Affordable easy-to-drive vehicles work best for teens and new drivers.
This list contains some of the most fuel-efficient and reliable first cars that go easy on your wallet, ranging from inexpensive to thoroughly cheap.
Affordable First Cars for Teen Drivers (SUV)
#1 Kia Soul
Kia offers generous warranty coverage for its vehicles, typically extending to 10 years/100,000 miles for powertrain components.
The warranty aside, Kia cars often rank among the best overall, equalling and sometimes surpassing their more famous rivals.
Although it isn’t the largest or highest-profile vehicle within the Korean carmaker’s lineup, the Kia Soul is an extra-small SUV that offers a roomier cabin than the competition with its boxy shape.
It is thrifty on fuel, returning between 25 and 30 mpg combined, depending on the model year – newer models are more efficient.
The Soul SUV, although diminutive, is one of the safest first cars, with an impressive list of safety awards stretching back to more than a decade ago.
Depending on your location and car condition, you can get a 10-year-old Kia Soul from $5,800 to $9,000.
#2 Mazda CX-5
With its efficient inline-four engine, agile driving dynamics, and aggressive styling, the Mazda CX-5 is an excellent pick for first-time drivers seeking a sporty yet thrifty crossover SUV.
It offers storage and cargo capacity on par with the competition, and its impressive list of standard equipment and safety features will keep budget-conscious new drivers happy.
This compact SUV debuted in 2013, and that model year is available for less than $12,500, condition-dependent. Some 2013 CX-5s can sell for less than $10k.
You need not worry about the older model’s efficiency because its smaller four-cylinder engines consume less fuel than newer CX-5s – the pioneering model returns close to 30 mpg overall.
The CX-5 is a solid choice for a teenager’s used first car – as most Mazdas are.
#3 Honda CR-V
Honda CR-V consistently ranks among the best-selling small SUVs and is a capable all-rounder.
The comprehensive list of things the CR-V does well includes:
- Exceptional fuel economy – ranging from 20 mpg to 30 mpg across models of the past decades.
- Strong engine for its class.
- Rides comfortably yet handles athletically.
- Roomy interior.
- High cargo capacity.
- Appealing roster of tech and safety features.
A ten-year-old Honda CR-V is available from $10,500 to $13,900, and a twenty-year-old model costs below $7,000.
#4 Toyota RAV4
Although it’s not a standout in any particular area, the RAV4 is a well-executed small SUV with the performance, features, and cabin accommodations that keep up with class leaders.
SUVs provide an elevated ride height and greater visibility, so the RAV4’s compact dimensions make driving and parking easier for beginners while affording a good view of the road for a safer commute.
RAV4’s other pluses include a frugal engine, spacious cabin, smooth ride, and many standard high-tech safety features to aid the inexperienced.
Such qualities make the RAV4 one of the most popular choices among teen drivers.
For such a reliable vehicle, opting for a used RAV4 is still wise for a budget-minded young driver:
- A ten-year-old RAV4 costs between $10,000 and $13,500, depending on the condition.
- A two-decade-old RAV4 sells for less than $8,000.
Opting for the RAV4 or CR-V, two of the most dependable small SUVs, lets you commute comfortably while saving on fuel and upkeep.
#5 Hyundai Tucson
Although not as famous as the Japanese brands, Hyundai vehicles are great first cars.
The Tucson is the brand’s second smallest SUV after the diminutive Kona and a solid choice on a smaller budget.
Hyundai Tucson is one of the cheapest small SUVs, brand-new, and an excellent choice for new drivers if the budget matches.
Still, opting for a used Tucson remains a well-informed choice as older Tucsons are as fuel-efficient and reliable as their Japanese rivals of similar age.
Used Hyundai Tucsons are available at these prices:
- A ten-year-old Tucson: below $10k.
- A fifteen-year-old Tucson: below $7.5k.
They are generally cheaper than the Japanese models with equivalent specifications but no less competent:
- Lots of features for the money.
- Firm but comfortable ride.
- Top safety scores.
