Shopping for the first car for someone is really daunting. You want them to have the best driving experience but you don’t want to scare them away from the world of cars and driving. If you want to find the best first car, you came to the right place.
First, I’ll tell you exactly what to look for in a first car. From there, I’ll show you 11 options for new cars, and 9 options for used cars. Any of the 20 options will check all the boxes on your list. Let’s get started.
What’s Important in a First Car?
As you’re considering a first car, it’s important to understand what characteristics really matter. Assuming this car is for a new driver, the following features really matter as you’re shopping around.
Safety should always be the first consideration for someone’s first car. Many inexperienced drivers will feel a lot better knowing their car will keep them safe.
When it comes to safety, there are a few ways to gauge it. Companies like IIHS and NHTSA are third-party businesses that put vehicles through a series of tests. In the end, they rank the vehicle and reward the safest ones they tested.
Other than that, you can look at the safety features of a car. It’s commonplace now for sensors to assist drivers. These sensors help drivers maintain their lane, brake in time, notice dangers, stay focused, and avoid pedestrians.
Another feature is how “drivable” a car is. This term is a little odd for people who aren’t well-versed with cars.
It basically means how easy it is to drive a car. Things like steering response and how the responsiveness of the pedals are factored in when it comes to drivability. Additionally, you should care about how much effort goes into a daily commute in terms of driving. A highly drivable car feels like an extension of your body. That’s achieved through the engineering and design of the vehicle.
Ford Mustangs have a history of winding up in ditches. The cars are great, but they’re an example of a ton of horsepower crammed into a low-cost car. People who buy Mustangs might not be familiar with what true performance can do.
If your car has 250 horses under the hood and you put your foot down a little too hard, it’s easy to spin out or get into a wreck.
For that reason, I’m only going to consider cars with toned-down performance. Sure, you’ll see some sporty cars on this list, but they aren’t rocket ships that will get you in trouble.
In addition, the performance of a car more or less translates to how much you’ll pay for car insurance. The toned-down choices should be cheaper to insure.
Since this is a ‘first car’, we’re looking at options on the lower end of the market. You won’t see any Porsches or Ferraris on the list. The price is also a big deal in case the new driver gets into a fender bender. A less expensive car will hurt your pockets less.
I split this article into two parts. The first part will focus on cars that are brand-new and will cost you more. The second section is for bargain hunters looking to check all the boxes without writing a massive check.
Reliability and Durability
Every wish list for a car should include reliability and durability. It’s even more important when you’re talking about a first car. You want a car that always turns on when you twist the key. A new driver will get overwhelmed if they’re always on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck, and it could prematurely kill their love of driving.
Durability refers to how long the car can last and deal with the daily abuses of driving. A more durable car can rack up a million miles on the odometer and still spin like a top.
If a car is incredibly durable, you can justify a higher price tag if you look at how much you’re spending per year that you can use it. Just a thought.
11 Best Options for a New First Car
This section is for people looking for a brand-new car. These options are reliable, safe, and will last a long time. They don’t have insane specs or performance, but that shouldn’t be the focus of a first car, anyway.
1. 2021 Toyota Camry: $24,970
Have you ever wondered why there are so many Camrys on the road? It’s because the car is a workhorse. It’s one of the most reliable and trustworthy cars on the market (alongside the Civic).
The car is incredibly fuel-efficient on top of everything else. It means you’ll waste less time at the pump and more time enjoying the open road.
This car has all the tech you wouldn’t expect in a car at this price point. In addition, the safety features help the Camry stand alone.
2. 2021 VW Golf: $23,195
Another safe option is the VW Golf. This car has the added bonus of being great to look at and really fun to drive. It has a long pedigree of giving drivers plenty to love.
The Golf won a ton of different awards for safety in its class. Since you’re buying the Golf new, you should also know that it has one of the best warranties on the market. The powertrain warranty covers 6 years or 72,000 miles which means you don’t have to worry about anything major going wrong.
I also like the Golf for the added features like the leatherette seats, heated seats, blind-spot monitoring, and automatic emergency brake.
