The 2011 Jetta starts at $16,495. Among its standard safety features is a crash response system that automatically unlocks the doors, cuts the flow of gas and turns on the hazard lights when it senses a crash. Although the Jetta is one of the Insurance Institute's top picks, it didn't earn the highest five-star rating from the government because of its lower scores in rollover and frontal crash tests.
The 2011 Optima starts at $19,200. Among its standard safety features are two sets of side air bags: One comes down from the ceiling and covers the windows and one comes out of the front seats to protect the lower body. It also includes Bluetooth technology, which lets drivers make hands-free phone calls. The Optima gets 34 miles per gallon.
The 2011 Hyundai Sonata, starts at $19,395. It has a brake assist system that automatically applies the full brakes if it senses emergency braking, and traction control, which helps drivers on slick or icy roads. The Sonata gets 35 miles per gallon. There is a hybrid version that offers slightly better fuel economy, but it costs $6,000 more.
Car accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers. So when it comes time to buy a suitable car for a teen driver it's important to choose the safest car that meets your budget.
Although you may be tempted to wrap your kid in the safety of a mammoth SUV, mid-sized sedans are actually the best cars for teens. That's because they're big enough to handle the impact of a crash but nimble enough to steer out of trouble. "A great big car like the Crown Victoria is a potent machine in a straight line, but when you lose control it's a handful," said David Champion, the senior director of Consumer Reports' auto test division.
Champion recommends cars with the smallest, four-cylinder engines, so they're not too powerful. Critical safety features include antilock brakes and electronic stability control, which applies the brakes to individual wheels if it senses the driver is swerving out of control. And stick with front-wheel-drive. While many people prefer all-wheel-drive in snowy weather, it can give kids a false sense of security and encourage them to drive too fast in hazardous conditions.
On the car's interior, look for cars with simple controls that don't require drivers to take their eyes off the road. Hands-free calling systems may be helpful, although they can still be a distraction.
Price is a factor, of course, especially since adding a teen to your auto insurance can easily cost several thousand dollars a year. The Insurance Institute lists its top safety picks for each year back to 2006 on its website, so that's one place parents can find the safest cars from any given year. Results of U.S. government crash tests back to 1990 are also available on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's website.
Here are three new mid-sized cars, all under $20,000, that Champion recommends for teen drivers. All are Insurance Institute top safety picks for 2011, and all have estimated annual fuel costs of around $2,000, which is average for a midsize car.