It could be its own season that comes right after Summer and before Fall; call it Back To School. Whether you anticipate it like a flu shot or see it as blessed relief, it's here.

For some, this almost-season triggers thoughts grander than new backpacks and binders. Successful college students and teens with generous benefactors are looking to make a more major purchase: new wheels. The following gallery points toward ten vehicles that make sense for younger drivers.
  • Image Credit: Honda


Knowing that most families don't have Rick Hilton's bank account -- he is Paris's daddy -- every vehicle chosen by AOL Autos editors can be purchased for approximately $15,000, or substantially less. This is roughly half the price the average new car in 2009 ($28,400) as reported by the National Automobile Dealer Association.

For this sum, each of the chosen vehicles boasts:

- Anti-lock Braking Systems and Electronic stability control (these are must-haves for inexperienced drivers)
- Good fuel economy
- Roomy, versatile interiors
- Commendable safety ratings by the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) and/or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The few vehicles we’ve selected without current ratings have scored well in European crash tests where the cars have already been on sale.

Importantly for the image conscious, most of our choices consider style and shouldn't elicit either screaming or vomiting.

Making The Choice

Before making any decision, consider this: The Life Of A Young Person's Car. It's not an easy one. The vehicle won't likely be garage kept or pampered. It will however, suffer the abuse that happens in school parking lots and by being used as a pizza shuttle.

Then there's the experience of young drivers, or lack thereof. As responsible as they may be in other aspects of their lives, young drivers (by definition) don't have the on-road savvy that comes with years of driving. Minor accidents and shunts are likely. Unless you've got money to burn, it doesn't make sense to spend so much on a car that's going to be showing its age sooner rather than later.
  • Image Credit: Nissan

2010 Nissan Versa 1.8 S

MSRP: $13,520
Airbags: front, front-side, side curtain
ABS & Electronic stability control: Yes
Estimated MPG (city/highway): 26/31 with 6-speed manual

Nissan's smallest sedan won a spot on our list because it offers practicality, value and quantifiable safety in a package that drives surprisingly well. By US standards, the Versa is a really small car, but its 95-cubic foot cabin magically offers more comfort than you'd think possible. More importantly, the Versa fairs well with solid 4-Star NHTSA crash performance and an impressive "Good" rating from the IIHS.

If you check, there are less expensive Versa models. We recommend the 122-horsepower 1.8 S because electronic stability control can be ordered on this edition as part of the Vehicle Dynamic Control package for an affordable $370. This is money well spent.

While not apparent in the US market, Nissan and France's Renault are one in the same. On the road, the Versa shows its European Renault roots by driving with a surprising level of refinement that makes some other sub-compact cars feel clumsy.
  • Image Credit: Ford

2011 Ford Fiesta S Sedan

MSRP: $13,320
Airbags: front, front-side, driver's knee, side curtain
ABS & Electronic stability control: Yes
Estimated MPG (city/highway): 28/37 with 5-speed manual

The recently introduced 2011 Ford Fiesta is a sub-compact that will change minds. While Ford Motor Company, General Motors and Chrysler alienated generations of driving Americans by selling them (or their parents) cheap small cars that felt cheap, the all-new Fiesta is one of the best sub-compacts on the market. Period.

Powered by a 120-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder, the Fiesta drives with a distinctively sporty attitude. Adding the optional PowerShift automatic transmission improves highway mileage to 40 mpg without busting the budget. This is a bit like having hybrid fuel economy without actually driving (or paying for) a hybrid.

Ford's steady and considerable year-over-year improvements in quality will shock those who haven't looked at a new model in decades. Since the Fiesta is a new design, it hasn't yet been tested by the NHTSA or IIHS. The manufacturer has a strong record of introducing new models with strong crash test performance, so AOL expects the Fiesta to do well.
  • Image Credit: Mazda

2011 Mazda2 Sport

MSRP: $13,980
Airbags: front, front-side curtain
ABS & Electronic stability control: Yes
Estimated MPG (city/highway): 29/35 with 5-speed manual

AOL Autos editors have long loved Mazdas. The Mazda2 is brand new to the US for 2011 even though it's been a good seller in Europe since 2007. Like the slightly larger and more expensive Mazda3, the "2" is an entertaining, engaging drive.

The Sport model is quicker on it feet than its 100-horsepower 1.5-liter four-cylinder would suggest. The car only weighs 2300 pounds and the transmission gearing is aggressive, so the Mazda2 knows how to move out. Like the Ford Fiesta, Mazda2 shines on curvy roads. Standard Dynamic Stability Control is standard to reign in over-confident drivers. Inside, the Mazda2's 87 cubic feet of passenger space is plenty big for four provided they're not brining along more cargo than a few backpacks.

Since the model is new, it has not yet been crash tested. Given Mazda's focus on safety, we expect it to earn solid marks.
  • Image Credit: Honda

2010 Honda Fit

MSRP: $14,900
Airbags: front, front side, side curtain
ABS & Electronic stability control: Yes (ESC optional)
Estimated MPG (city/highway):27/33 with 5-speed manual

The Honda Fit is a highly regarded sub-compact. The fuel-efficient car has found its way onto multiple award podiums and "best" lists because it delivers on the Honda promise of being fun to drive, efficient, and practical.

On the road, the Fit's controls are light to the touch but not flimsy. The gauges are easy to read and look modern. The back seat folds cleverly to make the most of the available space. The 117-horsepower 1.5-liter four-cylinder loves to rev, but like many Honda engines, doesn't feel like it has lots of torque.