3. 2021 Subaru Impreza: $18,795
The Impreza is an impressive car. Subaru is known for creating some of the safest vehicles on the planet, so this is great news for a first car.
This entry-level Impreza doesn’t have the massive supercharged engine or deafening muffler set that rally-level Imprezas do, and that’s a great thing. It means you can focus on driving without letting too much horsepower slip out.
This is a very controlled car at a great price. It’s naturally aspirated so you won’t have to get over the learning curve of turbo lag. It also has an available manual transmission which means the new driver can learn to drive a stick (something I can’t stress enough).
It’s also an all-wheel drive which is a must-have for people living in colder climates or areas where it rains all the time. All the while, this option is one of the least expensive offerings on this list of suggested new cars.
4. 2021 Honda Civic: $21,050
Just like the Camry, the Honda Civic is one of those cars that never seem to stop working. If you take care of the car, it might just last forever.
The Civic starts off with great exterior styling. Once you get inside, you might be a little underwhelmed by the tech that’s offered. You forget all about that once you start the car up and get on your way.
This car is incredibly reliable and durable. A little maintenance goes a long way and it’s not rare for one of these bad boys to survive 20 years like it’s nothing.
At this price, you get some serious performance. It’s not necessarily a sporty car, but the gas pedal has a lot of bite to it. On top of that, there’s plenty of room in the cabin to sit comfortably.
The car itself is another safe option. It has added safety sensors that come standard with the entry-level model which I love. This Civic is proof that you don’t need to shell out big bucks to get a great car.
5. 2021 Mazda 3: $21,645
If you’re looking for a sportier option, you can consider the Mazda 3. In my opinion, this is the best-priced sporty car at this price point. It’s actually staggering how much performance you get for such a small price tag.
You can find it in a sedan or a hatch, but it looks really impressive in either style. Mazda doesn’t have a ton of cars in its lineup, but it really perfected each one it offers.
The Mazda 3 is the perfect daily driver. It turns an otherwise boring commute into a fun stretch of asphalt.
To keep the new driver safe, this car is also stuffed with safety considerations. The hatch style was one of the IIHS Top Safety Picks in 2018. It also boasts a 5-star NHTSA rating. What does this mean? It doesn’t get much safer than a Mazda 3.
6. 2021 Hyundai Sonata: $23,700
The Sonata is a little sportier than some of the other options on this list. You get that feeling upon first glance at the gorgeous styling.
There are a lot of tech upgrades and safety features inside that will complement a young driver well. It also boasts an impressive EPA-estimated 38 mpg on the highway. The handling is sharp for this category of car and it’s really responsive.
The car has an option where you can use your smartphone as a key. Once inside, you’ll notice a massive touchscreen and infotainment system.
This car is highly reliable and safe, making it a great choice if you’re willing to spend a little extra.
7. 2020 Honda Fit: $16,190
The Fit doesn’t have a lot of curb appeal, but it makes up for it in almost every other category. First off, the price is incredible. The ’20 is the last year that Americans were lucky enough to get a Fit. If they bring it back, I’d suggest you get it new to truly enjoy the car.
Along with the minivan, boxiness comes with plenty of storage space. This is great if multiple people want to hop in and run some errands without getting squeezed.
It has great safety ratings and plenty of features to keep the new driver safe. The drive is a little higher than others on this list, but that means the driver gets better visibility of the road around them.
It won’t break any 0-60 records or win a beauty pageant, but it will do everything you want a first car to do and much more. On top of that, it sells for a price so low that it just doesn’t make sense.
8. 2021 Kia Rio: $16,050
Another inexpensive new option is the Kia Rio. Kia’s name isn’t what comes to mind when you think of reliability and durability, but the Rio is the exception. It has a 4.5/5 reliability rating which is very surprising.
On top of that, you get the car for a great price. This little car has a 120hp engine with a CVT transmission. It’s a really easy car to drive and doesn’t have a performance that can get you in trouble.
The Rio is a great option for people who aren’t crazy about cars. The exterior, interior, and performance are very middle-of-the-road. There’s nothing super exciting about the car except for its price, reliability, and safety features.
