Best Cars for First-Time Drivers

I get this one all the time, from parents and kids alike: What’s the best car for a first-time driver? And in most cases, “first-time driver” means teen driver, whether it’s a high-school student who just got her license or a college freshman driving off to campus. So I’m thinking about safety, number one, but I’m also looking for fuel economy, technology and just plain old fun. Want to see the winners? Here are the top 3 cars I’d recommend.

Scion FR-S

Scion FR-SThe rear-wheel-drive Scion FR-S is one of those cars that looks fast, but don’t worry, Mom and Dad — it’s actually quite a bit slower than a garden-variety Camry V6. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, though; on the contrary, the FR-S will put a smile on anyone’s face, teen driver or otherwise, with its laser-sharp steering, excellent transmissions (manual or rev-matching automatic) and growly four-cylinder engine. This is basically a world-class sports car without the world-class power, which makes it the best first car for budding driving enthusiasts.

Fortunately, the Scion FR-S is about more than just the sporty stuff. It also got top scores from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety in every crash test, and you can expect up to 34 mpg on the highway, according to the EPA. Throw in a standard eight-speaker Pioneer stereo that includes new car tech such as Bluetooth/USB integration as well as a touchscreen interface, and what’s not to like? Well, the tiny backseat is a lowlight, but otherwise, the FR-S should impress.

Mazda 3

Mazda 3The redesigned Mazda 3 is a beautiful car, first and foremost, but I can’t recommend a ride just based on looks. It’s got to have a good foundation, too. And the 3 has one of the best, striking an excellent ride/handling balance on the road that makes me think of the BMW 3 Series. If you’re tempted to get the bigger 2.5-liter engine, I urge you to reconsider; the base 2.0-liter four-cylinder is a joy to wring out, especially if you get the buttery-smooth six-speed manual transmission. Plus, fuel economy with the smaller motor is an amazing 41 mpg.

The Mazda 3 is a pleasant surprise on the inside as well, boasting snug front seats, upscale materials and an available touchscreen that also employs Audi-like knobs on the center console. On the safety front, it aced the latest IIHS crash tests. Now here’s the clincher: you can get all of this goodness for under $25k. Honestly, I’m tempted to buy one myself.

Volkswagen Golf

VW Golf 1I’m talking about two cars here, really: there’s the “Mk6,” which is made in Europe and just wrapped up its production run; and there’s the “Mk7,” a redesigned, Mexican-built model that debuts for the 2015 model year. Either way, the Volkswagen Golf is a heck of a hatchback. I love the understated yet high-quality interior–you could slap an Audi logo on the steering wheel and it would work just fine. The optional turbodiesel four-cylinder, a.k.a. “TDI,” can get you close to 50 mpg on the highway if you drive it right. And the turbocharged GTI delivers truly spirited acceleration, especially the new 2015 model with its robust 258 pound-feet of torque (the outgoing GTI makes 207 lb-ft).

Now let me give you a reason to hold out for the Mk7 Golf: the base engine will be an energetic 1.8-liter four-cylinder turbo that’s a huge upgrade over the old five-cylinder lump. I actually liked the five’s gravelly voice at full throttle, but its fuel economy was seriously behind the times. So if you’ve decided against the TDI and GTI, wait for the 2015 to get a regular Volkswagen Golf. Otherwise, even the Mk6 Golf lineup gets perfect crash scores from the IIHS, and it offers a touchscreen with all the device hookups you need. So don’t dismiss a Mk6 TDI or GTI because it’s old; you might just get a great deal on one.

What are your top picks?

Those are my choices, but I always like to hear what you folks have to say. What are your top new cars for first-time drivers? Let’s discuss in the comments.

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