The 15 Best Used Cars For First-Time Drivers

Benjamin Zhang

One great option is to look at used cars, which can often be had for a fraction of the cost of brand-new versions.

We came up with 15 used cars we think are the best for the young car buyer on a budget. 

To make our list, we focused on cars that are available on the market right now for under $15,000. We looked for ones that are reliable, fun to drive, comfortable, attractive, economical, practical, and most of all, safe.

For safety, we checked out the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) moderate front overlap crash test ratings for the cars we selected. Prices are based on current prices on Autotrader.com and reflect the lowest price we think a decent example may cost. 

2001-present Honda Civic

Starting price: $5,000 and up

IIHS crash test rating: Good

Why buy it: The Honda Civic is bulletproof. If properly maintained, the car can go for well over 250,000 miles without any issues. As one of the most popular cars in the world, spares are easy to come by and repairs are relatively affordable.

Being popular means that there is large aftermarket support for the car, so kids can customize a Civic to their liking for not much money. Also, the sporty and practical Si hatchback from the early 2000s is now available for under $10,000. And since it was only available with a manual gearbox, it teaches a good lesson.

1999-2006 Toyota Celica

Starting price: $5,500 and up

IIHS crash test rating: Good

Why buy it: The Toyota Celica sub-compact sports car is quick, fun to drive, reliable, and offers a surprising level of utility. Powered by either a 140 or 180 horsepower four-cylinder engine, the Celica's spirited performance does not diminish is high fuel economy ratings.

As a sports car, beware of copies that have been abused by boy racers or have had low-quality after market modifications, as they may diminish the long-term durability of the car. 

1998-2004 Toyota Tacoma

Starting price: $5,900 and up

IIHS crash test rating: Acceptable

Why buy it: Toyota's Tacoma pickup makes our list as the only representative of the pickup segment. The Tacoma offers rugged off-road capability in addition to Toyota's strong build quality.

The truck's available four -and six-cylinder powerplants offer good performance, but some may find them to be a bid thirsty when it comes to fuel. 

2005-2014 Ford Mustang

Starting price: $6,000 and up

IIHS crash test rating: Good 

Why buy it: When Ford introduced the fifth-generation Mustang in 2005, it reinvigorated a muscle car market that was effectively on life support.

The Mustang makes our list because it gives drivers cheap access to horsepower in a elegant package with styling that withstands the test of time. Available, with both V-6 and V-8 options, the recommended version is the mid-level Mustang GT with the 5.0 liter V-8. Though the V-6 is slightly more efficient than the 5.0, the performance drop-off and lack of GT trim go-fast goodies makes the bigger motor the optimal choice. 

1998-2005 Lexus IS300

Starting price: $6,500 and up

IIHS crash test rating: Good

Why buy it: When launched in 1998, the IS300 was supposed to be Lexus' answer to the BMW 3-Series and Mercedes' C-Class. While it has not been able to overtake its German rivals, the IS300 still manages to offer Lexus brand cache, and build quality in an affordable yet stylish package. For drivers that need to haul more stuff, the IS300 even offers a Sportcross wagon large enough to fit most mountain bikes or other sports equipments. 

While the BMW 3-Series has been and still is the best compact sports sedan on the market, the baby Lexus made the list over its Bavarian counterpart mainly due to concerns about potentially expensive repair costs and dubious electrical gremlins that have been known to plague older BMWs. 

2006-Present Honda Fit

Starting price: $7,000 and up

IIHS crash test rating: Good

Why buy it: The Honda Fit has been an unqualified success across the globe for the automaker. The Fit offers fun, versatility, and reliability in a compact package. 

Although the Fit was introduced in other parts of the world in 2001, the model didn't make it to the US until 2006. The earliest used examples of the car represent the tail end of the first generation model, which was replaced with a second generation in 2009. Both generations of the Fit are powered by Honda's trusty 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine producing 109 horsepower in the gen 1 model and 117 in the gen 2 cars.

2002-2007 Toyota Highlander

Starting price: $7,000 and up

IIHS crash test rating: Good

Why buy it: The Toyota Highlander is perfect for the driver looking for a solid crossover SUV. While it does not have the off-road capabilities of the Tacoma pickup, the Highlander's four-wheel drive system offers solid bad weather performance and gives drivers a reassuring sense of solidity. Sharing a platform with the pricier Lexus RX, the Highlander maintains the interior build quality seen in its more premium cousin.