It also offers an EPA-estimated 41mpg on the highway. The car is considered a subcompact which means it’s a little cramped. I wouldn’t suggest it for especially tall drivers, but the average driver won’t mind.
9. 2021 Hyundai Veloster: $18,900
One of my favorite hatchbacks is the Hyundai Veloster. It’s a confusing car when you drive it. The performance feels really nimble and sporty, but there’s nothing to indicate that it’s a sporty option – especially with such a low price.
The name Veloster comes from a combination of “Velocity” and “Roadster”. Well – it’s not a roadster, but at least they’re half-right. The base engine has just under 150hp which means you can achieve a reasonable amount of velocity.
This car only seats four, so the fifth wheel on the double date is going to have to call an Uber. Inside, the car has a number of tech upgrades, comfort features, and safety considerations.
Overall, this is a great choice for anyone looking for a first car that leaves an impression.
10. 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe: $26,850
Looking for something bigger? Try out the Hyundai Santa Fe. This is an FWD midsize SUV that won an award last year for being the Best 2-Row SUV for the Money.
If you didn’t know, SUVs are typically a lot safer to drive. If they do get in an accident, they have added space for crumple zones and airbags, and they have more weight to protect the driver.
Santa Fe has a lot of safety features that will monitor lanes around you, check for pedestrians, and take a look at your blind spots. These are three places where new drivers might struggle, so this is great news.
As far as the price, you’ll notice it’s higher than others on this list. That’s commonplace for larger vehicles. Of the 2-row SUVs, Santa Fe’s MSRP is really respectable. You get a lot of bang for your buck with this one.
11. 2021 Honda CR-V: $25,350
One of the best-selling compact SUVs has always been the Honda CR-V. The vehicle is incredible and achieves everything you’re looking for as far as a first car is concerned.
It comes with Honda’s full suite of safety features and advanced tech upgrades. You can also grab a hybrid version of this SUV for some extra money that boosts your gas efficiency.
The CR-V is one of the more reliable SUVs. It has an impressive warranty and is a highly drivable car. It makes any driver feel confident and comfortable as they enjoy their first car.
9 Best Options for a Used First Car
In this section, we’ll look at budget options that get the job done. This group is especially useful for people buying their kid a first car. They’re less expensive but just as reliable and safe, meaning the driver doesn’t have to worry about a thing.
1. 2013 Chevy Volt: $10,080
The ’13 Chevy Volt is just one of those cars. It comes two years after Volt’s inception, and it has a lot of special upgrades and performance enhancements that were much-needed. The result is a refined, easy-to-drive, electric plug-in car.
This was also the year that the battery’s range boosted up to 38 miles. That’s more than enough to go to a friend’s house, school, or sports practice and back. Run out of juice? Not a problem. The Volt is also a functional hybrid and the gas engine offers around 40mpg on the highway.
It has a nice touchscreen and some tech options that were uncommon for cars back then. The car is also really safe, but maybe not as reliable as others on this list. At any rate, if you can find one of these beauties for sale, I suggest jumping on it.
2. 2017 Toyota Prius: $14,830
Man, how could you dislike the Toyota Prius? It was the first car to hit the market running and give drivers a viable option as far as hybrids are concerned.
To this day, the Prius is one of the most sought-after hybrids because they just did it right. I really like the ’17 because you get a ton of extra safety features, tech upgrades, and additional comfort inside the cabin.
The gas mileage floats around 58mpg on the highway. As far as hybrids go, the price really can’t be compared. In addition, you get the reliability and durability that come with the Toyota name.
3. 2014 Mazda 3: $8,805
We talked about the Mazda 3 when new cars were discussed, but the car is so great I need to talk about it again. The ’14 model is the sweet spot in their used lineup. 2014 is the first year of the new generation pack and came with a much-appreciated body update.
Subsequent years in the same trim generation didn’t really add a ton. You’ll wind up spending more on the same car (more or less). If you can find a ’14 Mazda 3, you’re in luck – not a lot of people want to part ways with this car.
It has the same reliability, performance, and sportiness that its newer models have. I’m in love with this car and I refuse to stop talking about it!
