Best New Cars for Grads

Last Updated May 13, 2010 8:53 AM EDT

It's commencement season --time for all good high school and college graduates to picture themselves driving into the next stage of their life in something really, really fast and cool. Parents, of course, just want those kids to be driving something safe. So goes the annual automotive tug of war.

If you want to buy a new car for the graduate in your life, insist on safety even if you make a nod to looks. The two most important features -according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) --are electronic stability control ,which helps prevent rollovers, and side air bags, which protect occupants if there is an accident. Earlier this week we picked the Best Used Cars for Grads. Here are our recommended new cars-starting with some Top Safety Picks from the Insurance Institute. Given this difficult economy, we've kept the base model price of these cars under $22,000.

Beginning Driver Sharing with Parents: Young drivers who just got their license have a higher accident rate than any other age group, research shows. And sedate sedans are less likely to encourage risky driving than small sporty cars. Parents who can bring themselves to share a vehicle with their teens might consider a safe sedan that parents would also enjoy. Chevrolet Malibu, which tops the Institute's list of mid-size sedans, comes with standard electronic stability control and side air bags. Reviewers like its sleek exterior and stylish cabin. The Malibu starts at a list price of $21,825 for the base LS and goes up to $26,955 for the loaded LTZ. Another good, safe sedan: the Hyundai Sonata, starting at $19,195.

Grad Heading to an Out-of-Town College: A computer, sound system and other gear will need to be hauled to the new dorm. So look into the capacious Nissan Cube, which is funky chic enough for an image-conscious frosh and on the list of top safety picks for its stability control and good crash-test results. Reviewers also applaud the Cube's responsive handling and comfortable seats. List prices range from $13,990 for the base model to $20,440 for a fully-loaded version. The Cube's gas mileage is rated at 27 mpg city, 31 highway. A similar model also on the safety list: the Scion Xb, starting at $16,520. Though produced by Toyota, it was not involved in any of the recent recalls.

Student Commuting to a Local College: If your grad will be living at home and commuting to a college, gas mileage becomes all-important. Small car category leader Honda Civic, with mileage ratings of 25 mpg city, 36 highway fills the bill. Reviewers like its style, reliability and high resale value. Though not yet rated by IIHS, the 2011 Ford Fiesta (on sale this summer) boasts a full array of safety equipment and mileage ratings of 30 mpg city, 40 highway. The base model will start at $13,300.

College Grad with a New Job: A new graduate making his or her own car payments could do worse than a safe but stylish sedan that isn't too expensive. That describes the Volkswagen Jetta. Reviewers like its power as well as comfortable interior and seating. The TDI diesel version can save on fuel costs, with mileage rated at 30 mpg city, 41 highway. List prices range from $17,392 to $23, 567. Another worthy small sedan: the Subaru Legacy, starts at $18,145.

Photos courtesy of the manufacturers

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.