General popularity aside, an SUV’s elevated seat height benefits new and less experienced drivers with a more commanding view of the road for a safer drive.
These are the best SUVs for teenage drivers, beginners, or first-time car buyers in the various size categories that suit them.
Best SUVs for New Drivers (Sub-Compact)
#1 Mazda CX-30
The Mazda CX-30 crossover is a relatively new entrant in the extra-small segment, but it’s already among the best SUVs for teens.
It is sporty, sophisticated, and has plenty of qualities first-time drivers seek:
- Advanced driving aids and safety features come standard.
- Sporty handling with excellent driving dynamics.
- Sharp steering that provides a good feel for the road.
- Firm yet comfortable ride – soaks up bumps and impacts well.
- Quiet highway cruiser – admirable for its class.
- Premium interior and solid build quality.
- All-wheel-drive – ideal for wet-weather traction; optional up to 2021, standard from 2022.
- Commendable fuel economy – between 25 and 28 mpg overall, depending on the model year and trim level.
More significantly, the Mazda CX-30 is one of the safest first cars despite its diminutive size.
It’s the total package with sleek styling that will appeal to many young drivers.
If you want a subcompact Mazda SUV less expensively, the smaller Mazda CX-3 will please. It’s as engaging to drive as any Mazdas but with higher fuel efficiency than the CX-30.
#2 Subaru Crosstrek
The Subaru Crosstrek is probably the most rugged among subcompact SUVs and the only vehicle of its size with all-wheel-drive as standard.
While pre-2023 models were a little slow compared to rivals, the addition of a 2.5-liter engine made the Crosstrek a capable all-rounder.
Still, an SUV with the quickest acceleration may not be the top priority for most first-time drivers.
Young drivers looking for a reliable SUV for their first car will find the Crosstrek’s positives a massive draw:
- Rock-solid reliability for an extra-small SUV.
- AWD comes standard.
- Good visibility.
- Above-average ground clearance – the enhanced off-road capability is a plus for some weekend adventure.
- Smooth ride and easy to drive.
- Optional plug-in-hybrid – gets mid-30s-mpg combined, some ten mpg more than gas-powered trims.
The Crosstrek’s crash safety credential is another strong point parents would appreciate when buying a vehicle for their teenagers.
If all-wheel-drive is a must, several other AWD first cars are worth exploring.
The 2024 Subaru Crosstrek kicks off the third generation while retaining much of its endearing attributes.
#3 Hyundai Kona
Those in the know appreciate Hyundai’s industry-leading warranty and value-for-money vehicles.
Opting for the extra-small Kona is wise because it is an inexpensive SUV for your first car, packing many technology and safety features in a fun-to-drive package.
It has decent interior space – front and rear, including the trunk – but the Kona stands out with its sporty and nimble handling that lends it agility around town.
Acceleration is above-average, but the optional turbocharged engine is one of the quickest in the class without sacrificing gas mileage compared to the standard four-cylinder. Only the AWD model steals 2-3 mpg from its average fuel consumption.
For those who love the Kona’s attributes and desire an all-electric version, the Kona Electric’s 250-mile-plus range on a single full charge is an attractive option.
Besides, it’s a cool-looking first car, with its distinctive design carrying through to the second-gen Kona, debuting in 2024.
#4 Kia Soul
Not only is Kia Soul the least expensive X-small SUV with an abundance of value, but it is also a cute SUV for young females.
The Soul is one of the great first cars for female drivers that drives as well as it looks.
It has many pluses that attract budget-minded first-car shoppers:
- Above-average handling abilities – economy cars don’t have to be dull.
- Boxy yet snazzy styling – its unique look has broad appeal among the younger crowd.
- Roomy interior – the squarish shape helps.
- Excellent visibility – its crossover platform and tall windows aid outward view in all directions.
- Good fuel economy – around 30-mpg overall, slightly less with the turbo engine.
It’s playful and affordable; a ten-year-old standard Kia Soul costs under $7,000 – an utterly inexpensive used first car.
#5 Honda HR-V
It isn’t as illustrious as its larger-but-still-compact sibling, the CR-V, but the HR-V is a great SUV for college students who want the Honda badge on a smaller crossover body.
