These first cars are popular and common among teens and new drivers because they are affordable with proven reliability.
Most are mainstream models, but some are unique and speedier hot favorites with young enthusiasts.
#1 Toyota Corolla
It is the quintessential car for budget-conscious teenage drivers and has held the most popular first car tag with the equally-favored Honda Civic for decades.
The Corolla is cheap to buy, thoroughly affordable to own, and will run reliably until your first upgrade.
Even the slower-than-average acceleration cannot dent Corolla’s long-standing reputation as one of the best among economy cars.
Toyota Corolla’s other qualities include:
- Easy to drive.
- Smooth ride.
- Good outward visibility.
- Many advanced safety features come standard.
If paying slightly more to save on fuel appeals, the Corolla Hybrid is worth considering; it can return above 50 mpg on average, some 20 mpg more than the gas-powered version.
#2 Honda Civic
While the Civic isn’t as cheap to maintain as the Corolla (by a hair), according to RepairPal – $368/year vs. $362/year – the Honda compact has many strengths that make it a joint favorite with the Corolla on the first car popularity list.
For young adults who value fun-to-drive character in an economical first car, the Honda Civic has these attributes:
- Sharp handling.
- Strong yet thrifty engine.
- Decent ride comfort.
Honda Civics typically boasts above-average interior quality, cabin room, and trunk size.
It may cost more than segment rivals like the Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, and Nissan Sentra, but Honda Civic remains a top pick for teen drivers with minimal drawbacks.
The Civic hatchback is available for enhanced versatility and a slightly different rear-end design.
For those desiring an even quicker Civic but not dangerously so, the Civic Si and Civic Type R are excellent first cars with higher performance.
#3 Kia Forte
The Kia Forte entry-level sedan is no different, and while it’s a class underdog, the Forte is a compelling choice and popular among first-time drivers precisely because it does well what a first car should.
It has superb fuel economy and is one of the least expensive compact sedans but is feature-packed and offers generous warranty coverage.
The car rides comfortably around town and on long journeys, with supportive seats and a relatively quiet cabin.
The Forte may not be the most popular first car, but its sales figures lag behind only class heavyweights like the Corolla and Civic and tie with the following vehicles on this list.
#4 Hyundai Elantra
Although Hyundai isn’t as reliable as the Toyota or Honda as a brand, the Elantra has plenty of pluses that benefit young drivers on a small budget.
Its base model is affordable, has a generous list of standard tech and safety features, and offers plenty of space in a well-thought-out interior.
Plus, the Elantra is one of the most fuel-efficient – if not the thriftiest – entrants in the compact class.
It doesn’t sprint as capably as a Honda Civic or a Mazda 3 (the next car on the list), but most inexperienced first-time drivers won’t complain.
If you want even better fuel economy, opt for the Elantra hybrid, ably notching an average of 50 mpg, a match for the thrifty Toyota Corolla hybrid or Toyota Prius (covered later in this post).
#5 Mazda 3
It is probably the priciest among compact economy cars, but the Mazda 3 is still a popular first car with a unique proposition.
Size isn’t this Mazda’s forte, but driving dynamics and interior quality are.
The standard four-cylinder engine accelerates well, while the turbocharged powertrain impresses when sprinting from a standstill. Its sharp handling makes the car fun to drive.
Interior design and materials look and feel more premium than the price suggests.
As importantly, the Mazda 3 is an all-wheel-drive vehicle at a price point filled with mostly front-wheel-drive models. AWD drivetrain is handy for inexperienced drivers living in snowy regions.
The fuel economy is average for its class and is understandable and acceptable given its performance capability.
Opt for the hatchback body style for increased cargo capacity; the Mazda 3 hatchback is also one of the better first cars for female drivers.
#6 Nissan Sentra
Surrounded by more recognizable competitors, Nissan Sentra does not stand out in any specific metric.
Still, it’s a decent performer in many first car aspects, making it popular among new drivers.
The Sentra has:
- Good visibility, and the car is easy to drive.
- Plenty of standard safety and tech features.
- Roomy interior.
