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The Best Cars for First Time Drivers (Safety + Cool Factor)

Aug 06, 2013 12:36AM ● By Erin Frisch

Safe and cool do not always come in the same auto package. Safety is what parents want; cool is what the driver wants. So, minivans and SUVs are probably out of the picture—maybe safe, but not cool enough for the first-time driver. And you can forget most convertible sports cars—cool, but not safe from a parental perspective. So, what are the best cars for a novice behind the wheel that will satisfy both parents and young drivers?

For safety’s sake

Safety is always a top consideration, especially on New England’s roads come winter, but most cars now put considerably more value on safety as a sales feature. You want to look for features that include a low center of gravity and rollover engineering. You can never have too many air bags, but you also want to see side curtains all around and knee protection for the driver and front-seat passenger. Less common but increasingly standard on many vehicles are resilient brake, stability, and steering systems. Look for systems that respond and adapt to your driving habits and/or road conditions.

For the cool factor

For most first-time drivers, the car’s profile and lines are important. They are likely to consider full-sized sedans as grandparents’ rides. Utility sells for those who need to drive to work and school, but looking cool in the process is what most novice buyers and drivers want even more. First-time drivers, like many others, want to make a statement.

Ford Mustang

The Mustang was introduced for the first-time driver market, and it still rules. Its silhouette has remained fundamentally unchanged for decades and has an iconic impact. Affordable at $21k and up, as well as agile, it has everything—the illusion of speed, good handling, and safety (9.2, US News Best Cars ratings).

 VW Beetle

The VW has regained much of the market it had previously left behind. With a sleeker, smoother profile than the original bug we all knew and loved, even the base-line Beetle 2.5L has enough frills, toys, and 9.4 rated safety features to make it a bargain at under $20k MRSP. This is not your grandpa’s VW.

 Toyota Prius

Green is its own kind of cool. To drivers who value energy savings and a low carbon footprint, Prius hybrids are more than state of the art. They’re trend setting and attractive, and your gas money goes a lot farther. Hitting an average estimated 51/48 EPA, the Prius is a computer on wheels. Easy to drive, safe (with a 9.4 rating), and economical at an average paid price of $24 to $25k, it is surprisingly strong on the open road.

 Chevrolet Sonic

The sedan and the hatchback come in a range of colors, including the Inferno Orange Metallic— sure to catch anyone’s eye. The Sonic is loaded in order to challenge new imports in its size range. The car is meant to look and feel like a busy little multipurpose, and it’s the only car in its class and price range (MRSP $14,185+) with an available turbocharged engine and a 9.8 safety rating.

Toys & tech sell

Ultimately, today’s first-time drivers want technology under the hood and on the dashboard. They buy into upgraded multi-speaker sound systems, Bluetooth hands-free interactivity, touch-screen mastery, easy music streaming, and prime navigation systems. Throw the technology into an interior with a touch of leather and a hint of bucket-seat comfort, and you have a deal.

Many young drivers, given the choice, would like to get behind the wheel of a Ford F-150 or a Jeep Wrangler. They can, no doubt, see themselves behind the wheel, cruising along the Connecticut River, the wind in their hair. But the best cars for first-time drivers are still purchased by parents, so shop for safety and cool in one neat package.

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