Best Used Cars for Teens and College Students

Few decisions are as filled with questions as the choice of a used car for your teen driver. Whether getting a vehicle to commute to a job, going to high school, or traveling off to college, deciding what used car to buy typically requires a great deal of thought and research. 

Certainly, safety is a paramount concern when you’re thinking of buying a used car for your teen. Other considerations include reliability, dependability, vehicle quality, and the costs of ownership. We looked at all of these factors as we constructed our list of the best used cars for teens and college students.

Our Methodology

Young Driver in SUV

Fortunately, we at J.D. Power have a great deal of information upon which to draw. To assemble this list, we started with the results of the J.D. Power 2021 Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS). The VDS measures the reliability of 3-year-old vehicles, so the 2021 VDS looks at 2018 model-year vehicles. Each of the models on this list ranked among the top three models in its segment in terms of dependability. 

We then cross-referenced to identify those vehicles that received 5-star overall safety ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and were also named a “Top Safety Pick” or “Top Safety Pick+” by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. 

We also sought out cars ranked among the top three models in two other important J.D. Power studies of consumer satisfaction: the J.D. Power 2018 Initial Quality Study (IQS) and the J.D. Power 2018 Automotive Performance, Execution, and Layout (APEAL) Study

With this objective research to back up our findings, we are confident that the alphabetic list that follows identifies the best used cars for teens and college students. 

2018 Buick Envision - Find the best Buick deals!

2018 Buick Envision Silver Front Quarter View

Buick might not be the first brand you think of when it comes to a compact crossover, but the 2018 Buick Envision has a lot to recommend it. It ranks high in its segment for vehicle dependability, it is safe, and it offers many upscale creature comforts. 

A 197-horsepower 2.5-liter 4-cylinder is the standard engine, while a 252-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder is optional. Both use a 6-speed automatic transmission. With the 2.5-liter engine, front-wheel drive is standard, and all-wheel-drive is available. Turbos include a more sophisticated twin-clutch AWD system. Fuel economy ranges between 22 mpg and 25 mpg in combined driving.

One nice feature of the roomy interior is the sliding 60/40-split rear seat that allows enhanced rear legroom or added cargo space. An 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is standard. Advanced safety features like forward-collision warning and rear cross-traffic warning are only available on up-level trims, so look for those models. 

Read our Buick Envision review

2018 Ford Fusion - Find the best Ford deals!

2018 Ford Fusion White Front Quarter View

The Ford Fusion is a 5-passenger midsize sedan with ample trunk space. It offers a variety of powertrains in a vehicle with good reliability, as attested to by its showing in the 2021 VDS. It also ranks high for safety.

The engine choices include a 175-horsepower 2.5-liter 4-cylinder, 181-horsepower 1.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, 245-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, and a 325-horsepower 2.7-liter turbocharged V6. One differentiator is the availability of all-wheel-drive, although finding a Fusion with AWD might be difficult. Fuel economy ranges from 20 mpg to 27 mpg in combined driving.

In addition to these traditional powertrains, the Fusion came with electrified hybrid and plug-in hybrid propulsion systems. Both offer a combined 188 horsepower and 42 mpg in combined driving, but their battery packs chew into the cargo space. The Fusion Energi models (the plug-in hybrid) also supply 21 miles of pure electric driving before switching over to gas-electric hybrid operation.

The car’s standard 4.2-inch touchscreen is on the small side, so you might look for an up-level trim with an 8-inch screen and the more sophisticated Sync 3 infotainment system. Blind-spot warning with rear cross-traffic warning, forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection, and adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability were all optional, so seek a car that has them.

Read our Ford Fusion review

2018 Hyundai Sonata - Find the best Hyundai deals!

2018 Hyundai Sonata Gray Front Quarter View

The 2018 Hyundai Sonata is a solid, appealing midsize sedan filled with features and carries up to 16.3 cubic feet of luggage. Better yet, the Sonata’s interior is exceptionally roomy and well-finished.

Hyundai offered a variety of engine choices in the 2018 Sonata. Most come with a 185-horsepower 2.4-liter 4-cylinder or a 245-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder and an automatic transmission. A thrifty 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder with a dual-clutch automatic transmission emphasized fuel efficiency, and both hybrid and plug-in hybrid variants were available.