This Japanese automaker’s roster of products is broad and covers sports coupes, SUVs, and family sedans like the Sentra.
If you need a larger vehicle, Nissan has several good first cars worth exploring.
#7 Ford Mustang
Speed and performance appeal to car enthusiasts, and the passion for automobiles isn’t age-limited.
Many first car shoppers are car guys, and today’s automotive market has plenty of speedier choices that have become increasingly affordable.
Improvements in car safety technologies and overall ride comfort mean entry-level sports cars like the Ford Mustang have become more accessible to the average driver.
Still, the Mustang’s popularity among teenage males does not necessarily make it a good first car, as its performance capability is probably safer in the hands of the more responsible minority.
Nonetheless, the Ford Mustang remains one of the more popular sports cars due partly to its legendary status and muscular stance.
#8 Mazda MX-5 Miata
The MX-5 is another popular choice with new drivers desiring a speedy-but-not-potent rear-wheel-drive, entry-level sports car.
Its Miata-famous qualities include:
- Light and nimble (approx. 2,700 lbs; 30.8 ft. turning circle).
- Precise handling.
- Easy to drive at any speed.
- Reasonably powerful yet manageable (below 200 hp).
Plus, it’s remarkably fuel-efficient; the fourth-gen model’s consumption nears 30 mpg combined.
The MX-5 Miata is one of the better fast-but-not-dangerous first cars, and its longevity spanning over three decades and four generations speaks to its appeal across the age and skills divide.
#9 Toyota Camry
The Camry competes with the Accord as fiercely as the Corolla battles the Civic for first car supremacy in their respective classes.
The number of generations and an even more significant number of them on the road point to the Toyota Camry being one of the most popular cars for beginners and the experienced alike – all pursuing the same set of broad and endearing automotive qualities.
It has strong fuel economy, a spacious cabin and cargo, plus good visibility, making driving easier for new drivers.
While its premium siblings with the Lexus badge excel in their luxurious ride, the Camry carries the parent company’s flag in the mainstream market with an admirably comfortable ride – although not Lexus-level.
At a couple of thousand dollars more, you can get a Camry hybrid, which returns around 50 mpg combined, impressively low fuel consumption for a car its size.
Gas or hybrid, both Camry models have Toyota’s traditional build quality and rock-solid reliability.
#10 Honda Accord
Powerful and fuel-efficient with a cavernous interior that uses premium-quality materials, these are the Accord’s strong suits.
Like the smaller Civic, the Accord’s sporty handling allows the car to corner well and hold its line through the turns without drama.
The Honda Accord may be one of the most common first cars, but it’s a polished midsize sedan in an all-around compelling package.
Ten generations into its existence, the Accord continues to be a compelling option for new drivers and family vehicle shoppers after a reliable and fun-to-drive sedan with class-leading feature offerings.
And just like the Civic, the Honda Accord is an impeccably safe first car, winning heaps of safety awards.
#11 Toyota RAV4
If you’re newly licensed and you believe an SUV affords you a higher ride and greater visibility, chances are the RAV4 is on your shortlist.
SUVs do what SUVs do best: providing a commanding view of the road and benefitting new drivers with a safer drive; the RAV4 can do more: returns high fuel economy with low running costs.
Other RAV4 strong points include comfortable ride quality in a quiet interior and an abundance of passenger and cargo space.
Vague steering is a drawback in an otherwise solidly-built vehicle – a minor gripe most inexperienced drivers won’t mind.
Suppose you need your compact SUV to handle and turn with confidence; opt for the next car on the list (CR-V).
#12 Honda CR-V
The Honda CR-V is an exceptional small SUV and one of the most common first cars on the road, thanks in part to the popularity of this type of vehicle.
It’s an all-rounder that does well in comfort, space, value, and driver enjoyment; plus, it can achieve an average of 30 mpg.
Although gas consumption will rely on the model generation and driving style, CR-Vs are thrifty on fuel despite the strong engines, especially with the newer turbocharged inline-four.
If you value performance, the CR-V, with its athletic handling, will suit you better. Plus, CR-V accelerates quicker than the RAV4.