Its higher ride height provides the driver a better view of the road than a hatchback or sedan.
The Honda HR-V is an all-around solid choice for young drivers:
- Roomy and comfortable interior – better than its close rival, the Hyundai Venue.
- Excellent visibility – benefits less-experienced drivers for a safer driver.
- Tight handling – nearly as fun to drive as a Mazda.
- Strong fuel economy – 30 mpg average; slightly less in the all-wheel-drive model.
- Excellent cargo capacity – 24 cubic ft. with the rear seatbacks up and close to 60 cubic ft. with them folded.
The acceleration is lackluster, even in the new-for-2023 second-generation HR-V, but its power will suffice for city driving and the occasional highway driving.
The HR-V’s sleek styling, cargo versatility, and Honda reliability make it a good SUV for teens and young adults.
#6 Chevrolet Trailblazer
Generally, Chevrolet does not make good first cars due to their poor reliability.
But still, the automaker has improved in recent years, and the Chevy Trailblazer is the company’s most reliable vehicle, according to Consumer Reports.
The latest-generation Trailblazer looks and feels well built inside and out – the futuristic and rugged styling is a standout in the ultra-competitive extra-small SUV class.
Although appearance matters greatly to young drivers, the Trailblazer also has these first-car qualities:
- Many of the latest tech and safety features.
- Roomy interior.
- High cargo capacity – thanks to the larger dimensions for a subcompact, it has 25 cubic ft. of storage and over 50 cubic ft. with the rear seats folded.
That said, while the styling looks cool, the views out of the car are less impressive, with hampered rear and side visibility due to chunky rear roof pillars and no third side window.
Best SUVs for New Drivers (Compact)
#7 Mazda CX-5
If you want the most economical SUV with tons of interior space, skip to the following models on this list.
But if overall athleticism and refinement matter in your first car, the Mazda CX-5 delivers.
The Mazda CX-5 is one of the pricier options in the segment and probably has the tightest interior and cargo room, but it has these in abundance:
- Sharp and communicative handling – the best among small crossovers; only the Honda CR-V comes close.
- Upscale cabin with high-quality materials – it’s what Mazda does best.
- Firm yet comfortable ride – plus a quiet cabin, even at higher speeds.
For young adults wanting an all-wheel-drive first car for added traction in adverse weather, AWD is optional in pre-2022 models but standard after that.
#8 Subaru Forester
Subaru has offered all-wheel-drive as standard for as long as they made vehicles, except for the rear-wheel-powered BRZ sports coupe.
The Subaru Forester is an AWD SUV with several other qualities that will please new and young drivers:
- Affordable price tag – considering the all-wheel-drive system in the standard model.
- A host of driver aids are standard – inexperienced drivers need all the help they can get.
- Enhanced off-road ability – the above-average ground clearance is handy for the occasional ventures off the beaten path.
- Generous cargo capacity with the rear seats folded.
- Large doors make getting in and out easier.
Besides its all-weather capability, the Subaru Forester is arguably the safest first car in the compact SUV class – beating its other famous Japanese rivals to that honor.
#9 Honda CR-V
Opting for a Honda CR-V isn’t only a safe choice, but it’s also a well-informed decision because it performs exceptionally well in all first-car metrics.
The Honda CR-V is one of the most popular first cars precisely for these reasons:
- Thrifty engine despite its high power output – 30 mpg average with the FWD and one or two mpg less with AWD.
- Massive interior and class-leading cargo capacity – 39 cubic ft; over 76 cubic ft. with the rear seats folded (rpd). The spacious Hyundai Tucson comes second.
- Good visibility all-around.
- Composed handling.
- Quiet and supple ride.
- Solid reliability – one of the most reliable first cars for small SUV shoppers.
Record sales numbers do not necessarily equal the best quality, but in the case of the CR-V, they do, placing the CR-V among the best small SUVs for teenagers.
#10 Hyundai Tucson
Teenagers looking for a small SUV that’s big on value shouldn’t overlook this compact crossover from Hyundai.