4. 2012 Subaru Forester: $8,490
Have you heard the legend of the Subaru Forester? To make a long story short, it’s one of the best small SUVs to ever hit the market. It revolutionized the industry when it first debuted, and you’ll still find Foresters on the road from its release year, ’97.
In 2012, the Forester added some comfort features and a new navigation system. It comes standard with AWD and the ride is borderline perfect.
The performance is strong enough to get by, but the safety is really what makes this vehicle special. To this day, Subaru is among the safest car manufacturers on the planet. Their whole business revolves around keeping drivers of their cars safe, and you’ll notice it with the Forester.
The visibility is great and the size of the SUV is just right. It also comes with the safety of a larger vehicle which should make a new driver feel more comfortable.
5. 2006 Honda Civic: $4,950
If you’re looking to save a lot of money, old Civics is the best way to go. I suggest their eighth-generation model here, but you can go all the way back to their fifth (’92-’95) and still get a great car. The best part is that you’ll commonly find their fifth-gen cars for less than $1,000.
Looking specifically at the 06, you’re getting a car that refuses to give up. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not uncommon to hear someone who has a Camry or Civic with over 300,000 miles.
You’ll run into some common problems that all old cars have, but they won’t really hurt your feelings since the price is so low. If you ever encounter a problem that’s too big, you can always just ditch the car and grab a new one.
As far as safety is concerned, the Civic can always be counted on. Even back then, Honda put a lot of focus and attention on their cars’ safety performance.
Want to know why I really love this car? The aftermarket mods available for a Civic are unparalleled. It means your new driver can make a dozen different aesthetic upgrades to get the exact look they want. It’s a great way to help someone fall in love with cars.
6. 2011 Mini Cooper: $5,581
A Mini Cooper is an impossibly fun car to own and drive. The cost is really attractive and so is the performance. That doesn’t mean that you’ll find an outrageous amount of horsepower under the hood – the lightweight nature and professional tuning just makes this car a joy to drive.
It also has a very unique body style that you won’t find anywhere else. A Mini has a long history of being the best in the business. The 2011 base model is proof of this idea.
It almost feels like a go-kart when you drive it around. It is a good car to introduce someone to the world of owning and operating a car. It also has great safety features and reliability, so I feel confident in this suggestion.
7. 2012 Toyota RAV4: $10,707
The RAV4 is one of those vehicles that you see all over the road. This is another testament to how strong the Toyota name is. Their 3-row SUV is one of the best on the market in terms of pricing and reliability.
Even though this car was made in the early 2010s, it has a lot of modern safety and technology features. Namely, you’ll find a huge touchscreen infotainment system in the center console with Bluetooth compatibility.
This car is the largest on this list, but the price isn’t shocking. You can fit plenty of friends in the vehicle and it will reliably take you from point A to point B for many years.
8. 2010 Mercedes-Benz E-Class: $10,317
Let’s talk about the Benz E-Class. 2010 marks the first production year of their fourth-generation car. It was the year that the folks at Mercedes stopped designing their car for 80-year-old retirees.
The body and everything under the hood were completely overhauled. You can grab it in a V6 or V8, and you can easily find AWD options.
As you probably know, used luxury vehicles might be cheap to purchase but maintenance on them can be much more expensive. Set aside an allowance for the higher cost of maintenance.
9. 2010 Mazda Miata: $6,915
If you want the first car to be one that you’ll never forget, the Miata is the perfect option. Keep in mind, this is a roadster so it only fits two people, but the amount of fun that you’ll have with this bad boy can’t be compared to any other car on this list.
If you ask a Miata owner what it’s like to drive this car, they’ll just smile and think back to all their time spent on the open road. Driving a Miata is unlike any other car. It is a crazy-light car with plenty of oomph under the hood.
You’ll find a lot of optional add-ons for comfort and luxury, but the base model of the Miata is plenty. I highly suggest grabbing a convertible if you can so you can get the full Miata experience.
Now you have a strong list to start working with. I just showed you 20 cars that are the best options for a first car. The new driver will appreciate the reliability, durability, safety, and ease of driving these great car selections. Make sure you have the right tools and accessories for your new car!