Depending on the powertrain, the 2018 Sonata returned between 26 mpg and 42 mpg in combined driving. The plug-in hybrid supplied 28 miles of pure electric driving before switching to gas-electric hybrid operation.

Hyundai equipped the vast majority of 2018 Sonatas with a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system with integrated Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Standard safety features include blind-spot warning with rear cross-traffic warning and lane-change assistance. Some uplevel versions of the Sonata have added safety aids, including automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assistance, and adaptive cruise control with start/stop. These are the ones to look for.

Read our Hyundai Sonata review

2018 Hyundai Tucson - Find the best Hyundai deals!

2018 Hyundai Tucson Gray Front Quarter View

Sometimes overlooked in the cluster of small SUVs, the 2018 Hyundai Tucson is a solid choice for teens and young adults. Part of its popularity stems from its excellent quality record, but there is more to like about the Tucson than just the absence of problems. For example, the Tucson has a pleasant interior with ample room for five people and their gear.

The two engines choices are a 164-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder or a 175-horsepower 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder. The turbo engine uses a dual-clutch transmission instead of the conventional automatic, so be aware that its behavior is different from what you might expect. Front-wheel drive came standard, while all-wheel drive was an option. Fuel economy ranges between 23 mpg and 27 mpg in combined driving, depending on the drivetrain configuration.

The vast majority of 2018 Tucsons have a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system with integrated Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Available advanced safety features include blind-spot warning with rear-cross traffic warning and lane change assistance, forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, and lane-departure warning.

Read our Hyundai Tucson review

2018 Kia Optima - Find the best Kia deals!

2018 Kia Optima White Front Quarter View Action

The Kia Optima is a midsize sedan that artfully blends style with a reputation for quality. It shares plenty with its corporate cousin, the 2018 Hyundai Sonata, so it’s not surprising to discover many similarities between the two, including ample room for five teens plus nearly 16 cu. ft. of luggage space.

The 2018 Optima offers three main engine choices — 185-horsepower 2.4-liter 4-cylinder, 178-horsepower 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, and 245-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder. Hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions were also available, but less common. Fuel economy ranges between 25 mpg and 42 mpg in combined driving, and the plug-in hybrid supplies 29 miles of electric driving before switching to gas-electric hybrid operation. 

Most 2018 Optimas have a 7-inch touchscreen with integrated Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, while an 8-inch screen was available along with a Harman Kardon audio system. The standard DriveWise safety array includes blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic warning, and rear parking sensors. Other advanced driving assistance systems, like automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, and adaptive cruise control, were optional, so check for their presence on any individual cars you consider.

Read our Kia Optima review

2018 Kia Sportage - Find the best Kia deals!

2018 Kia Sportage Gray Front Quarter View Action

The Kia Sportage compact SUV has been the brand’s most enduring model. The 2018 Sportage illustrates why, giving buyers plenty of choice regarding power, style, equipment, and technology. And though the Sportage has a small footprint, it still manages to provide an impressive 30.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind its roomy back seat.

In 2018, the two engine choices were a 181-horsepower 2.4-liter 4-cylinder or a 240-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder. The latter turns the Sportage into a hot rod. Both engines power the front wheels unless you choose one with all-wheel drive. Fuel economy ranges between 21 mpg and 26 mpg in combined driving.

The Sportage LX has a 5-inch touchscreen, the EX has a 7-inch touchscreen, and the SX Turbo has an 8-inch screen. If you want Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, you’ll want to purchase an EX or SX Turbo. The DriveWise system on the EX and SX Turbo trims includes blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic warning, and lane change assistance. Automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection and lane-departure warning were options, and you might want a vehicle that has them.

Read our Kia Sportage review

2018 Subaru Forester - Find the best Subaru deals!

2018 Subaru Forester Green Front Quarter View Action

The Subaru Forester compact crossover hangs its hat on advanced safety equipment, and the 2018 version was ahead of its time in that regard. Unlike most compact SUVs that offer front-wheel drive as standard equipment, all Foresters also came with full-time all-wheel drive and plenty of ground clearance. 