Unlike the utilitarian driving experience typical of many compact crossovers, time spent behind the wheel of even a used Tucson can be pretty enjoyable.
#6 Subaru Forester
With the Forester, Subaru offers a no-nonsense small SUV for first car buyers who need the versatility of an SUV with the superior grip of all-wheel-drive (AWD).
If you’re shopping for an inexpensive old model, the Forester is one of only two AWD SUVs on this list and a solid choice, regardless.
Opting for a used Subaru Forester is inexpensive:
- A ten-year-old Forester: below $9,900.
- A fifteen-year-old Forester: below $7,900.
The Forester has a roomy cabin with excellent visibility, thanks to tall windows all around, and its higher-than-average ground clearance is a plus for off-roading enthusiasts.
It also has the most impressive crash safety record, winning consecutive IIHS awards for multiple years, as listed in the Safest First Cars post.
Subarus are good first cars and worth considering for drivers who need all-weather traction as all vehicles from this automaker have AWD, except the BRZ sports coupe.
#7 Volkswagen Tiguan
The Tiguan is Volkswagen’s first entry in the compact crossover segment, based on the German carmaker’s small-car platform.
It boasts a turbocharged engine, all-wheel-drive, and composed handling for an all-around enjoyable ride.
Cabin quality is relatively upscale with solid build quality, characteristic of its European heritage.
The latest-generation Tiguan has smart looks, and although that is undoubtedly pricey brand-new at close to $27k, you can have a used model from the first generation for much less.
A ten- or twelve-year-old standard Tiguan is often available for between $6.9k and $10k.
Volkswagen vehicles may cost slightly more to maintain, but the brand has some good first cars worth considering.
Best Cheap First Cars for New Drivers (Sedan)
#8 Toyota Corolla
Toyota Corolla’s status as the ideal and affordable first car hasn’t diminished after twelve generations and more than half a century since its debut in the 1960s.
Mixing quality and economy into one package, the Corolla has impeccable reliability, high fuel economy, and smooth ride comfort.
While the interior space and cabin quality relative to its direct competitors vary with the model years, the Corolla remains an intelligent pick in the compact sedan segment.
Corollas typically provide a more disconnected driving experience than the Civic or Mazda 3, but it’s a minor drawback that will bother few budget-inclined first car buyers.
Considering the Corolla’s legendary status in reliability, getting a used Corolla for your first car is well-informed:
- A ten-year-old Toyota Corolla sells for around the $10k mark, while
- A twenty-year-old model typically comes in at below $6k, an excellent buy for a car as dependable as the Corolla.
Old Corollas are easy to drive for newbies because they offer excellent visibility with their boxier design.
#9 Honda Civic
If you prefer a sedan that drives more athletically than the Toyota Corolla, the Honda Civic is the ideal first car.
Neck and neck with its long-time Toyota rival, the Civic is solidly reliable and typically returns good fuel economy despite the more powerful engine.
The Honda Civic is one of the most popular cars among young drivers, not least because it has a reputation for being sturdy and safe.
A lower budget is no constraint because used Civics are just as dependable as their newer iterations:
- A ten-year-old base Civic costs below $11,500.
- A fifteen-year-old Civic doesn’t cost more than $8,000.
- A twenty-year-old Civic sells for less than $5,500.
Although the standard model is adequately powerful for most new drivers, speedier versions like the Civic Si and Civic Type R with higher performance are available.
#10 Kia Forte
When the first Forte made its appearance in 2010, it presented a worthy challenge to the established Honda and Toyota players with an attractive exterior design, plentiful features, and long warranty in a value-for-money package.
Unlike Hyundai’s earlier compact car, the Forte no longer only offers cut-rate pricing but plenty of qualities you’d expect from an excellent first car:
- Excellent fuel economy – between mid-20s-mpg and 30-plus-mpg, depending on the model year.
- Good visibility – relatively unimpeded vision is crucial for a safer and less strenuous drive.
- Strong reliability – JD Power scores it 80+/100.
Prices of used Forte models are affordable:
- A seven years old model is available for less than $11k.
- Twelve years old model costs under $7k.
