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Ten smart cars for teenagers breaks down the best vehicles to buy your teenaged driver, based on both safety and value.
2006 HONDA CIVIC ranks the Honda Civic as one of the best vehicles for teenage drivers due to its impressive safety ratings and base price of just over $15,000.AP file
/ Source: Forbes

The best new car you can buy for your kids is a Honda Civic sedan.

With a base price of $15,110, Honda Motor's entry-level vehicle is one of the least expensive cars on the market. It has the highest-possible frontal crash-test scores, it gets 40 mpg on the highway, and it has the highest-possible Consumer Reports ratings for predicted reliability and accident avoidance. And, as a bonus, it was just overhauled with hip, futuristic styling that is sure to keep it as popular among teenagers as it has always been.

In compiling the slide show that follows — a guide to ten smart new cars for teenagers — the Civic stood out as the best combination of value, safety, reliability and fuel efficiency. The slide show is a list of the new cars that best combine those attributes.

The first time we published this annual feature, we received comments from readers on the order of, "Who can afford to buy their kids new cars?" While we understand this concern, the aim of this section's editors is to provide readers information about the newest vehicles on the market. Because we run this particular feature each year, we need to focus only on new cars in order to make the piece newsworthy.

However, even if used cars would require their own discussion, we should point out that the same model is ordinarily a better deal as a used car than a new one, and if you have ever wondered how teenagers in your city are driving Infinitis or BMWs, the answer is often that they bought them used — or their parents are very, very generous.

Another key variable that plays a role in the cost of giving your kid wheels is the price of insurance. 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. So, parents, make sure you comparison shop insurance as much as you do cars.

Another financial tip is to consider leasing instead of buying. 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 option packages. You might find that leasing deals help a new car such as the Civic, for example, or the more upscale Honda Accord(which is also in the slide show), fortify your kids in safe, relatively luxurious accommodations for reasonable payments.

And while we're talking about how to proceed at the dealership, we must say it again: get side airbags and traction/stability control. Our research shows time and again that these are not only the most-effective safety modifications you can add to your car (if they're not standard, and it's a crime that they're not standard on every car), but also something to be considered vital. Toyota Motor's entry-level Corolla sedan, minus side bags, is one of the least-safe cars on the market, in terms of crash-test performance; with side bags, it is one of the safest.

Crash-test scores have, in the past, been the sole criterion for shaping our list of smart cars for teenagers. We have modified the list this year to include the other categories we have mentioned, and have added a category for accident avoidance to bring safety into sharper focus. If you want a ranking of cars with the best crash-test scores, please consult our annual feature on the safest cars.

Each car's accident avoidance rating is from Consumer Reports. That organization, in determining a car's safety, takes into account whether it has such standard equipment as antilock brakes, traction control and stability control. Consumer Reports was also the source for our predicted-reliability information, and the organization uses the same five potential scores for both reliability and accident avoidance: excellent, very good, good, fair and poor.

We excluded from consideration cars without predicted-reliability ratings, such as General Motors' affordable Chevrolet Cobalt sedan. New cars ordinarily do not have reliability ratings, as they need time to be studied.

We also ruled out including three other kinds of cars:

  • Cars with base prices of $20,000 or higher.
  • Cars that are headed for discontinuation or replacement, such as the Dodge Neon from DaimlerChrysler.
  • Cars with serious problems, such as "fair" or "poor" Consumer Reports ratings, safety concerns reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or specific warnings issued by Consumer Reports.

Additionally, we only considered including cars for which NHTSA has issued two frontal crash-test ratings, two side crash-test ratings and a rollover-resistance rating (for all ratings, NHTSA works on a scale of one to five stars).

As a final note on methodology, we should point out that cars can have variable fuel-economy figures or crash-test scores based on their equipment levels. For each vehicle, we looked at its best possible statistics.

And we would also be remiss if we did not explain the lack of SUVs in the slide show, given that some parents favor those kinds of vehicles for their commanding views of roads. In fact, when we set out to write this piece we intended to include at least two SUVs.

But we found that in addition to a dearth of cheap SUVs on the market, no SUV came close to comparing favorably with the passenger cars on our list, often because of fuel inefficiency and safety concerns. While we understand some parents' bias toward the tall trucks, SUVs do not measure up quantitatively under the criteria we feel are most important in selecting cars for teenagers.