Regarding safety, the Fit racked up excellent 4 and 5 star NHTSA crash performance and earned a "Good" from the IIHS. However, electronic stability control is not standard or optional until you move up to the more expensive Fit Sport; a choice that diminishes the Fit's value proposition for this story.
  • Image Credit: Nissan

2010 Nissan Cube 1.8

MSRP: $13,990
Airbags: front, front side, side curtain
ABS & Electronic stability control: Yes
Estimated MPG (city/highway): 25/30 with 6-speed manual

New for the 2010 model year, the Nissan Cube is a funky, fun and functional big/small vehicle. The polarizing asymmetrical design and optional shag carpet dash toupee make the Cube stand out in a way a no sedan or hatchback ever could.

Younger drivers will benefit from the upright design's good outward visibility thanks to large windows and an upright seating position. It easily moves four in comfort but because of its size and flexible interior it could easily carry two and the contents of a dorm room.

The small Cube is maneuverable and has 122 horses, more than enough for around-town driving. The ride in urban environs is smooth enough but gets a little nervous feeling over 75 mph. Fuel economy goes up to 27/31 with the optional CVT automatic transmission.

"Good" and "Top Pick" ratings from the IIHS plus 4 and 5 star NHTSA scores highlight the Cube's commendable safety performance. Stability control is standard.
  • Image Credit: Kia

2010 Kia Soul

MSRP: $13,300
Airbags: front, front side, side curtain
ABS & Electronic stability control: Yes
Estimated MPG (city/highway): 26/31 with 5-speed manual

Another non-sedan choice is the Kia Soul. Like the Cube, the Soul is roomy and versatile but has a sportier flair. With an identical 122-horsepower rating as the Nissan Cube, the Soul feels quicker although the differences in acceleration are minimal. Moving up to the Soul Sport nets the driver 142-hp, a difference you can feel.

The interior offers a substantial amount of practical room wrapped in a design motif that is more modern compared to the Cube's funky coolness. Some other choices offer more cargo room with the rear seats up and in place.

The Soul has the safety bases covered with standard stability control, 4- and 5-start NHTSA scores, and "Good" ratings from the IIHS.
  • Image Credit: Toyota

2010 Scion xD

MSRP: $14,900
Airbags: front, front side, side curtain
ABS & Electronic stability control: Yes
Estimated MPG (city/highway): 27/33 with 5-speed manual

Introduced in 2007, the Scion xD is a cleverly disguised and more stylish Toyota Yaris. A long list of dealer-installed options and its Scion nameplate gives the xD a higher cool-factor ranking than the Yaris, but it will cost you.

Sneaking in at just under our $15,000 cut off, the xD comes well-equipped with a 128-horsepower 1.8-liter four cylinder and five-speed manual. With this combo, the xD is one of the quickest cars in the class. The standard 0-60 mph dash happens in the mid-8 second range.

The xD's interior is more stylish than you might expect to find in a typical economy car. Most of the touches work, but the combined speedometer and tachometer are a bit odd. Fortunately, the balance of the interior is more rationally laid out and functional.

Standard safety equipment includes ABS and electronic stability control. Crash test results include 4- and 5-star NHTSA performance and an "Acceptable" rating from the IIHS.
  • Image Credit: Ford

2007 Ford Five Hundred

MSRP: $14,530*
Airbags: front, front side, side curtain
ABS & Electronic stability control: ABS only
Estimated MPG (city/highway): 19/26 with 6-speed automatic

The 2007 Ford Five Hundred is a car that has plenty going for it, at least from a parent's point of view. For about the same money as a much smaller new car, the Five Hundred is a big car loaded with features. In addition to a voluminous five-passenger interior that will comfortably accommodate basketball players, in its day its 21.2 cubic foot trunk was among the largest in the country.

ABS is standard, as were a fully array of airbags. These features and the car's beefy structure earned it exceptional all 5-star crash test ratings from the NHTSA and "Good – Top Safety Pick" from IIHS. Being honest about the likelihood of younger drivers and accidents, the Five Hundred's size and mass means it can absorb more abuse than a smaller vehicle.

Performance from the 203-horsepower 3.0-liter V-6 and 6-speed automatic gearbox is more than acceptable, while its fuel economy is reasonable for a full-size car. All-wheel drive was an option.

*KBB estimated value of Ford Certified Pre-Owned vehicle in Excellent condition.
  • Image Credit: Honda

2006 Honda Civic DX Sedan

MSRP: $12,255*
Airbags: front, front side, side curtain
ABS & Electronic stability control: ABS only
Estimated MPG (city/highway): 30/38 with 5-speed manual

The Honda Civic is arguably the everyman’s compact car. In 2006 the eighth generation debuted, which made the reliable little car at once bigger and more expressive in terms of design. In other words, the Civic it replaced looks pretty dour in comparison to this one.

All Civics of this generation come with ABS and six airbags (including side curtain air bags). The newer 1.8-liter four-cylinder is actually more efficient and more powerful than the one it replaced, too, making the Civic an official “Ultra Low Emission Vehicle,” meaning it emits less than 50% the pollutants of the average car on sale that year.

Inside the Civic is roomy but the arc of the roofline cuts down a bit on extra-tall rear-seat passengers. The DX trim we recommend here is a bit sparse on options (even air conditioning was optional on the DX), so keep that in mind if you have a teen who thinks they are buying a stereo system on four wheels.

The Civic earned 5 stars frontal for its crash test ratings from NHTSA.

*KBB estimated value of Ford Certified Pre-Owned vehicle in Excellent condition.
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