While its engine power isn’t class-leading, the Hyundai Tucson is a competent all-rounder that delivers plenty of refinement and standard features.
Its handling is responsive with controlled body lean through turns, inspiring driver confidence.
If you want a gas/electric powertrain to save on fuel costs, the Tucson Hybrid is worth checking out. It returns up to 38 mpg overall, depending on the trim level.
#11 Toyota RAV4
The Toyota RAV4 has been Honda CR-V’s closest challenger in car sales and popularity among new drivers.
While it isn’t as exciting to drive as its Honda counterpart, the RAV4 has other first-car qualities in spades:
- Strong fuel economy – up to 30 mpg combined, depending on the trim level and model year. The RAV4 is a frequent class leader in this aspect.
- Solid build quality with proven Toyota reliability.
- Excellent safety ratings.
- Ride comfort – what it loses in acceleration, the RAV4 makes it up with a quiet cabin and smooth ride.
- Spacious cabin and cargo space.
RAV4 lovers who want higher fuel efficiency can opt for the RAV4 Prime plug-in-hybrid – close to 40 mpg average.
Best SUVs for First-Time Buyers (Compact 3-Row)
#12 Kia Sorento
Most three-row small SUVs have a cramped seat in the last row, but the fourth-generation, new-for-2021 fourth-gen Sorento bucks that trend.
Its second and third-row seats offer sufficient legroom, although the cargo capacity drops significantly when the final row is in use.
The latest iteration also boasts more technology and active safety features than its predecessor.
It is reasonably fuel-efficient – less frugal than the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 but betters the Honda Passport’s mpg figures (see the Passport later in this post).
At a few thousand dollars more than the competition, however, you may need to decide if the longer wheelbase for extra interior space is worth the money.
#13 Volkswagen Tiguan
The compact Tiguan is Volkswagen’s best-selling SUV in the States, and it’s worth considering for teenage drivers after a smart-looking three-row crossover.
Although the third-row seats are expectedly kids-only, the rest of the vehicle is impressive:
- Entertaining and easy to drive with nicely-weighted steering.
- Smooth and quiet ride, even at elevated speeds.
- Spacious cargo area.
- Upscale and sleek-looking interior.
- Segment-competitive fuel economy.
- Comprehensive driver safety features.
All-wheel-drive is optional but helpful for wet-weather traction.
Even though the Tiguan is a roomy small SUV, those looking for even more space should opt for the latest generation as its longer wheelbase extends the car’s overall length by ten inches.
#14 Mitsubishi Outlander
Compared with its fellow Japanese manufacturers, Mitsubishi does not have many exciting first cars or an extensive lineup of vehicles.
However, the redesigned Mitsubishi Outlander, which debuted in 2022, marks a massive improvement over its predecessor and could be the marque’s best SUV for first-time drivers.
While the older but larger Outlanders were merely adequate, Mitsubishi revamped the Outlander to now become a compelling choice for a small three-row SUV.
The Mitsubishi Outlander’s first-car qualities include:
- Nimble and easy to drive for beginners.
- Class-competitive fuel economy in the FWD and AWD models.
- Good visibility.
- Spacious front and second rows.
The Outlander shares the same platform as the new-for-2021 Nissan Rogue, but the latter does not have a third row.
Great SUV for Young Professionals (Midsize)
#15 Honda Passport
Larger SUVs are typically less ideal due to their heft and large dimensions that hamper maneuverability in tighter spaces.
Still, the Honda Passport is a solid midsize SUV for new drivers who need the extra interior and storage space.
Nearly two decades separate the latest-generation Passport from its considerably less accomplished predecessors (pre-2002).
The reborn Passport has an athletic character that extends beyond the exterior:
- Strong engine with excellent handling attributes – appropriately weighted steering that is responsive and easy to maneuver around turns.
- Enhanced off-road capability – thanks to higher ground clearance.
- Plenty of interior space – 156 cubic ft. of total volume; some ten cubic ft. more than the CR-V.
- Quiet and comfortable ride.
An all-wheel-drive Passport is available for new drivers who need the wet-weather capability in their first car.