A Forte with the hatchback body style (available up to 2018) may suit those needing more storage versatility.
#11 Hyundai Accent
The extra-small Hyundai Accent is ideal for young female drivers and those wanting a subcompact package for easy maneuverability.
Like all Hyundais, the Accent comes with many standard features and a generous warranty, although buying an old model may mean purchasing extended coverage.
Despite the X-small size (sedan or hatchback), the Accent’s interior is roomy and fits four average-sized adults reasonably comfortably.
Buying a used Hyundai Accent is thoroughly affordable:
- A twelve years old Accent sells for under $7k.
- A twenty years old Accent costs below $5k.
Older Accent models have excellent outward visibility with plenty of glass and slim roof pillars.
Plus, they still return close to 30 mpg in mixed driving.
#12 Toyota Camry
For larger or taller drivers and those needing more passenger room, opting for a midsize economy sedan makes perfect sense.
The Toyota Camry capably meets first-time drivers’ expectations by doing these well:
- Rock-solid reliability – one of the most reliable first cars, or any car, period.
- Better-than-average visibility – model-dependent, but most Camrys provide good outward vision.
- Strong fuel economy – averaging mid-20s-mpg to over 30 mpg.
- Spacious cabin – has excellent ergonomics too.
First cars need not be new, and older Camrys suit new drivers on a modest budget:
- A decade-old Camry costs under $12,000, while
- A Camry twice that age is available for no more than $6,500.
The driving experience overall feels somewhat disconnected compared to a Honda Accord or a Mazda 6, but the butter-smooth ride will appeal to most buyers looking for an economical ride.
#13 Honda Accord
The Honda Accord is a reliable first car with solid crash safety scores that needs no elaborate introduction.
This Honda midsize sedan – new or used – will appeal whether you prioritize cabin space, value for money, fuel economy, or an engaging driving experience.
Impressively, Honda Accord’s engines are generally some of the more powerful ones in the segment, but they regularly return the highest mileage.
The price of used Accords does not differ significantly from a Camry of the same age:
- A decade-old Accord sells for under $11,900, while
- A two-decade-old model typically doesn’t exceed $6,200.
Honda Accord’s athletic demeanor, ride comfort, and overall refinement are consistently the segment’s bests and can give some entry-level premium cars a run for their money.
Best Cheap First Cars for Beginners (Hatchback)
#14 Mazda 3 Hatchback
Hatchbacks offer a great utility that teenage drivers could use, especially during their college-going years.
The Mazda 3 hatchback has above 40 cubic feet of storage, with the rear seatbacks folded.
Although the fuel economy is average for its class, the Mazda 3 hatchback has sharp handling and a strong engine, making it fun to drive.
A $10k budget can get you a ten-year-old Mazda 3, while a $7k allocation will suffice for a fifteen-year-old one.
Its crash-test scores are no slouch; the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) awarded Mazda 3 a string of Top Safety Pick awards dating back over a decade.
#15 Volkswagen Golf
Volkswagen Golf offers refinement and class-superior driving dynamics in a spacious hatchback body style.
Fuel efficiency is also Golf’s strong point, achieving near-30-mpg combined, or more, depending on the model year.
Since Volkswagen discontinued this hatchback after 2021, you will need to contend with a used model, although the VW Golf is a solid first car and will remain so for some time.
A 2015 seventh-gen VW Golf costs between $9,900 and $14,900, while a 2010 model costs around $8,500, give or take, depending on its condition.
#16 Ford Fiesta
Hatchbacks are economical options for teenage drivers. But unfortunately, their dwindling numbers on the market mean those wishing for a versatile first car may need to opt for the more expensive crossover instead.
Ford Fiesta joined the growing list of hatchbacks consigned to the history books after its 2019 model year.
Still, a Fiesta remains a compelling choice for new drivers after an economical first car as it is one of the best subcompact cars around.
Its qualities include sporty handling, fuel efficiency, and stability, even at highway speed.
The first of the Fiestas on American shores is the 2011 model, which costs $6,500 or less, a great purchase considering its age.