Smart picks for teen drivers: IIHS updates criteria for recommended used vehicles

When Cathy Danial was shopping for a vehicle for her son, Joey, she couldn’t have foreseen the moment four years later when another driver would hit Joey’s SUV, causing it to spin around, leave the road and strike a tree. What she did know was that anything could happen. That’s why she researched safety ratings … Continued

When Cathy Danial was shopping for a vehicle for her son, Joey, she couldn’t have foreseen the moment four years later when another driver would hit Joey’s SUV, causing it to spin around, leave the road and strike a tree.

What she did know was that anything could happen. That’s why she researched safety ratings and chose to spend a little more money for a vehicle that would offer good protection in a crash.

Joey Danial ended up with a 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe, which is what he was driving when the crash occurred on a four-lane Michigan road earlier this year. He wasn’t hurt, but the Santa Fe was totaled.

Despite the frightening circumstances of the crash, none of the impacts were severe enough to prompt airbags to deploy. Still, the outcome reinforced the Danials’ confidence in the 2007 Santa Fe. They replaced it with the same model.

“I certainly feel like my car did a pretty good job, considering the damage to the car versus the damage to me, which was nothing,” Joey Danial said recently.

IIHS wants to help other families have that kind of confidence in their young driver’s first vehicle — without having to experience a serious crash. The latest update of the Institute’s list of recommended used vehicles for teens includes 49 “best choices,” starting under $20,000, and 82 “good choices,” starting under $10,000. (The latter category includes the 2007 Santa Fe.)

Teenagers are among the riskiest drivers, but they often end up with inexpensive vehicles that don’t offer adequate protection in a crash. To help families find safer vehicles that fit within their budgets, IIHS began publishing a list of recommended used vehicles for teens in 2014 (see Status Report special issue: vehicles for teens, July 16, 2014).

This year, IIHS is applying more stringent criteria to both lists, as recent safety improvements to new vehicles have percolated down to lower-cost used vehicles.

For the first time, small overlap front crash protection has been factored in for the best choices section of the list. And the bar has been raised for the less expensive good choices as well, with better side and head restraint ratings required.

“Just as we are always updating the criteria for our awards for new vehicles, TOP SAFETY PICK and TOP SAFETY PICK+, we can now point used vehicle buyers toward even safer models than before,” says David Zuby, IIHS executive vice president and chief research officer. “Good crash protection is more affordable than ever, so there’s no need to skimp on safety when it comes to a vehicle for a young driver.”

Prices for listed vehicles are provided by Kelley Blue Book, based on estimates for a private-party purchase near the Institute’s Arlington, Va., headquarters.

“Choosing a safe vehicle for your teen is of paramount importance, and settling on a vehicle your family can afford is also very important,” says Jack Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book.

“Kelley Blue Book provides you with updated vehicle prices and values that are unique to your area, so is a great site to visit as you finalize your buying decision.”

Rules of thumb
Both lists follow a few basic principles, which should always be taken into account when shopping for a vehicle for a teenager:

  • High horsepower and young drivers don’t mix. Teens may be tempted to test the limits of a powerful engine. Vehicles that come only with powerful engines have been left off the lists, but some recommended models have high-horsepower versions. Stick with the base engine.
  • Bigger, heavier vehicles are safer. There are no minicars or small cars on the lists. Small SUVs are OK; they weigh about the same as a midsize car.
  • Electronic stability control is an essential feature. This technology, which cuts single-vehicle fatal crash risk nearly in half, has been required on new vehicles since the 2012 model year. It helps a driver maintain control on curves and slippery roads. All listed vehicles have the feature standard.

Beyond those basics, parents should seek out a vehicle with the highest crash test ratings they can afford.

Models on this year’s good choices list earn good ratings in the Institute’s moderate overlap front, side and head restraint tests. Vehicles on the best choices list must also have a good rating for roof strength to protect in rollover crashes and a good or acceptable rating in the small overlap test, which replicates what happens when the front, driver-side corner of a vehicle strikes another vehicle or an object such as a tree or utility pole.

If rated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), vehicles on either list must earn 4 or 5 stars overall or 4 or 5 stars in the front and side tests under NHTSA’s old rating scheme, which was used through the 2010 model year.

Check for recalls

Before purchasing a used vehicle, it’s critical to check for outstanding recalls. You can enter the Vehicle Identification Number at It’s also a good idea to notify the manufacturer once you purchase the vehicle, so the company can make sure you receive future recall notices.

Consumers should keep in mind that the ongoing recall of Takata airbags affects a large number of vehicles. Since the risk of airbag malfunction increases over time and also depends on the climate where the vehicle is kept for most of the year, not all affected vehicles have been recalled yet. NHTSA recommends checking its recall page every six months or so.

Plan ahead for a hand-me-down vehicle

In recent years, front crash prevention has been part of the criteria for IIHS safety awards for new vehicles. Although such systems are likely to be valuable for inexperienced drivers, they are usually available only as optional equipment, making it difficult to locate a used vehicle that has the feature. The same goes for good- or acceptable-rated headlights. IIHS began headlight ratings last year, but many vehicles have multiple headlight systems with varying ratings.

Parents of children who are still years away from driving should plan ahead if they want their future driver to benefit from front crash prevention and good-rated headlights. If possible, when buying the next family vehicle, choose an IIHS TOP SAFETY PICK or TOP SAFETY PICK+ with at least 4 or 5 stars from NHTSA, and consider handing it down to your teenager when the time comes.

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