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Best Cars for Turning Over the Keys

Choosing a safe family vehicle is easier than it was in the past because many vehicles are equipped with advanced safety features like multiple airbags, electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes and crash avoidance technologies. But if you have a pre-teen who will be old enough to drive in a few years, how do you choose a vehicle that is safe for your family and your inexperienced, young driver?

Before buying a vehicle just for your teen, consider letting your teen share the family vehicle instead of helping them buy their own car once they are of age.

“Teens that have their own vehicle drive their vehicle more and are more likely to be in a crash, just because of that,” says Anne McCartt, senior vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Whether you plan on letting your teen borrow the family vehicle or pass it down to them when they get their license, we found the best family vehicles that parents can feel good about handing over the keys.

Slide Show: Best Cars for Turining Over the Keys

What makes a vehicle safe for teen drivers?

The safest vehicles for teens are Top Safety Picks that score high across the board in crash tests and have electronic stability control standard, McCartt says.

“The government (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) does complementary crash tests, and so we would really urge people to look at the government tests and look at our tests and make sure whatever vehicle they buy is one that is rated well for crashworthiness,” she explains.

In addition to researching vehicle safety scores from both the IIHS and NHTSA, parents should consider the class of the vehicle.

Best Vehicles for Teens: Midsize and Large Cars

McCartt suggests large and midsize cars for teen drivers, since they offer better crash protection than a compact or small car. According to the June 2011 IIHS status report, drivers of very large four-door cars are the least likely to die in a crash, while small and mini four-door cars had much higher driver death rates. Midsize and large cars also had much lower driver death rates than small and mini cars.

“We (the IIHS) sometimes say big and boring,” she says. “And by big we mean midsize or bigger. When we’ve done surveys, parents often go toward the smaller vehicles, and that might be partly expense. It might also be partly fuel economy. But we say that across the board, all things being equal, a bigger vehicle will provide better crash protection than a smaller vehicle. It’s especially important for teens, given they’re more likely than older drivers to be in a crash.”

In the midsize and large car segments, parents have several options, all of which are IIHS Top Safety Picks and have the highest five-star overall safety rating from NHTSA. These include the Buick LaCrosse, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima and BMW 5-Series. If a car doesn’t earn top safety scores from the IIHS, for example, but receives a five-star overall ratings from NHTSA, the vehicle is still a good option for teen drivers.

While a faster, sportier vehicle may not be on your list for your next family vehicle, your teen may still want to drive one, which McCartt says should be avoided if possible because teens will be more inclined to break traffic laws.

“A big factor in teen crashes is speeding,” she says. “It’s kind of asking for trouble. You don’t want to encourage speeding or other aggressive driving behaviors.”

Best Cars for Teen Drivers: SUVs 

If a large, dull sedan isn’t your teen’s ideal first car, McCartt suggests shopping for an SUV, which the IIHS considers safe for both your family and teen driver.

“One thing we’ve changed in our suggestion to parents has to do with SUVs,” she says. “We used to steer parents away from SUVs and pickups because SUVs had a tendency to roll over. They were top-heavy. But now, SUVs have improved their safety dramatically. And so when we did our latest status report, looking at SUVs, cars and pickups, SUVs were actually safer.”

The June 2011 IIHS status report says that drivers of minivans are the least likely to die in a crash, and that SUVs have the second lowest driver death rate. Among two-wheel drive SUV options, midsize and large SUVs had lower driver death rates than small SUVs. Drivers of cars and pickup trucks had higher driver death rates compared to SUVs.

New midsize and large SUVs that are safe for your family and teen driver include the Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia and Volvo XC60. These SUVs are both IIHS Top Safety Picks and earn NHTSA’s five-star overall rating.

“If people are looking at an older SUV, they want to make sure it has electronic stability control,” McCartt says. “Pickups haven’t been as fast to install ESC. So their crash rates haven’t done as well as SUVs.”

Electronic stability control (ESC) helps minimize the loss of control of the vehicle. When there is a loss of steering control, ESC automatically kicks in and applies the brakes to individual wheels to correct the steering and help guide the vehicle back to the driver’s intended course. McCartt says ESC, which by law is standard on 2012 model-year vehicles and newer, is a must-have for any parent shopping for a new or used vehicle, as well as side airbags that protect the head.

Good Vehicle Safety Features for Parents and Teens

A lot of the safety features that are good for teen drivers can also help parents. Features like enhanced belt reminder systems make a noise if the driver and front passenger are not wearing their seat belt. McCartt says a few vehicles even have a belt reminder for back seat passengers, like the Chevrolet Volt, for example.  

“Those are those systems that ‘ding, ding, ding’ and can be really annoying when you don’t buckle up,” McCartt says. “And we did a study of a monitoring device in teens’ vehicles that showed that the ‘ding, ding, ding’, that didn’t stop until you buckled up, improved belt use. … We all think our teens buckle up, but when you look at fatal crashes, a lot of them don’t.”

Ford offers its MyKey system as a standard feature on many new Ford and Lincoln vehicles, including the Ford Fusion, Taurus, Escape, Edge, Explorer, Expedition and Flex, as well as the Lincoln MKX and MKZ. It allows parents to program a key specifically for their teen driver, where they can limit the vehicle’s top speed and stereo volume. MyKey also has a persistent seat belt reminder system that mutes the stereo until seat belts are fastened.

High-tech safety features, like collision warning systems, lane departure warning systems, blind spot monitoring systems and parking assist are good optional features for parents to consider when shopping for a family vehicle they plan on letting their teen drive.

Volvo’s City Safety system received praise from the IIHS for its ability to prevent low-speed crashes. City Safety is standard on the Volvo XC60, XC70 and S60. Forward collision systems that work at higher speeds to automatically stop the vehicle are available on vehicles from Mercedes-Benz, for example, while Lexus offers a pre-collision system, which pulls the front seatbelts tight and prepares brake assist to help stop the vehicle.

Overall, McCartt says to put your teen in the safest possible vehicle, because you can’t control what happens once your teen is behind the wheel without you in the car. McCartt purchased a used 2004 Saab 9-3 several years ago as a family car, knowing her son would drive it in a few years. She says they chose it because it was a midsize car that had side airbags, ESC and did well in IIHS crash tests.

“I really had greater piece of mind knowing that his chance of having a crash was pretty high, but that at least I was doing everything I could to make sure he wasn’t going to be hurt seriously,” she says.