Want a safe car for your teen? Here's what to look for

When your teenager is pining for her first car, forget what you've heard about the "safest" vehicles. Instead buy a car with some size and weight to it. The old faithful aging in grandma's garage may be a better bargain in terms of keeping young drivers safe than newer and cuter models, according to a new report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Notably, IIHS, which evaluates auto safety, is doing a sharp left turn from some of its earlier research. As recently as July it rated the Kia Forte as one of the safest small cars on the road. But when it comes to the all-important first set of wheels for your novice teen driver, the organization used a different yardstick, assuming that parents and youngsters on a limited budget prefer to spend less than $20,000 for a vehicle.

This made the choice fairly simple. "Bigger vehicles provide greater protection," said Vice President Jessica Cicchino, who's in charge of research for IIHS. "If you're riding in one of the smallest vehicles on the road, you'll be at a disadvantage with almost any other vehicle around you."

To prove this, IIHS smashed a Kia Forte -- its 2018 top safety pick -- into a midsized Kia Sorento SUV; the same faceoff was staged between a 2018 Toyota Yaris minicar and the larger Toyota Avalon. In both crash tests the vehicles were traveling at 40 miles per hour, with half of the smaller car's width overlapping the larger vehicle. The weight of the larger autos was about 1,000 pounds more in both cases.

IIHS focused on injuries to the drivers, which were crash dummies that ended up with a "high likelihood" of head trauma. Right leg injuries were also likely in the Forte and possible in the Yaris. Neck and chest injuries were possible in both vehicles, the tests showed. By contrast, both the Avalon and Sorento had "good structural performance" in the paired crashes, said the IIHS.

The insurance institute focused on teen drivers because they generally have less money to spend on their first car and have worse driver records than older drivers. Half of all teens will be involved in a car crash before they graduate high school, according to the National Safety Council and, in most instances, insurers will have to pay claims for these injuries. IIHS, which is sponsored by auto insurers, wants to keep insurance companies' costs and driver premiums down.

IIHS offered a list of the safest used cars for teens, based on price tag and insurance losses. It also added data from its previous safety tests, such as what would happen when a vehicle hits a telephone pole. Small cars by definition were excluded from the list, as were vehicles with high horsepower.

In the "under $20,000" category for midsize cars, Volkswagen and Volvo models came out on top. Only two American models, both made by Ford, made the list. For large cars, U.S. cars did slightly better, but once again Volvo topped the list.

In the under $10,000 group, Volkswagen headed the list with three models in the midsize category, while the Buick LaCrosse and Ford Taurus were the safest large cars, IIHS concluded.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.