Environmentally conscious buyers may opt for the Highlander Hybrid. However, consumers are headed into unknown territory as aging batteries and hybrid drive components may lead to costly repair bills. 

2002-Present Honda CR-V

Starting price: $7,500 and up

IIHS crash test rating: Good

Why buy it: Since its launch in 1997, the Honda CR-V has been one of the hottest selling mini-SUV's in the world. The CR-V offers an incredible blend of economy, utility and Honda's unbeatable track record for reliability.

Though some may find the CR-V's smallish four-cylinder engine to be a tad underpowered, it is more than acceptable for most daily commutes. Honda has also included a host of fun features like a collapsible center console and an in-car picnic table. The CR-V has retained its value remarkably well, so finding a well-preserved example may require a price premium.

2004.5-2012 Volvo S40

Starting price: $7,900 and up

IIHS crash test rating: Good

Why buy it: Introduced in mid 2004 as a "2004.5" model, the second generation S40 sedan is Volvo's take on a small, stylish, and sporty sedan. 

As expected with any Volvo, the S40 is equipped with a slew of safety features. Power for the S40 comes from Volvo's venerable inline five-cylinder. The base version pumps out a respectable 168 horsepower, while sportier turbocharged variants produces as much as 227 ponies. 

2005-Present Nissan Xterra

Starting price: $8,900 and up

IIHS crash test rating: Good

Why buy it: Nissan's second generation Xterra SUV hit the market in 2005 and continued the first generation model's theme of ruggedness, and simplicity with a focus on an active outdoor lifestyle. 

The Xterra has seen few major changes in the decade it has been in production and all cars are powered by a 4.0 liter version of Nissan's award-winning VQ-series V6 engine that produces 265 horsepower.

2012-Present Ford Focus $9,000

Starting price: $9,000 and up

IIHS crash test rating: Good

Why buy it: Since its inception in 1998, the Focus has been a star performer for Ford. But for year, Ford's US and European division sold different cars under the "Focus" name — with the European version much better received. For 2012, the third generation Ford unified the model and finally gave the US Focus customers the European car they'd been waiting for.

Power for Focus comes from a 2.0 liter 160 horsepower inline four cylinder engine. People looking for higher performance can opt for the critically acclaimed 252 hp Focus ST — though even used examples of the model may be pricey.

2011-Present Volkswagen Jetta TDI $13,500

Starting price: $12,500 and up

IIHS crash test rating: Good

Why buy it: The sixth generation Volkswagen Jetta offers buyers a fun European sports compact sedan with a decidedly upmarket feel. For the value-minded customer, the diesel TDI engine option offers great range and fuel economy in a powerful package. 

However, as with any technologically advanced European sedan, take your time to look for a well maintained lower mileage example, as out-of-warranty repairs for the car may become pricey.

2006-2015 Mazda MX5 Miata

Starting price: $12,500 and up

IIHS crash test rating: N/A

Why buy it: When the original 1990 Mazda Miata showed up on the scene, the sporty little roadster all but saved the segment from extinction. With the third generation (now known as the MX-5), the 2006 Miata still gave its owners a fun and thrilling drive, but with all of the creature comforts expected in a modern sports car. 

Power for the MX-5 comes from a peppy 2.0-liter 170 horsepower inline four cylinder engine driving the rear wheels in traditional roadster fashion.

2010-Present Chevrolet Equinox

Starting price: $14,000 and up

IIHS crash test rating: Good

Why buy it: The second generation Chevy Equinox not only continued the model's sales success, it gave General Motors a top notch compact crossover SUV to compete against the segment leaders. The Equinox offers a drivers a comfortable and capable crossover in stylish and appealing package.

The base powerplant for the Equinox is a 2.4 liter 182 hp four-cylinder engine, while more expensive models come equipped a selection of powerful V6 engine options. 

2005-2012 Acura RL

Starting price: $14,500 and up

IIHS crash test rating: Good 

Why buy it: The Acura RL was Honda's flagship model and is the most expensive car on our list. When new, the RL retailed for around $50,000, but used examples can be found for far less. As Honda's flagship, the company unloaded its technological goody bag for the RL.

Top of the line models come with onboard navigation, a premium sound system,  active noise cancellation, a titanium drive-shaft, handcrafted maple wood accents, and a slew of modern safety features.

The Rl's advanced "super handling" all-wheel-drive system and powerful 300 horsepower V-6 gives the car a truly premium driving experience. 

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