They want style. You want safety. Few family decisions produce generational standoff like choosing a car for a newly licensed teenager or a semi-independent college grad.
On this one, of course, the parents are right. Young drivers, even 20-somethings who've had their license for a few years, have higher accident rates, so a safe car is paramount. But good luck with selling that practical notion to a frisky young driver.
When we crunched the numbers, the safest cars under $25,000 turned out to be geezermobiles like the Ford Taurus or minivans—gag!—like the Hyundai Entourage. Yes, if Mom and Dad are footing the bill, Junior should be grateful for any ride at all. But even many parents would cringe at the sight of their kid piloting a grocery-getter.
So we returned to our spreadsheets, to devise a list of safe cars that teenagers and 20-somethings actually want to drive. We started by compiling a set of cars popular with drivers under 30, based on research from auto experts like J.D. Power and Kelley Blue Book. We cross-checked those cars with the U.S. News Best Car and Truck Rankings, to see how they rank on quality. With $3 gas, fuel economy matters—especially to thin wallets—so we measured whether each car gets above- or below-average mileage. Then we factored in these safety considerations:
Government crash-test scores. We like cars that earn either 4 or 5 stars, out of 5, in each of the four categories the government tests. A perfect score would be 20. We consider a "top" combined score to be 16 or higher, with nothing lower than 4 in any single category.
Rollover resistance. The government also calculates the likelihood that a car will roll over if the driver loses control. This is just as important as crash-test scores, since many wrecks are single-vehicle accidents that can be perfectly survivable if the car stays upright—and deadly if it flips over. Road-hugging sports cars tend to have the highest rollover resistance, since their center of gravity is low. (Still, we discourage buying your kid a Porsche.) Tall SUVs usually score lower. Safety features like stability control can help. We consider 4 or 5 stars to be a "top" rollover score.
Mass. A car's size and weight matter too. While crash test scores are a good safety indicator, the government rates cars only within their class—which means a compact car with a 5-star rating scores high compared with other compacts, but not necessarily compared with pickups or SUVs. In the real world, of course, collisions occur between every kind of car, and as a general rule, bigger, heavier cars protect their occupants better. So we determined whether the cars on our list have above- or below-average weight, compared with all cars.
When you tally it up, here are the popular cars with the best safety marks—along with others you might want to avoid.