resistance rating. We did consider pickup trucks and SUVs without rollover ratings, as NHTSA has not rated any '04 pickups or SUVs for rollovers, but only two sport-utilities made our list. While light trucks may still be popular among younger buyers, they aren't as cheap as cars, and an individual pickup or SUV will tend to perform well in NHTSA's crash tests or the IIHS's — but not in both.

With the exception of the new Volvo, we also did not let any vehicle on our list if NHTSA left more than one of its evaluation categories unrated. The agency issues stars for five categories: driver and passenger frontal-star ratings, front- and rear-side star ratings and a rollover resistance rating. For our list, we only accepted cars with four- and five-star ratings across the board.

Having demanding safety standards complicated our list, which ended up being about the inexpensive new cars that have the highest amount of safety, value and features. Used cars are a separate business and would need their own discussion — but just to give you an idea of what is out there, we included a used Lexus IS300, a more upscale choice that is a good used car deal. The same model can be a better deal as a used car than a new, and if you have ever wondered how teenagers in your city are driving BMWs and Infinitis, the answer is often that they bought them used.

Buying a new car is still an interesting gambit. If you can afford a $13,000 Civic from Honda Motor, you can get a car that has a sterling reputation. Many customers find leasing deals on new cars rewarding because they often make for monthly payments that compare to those of buying, but with much better options packages. You might find that leasing deals help a new car like the Civic, for example, or the even-plusher Honda Accord, fortify your kids in safe, relatively luxurious accommodations for reasonable payments. You might also find your kids are interested buying the sort of inexpensive sports cars that are targeted at them, like Mitsubishi Motor's Lancer Evolution sedan. Many American teenagers in the tuner subculture — the group of kids that customize and soup up new and used inexpensive Japanese vehicles — live with their parents and spend most of their money on their cars.

All of the cars you about to see are indeed safe, inexpensive and — perhaps the hardest characteristic to find — typical of the sort of innocuous good looks that tend to appease teenagers. The Honda Civic and Volkswagen's Jetta already have reputations for strong youth appeal. With two vehicles on this list, Honda shows how it is snapping up the sort of budget-minded, safety-conscious customer who may have been priced out of owning a Volvo. We're also happy to include a vehicle like the Impreza wagon from General Motors' Subaru affiliate. The Impreza might not come to mind immediately during a search like this, so you will have to tell us what you think of it.

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