For the 2018 model year, the standard engine was a 170-horsepower 2.5-liter 4-cylinder. A 250-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder came in Foresters with the “XT” model designation, and the Forester XT models also have active torque vectoring that improves handling. Both engines employ a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), and fuel economy ranges from 24 mpg to 28 mpg in combined driving.

The base Forester trim has a 6.2-inch infotainment display, while the Premium, Limited, and Touring trims have a 7-inch screen. However, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are unavailable. Not all versions of the 2018 Forester came with Subaru’s EyeSight driver assistance tech. So, if you want adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, and lane-keeping assistance, be sure to check that any used Forester you’re considering has these features.

Read our Subaru Forester review

2018 Toyota Corolla - Find the best Toyota deals!

2018 Toyota Corolla Gray Front Quarter View

If you want to see a car with staying power, check out the Toyota Corolla, one of the bestselling cars in the world. It’s also a great used-car choice for a teen driver. Its handy size and legendary reliability are just the ticket for many young drivers. 

A front-drive compact car with space for five, the 2018 Corolla came with a 132-horsepower 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine available with either 6-speed manual transmission or a CVT. The Corolla Eco has a more sophisticated 1.8-liter 4-cylinder that is more powerful (140 horsepower) and more efficient, but it comes only with a CVT. Fuel economy ratings range from 30 mpg to 34 mpg in combined driving.

The Corolla’s interior is more functional than fancy. The standard infotainment system has a 6.2-inch screen, while uplevel systems have a 7-inch screen. Alas, neither one offers integrated Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. The standard Toyota Safety Sense-P (TSS-P) collection of driving aids is a comprehensive array that includes adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assistance, and automatic high-beam headlight control.

Read our Toyota Corolla review

2018 Toyota Prius - Find the best Toyota deals!

2018 Toyota Prius Red Front Quarter View

When you think of a hybrid, most people naturally picture a Toyota Prius. But the 2018 version of the Prius not only offers the stellar fuel economy you would expect from a hybrid, but it also delivers the quality and reliability you’d want for your young driver. 

The 2018 Prius is a front-drive hatchback with space for five people, although four will be more comfortable. It’s powered by a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine and two motor-generators using a CVT. The car isn’t particularly swift, but its overall drivability is more than acceptable. Fuel economy measures an impressive 52 mpg combined (56 mpg for the base Eco trim).

Toyota also offered a plug-in hybrid version of the Prius called the Prime. With 25 miles of all-electric driving range, it provides even more operational cost savings as long as you regularly plug it in. Used as a gas-electric hybrid, the Prius Prime returns 54 mpg. 

For 2018, the Prius offered a choice between a 6.2-inch and a 7-inch infotainment screen. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto were unavailable. Toyota’s TSS-P package of safety tech was standard, installing adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assistance, and automatic high-beam headlights.

Read our Toyota Prius review

2018 Toyota RAV4 - Find the best Toyota deals!

2018 Toyota RAV4 Adventure Red Front Quarter View

The Toyota RAV4 compact SUV is one of the most popular crossover vehicles of all time. It delivers a winning combination of high product quality, strong reliability, and an impressive list of standard safety features. (That’s why my daughter drives one.) Roomy for its class, the RAV4 provides 38.4 cubic feet of cargo space behind its back seat.

The conventionally-powered RAV4 has a 176-horsepower 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine teamed with a 6-speed automatic transmission. Front-wheel drive is standard, while all-wheel drive is optional. A hybrid version uses a similar engine plus electric drive motors, and it includes all-wheel drive. Fuel economy ranges from 24 mpg to 26 mpg in combined driving with the standard engine, while the RAV4 Hybrid gets 32 mpg.

Depending on the trim level, the RAV4 offers 6.1-inch and 7-inch touchscreen infotainment displays. While Toyota provides integration with many apps, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are missing in action. As in many 2018 Toyota vehicles, TSS-P is standard in the RAV4, equipping the SUV with adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assistance, and automatic high-beam headlights.

Read our Toyota RAV4 review