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First Car? No Sweat.

With the end of summer looming and a new school year just around the corner, lots of students will be driving off in their first cars. Exciting times – but maybe not so much for the parents. Between the worry and the added expense, it can be a trying time, with value and safety foremost among the concerns.

Take a deep breath. The experts at Cars.com have posted smart guidelines and recommendations for parents and kids who are about to take the plunge. For starters, avoid SUVs and sports cars; SUVs aren’t known for high safety ratings and can be awkward to maneuver, while sports cars tend to encourage reckless driving. But most parents are probably way out in front on that last one.

What to look for? Gently used midsize sedans and wagons are smart, safe choices that don’t overtly encourage “Fast and Furious” reenactments, but many recent models still offer a considerable cool factor.

Also, it pays to look at best-selling models because, well, they’re popular for a reason. And more vehicles on the road means more mechanics to service them, with plenty of replacement parts available for years to come. Of course, shopping for a certified pre-owned car gives the added benefit of reliability, reconditioned safety features and strong warranties – all priority considerations for young drivers and their worried parents.

With all this in mind, we picked five vehicles that fit the profile, whether it’s for a drive east for freshman year or a crosstown commute to the local community college. We’ll go with 2010 models for the sake of simplicity, each one a top safety pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Chevy Malibu
A good-looking sedan with a sharp sense of style, the Malibu is a smart choice with an easy-to-drive feel – comfortable with tight handling – that’s practically made for first-time drivers. The recipient of a complete makeover in 2008, this Malibu comes with automatic transmission standard, along with OnStar navigation for a nice peace-of-mind perk. The interior is roomy and comfortable, with plenty of backseat space for lugging friends along. Standard features include six airbags, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. Under the hood is a base 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 169 horsepower and up to 33 miles per gallon highway.

Ford Fusion
The Fusion got a well-received restyling for the 2010 model year, updating its look with a sleeker, sportier sensibility and adding several upgrades. Let’s start with the blind-spot warning system (offered as an option), which uses radar to monitor both rear blind spots and lets the driver know when they’re occupied with a side-mirror warning light. Offering a classy touch, the roomy interior has soft ambient LED lighting that the driver can customize. The Fusion offers a trio of engines, with the 2.5-liter 175-horsepower inline-4 getting 31 mpg, along with a strong set of safety features, including electronic stability and a full complement of side-curtain and side-mounted airbags.

Subaru Outback
There’s no mistaking the funky, cool-rugged vibe of this roomy wagon. The brand, along with its all-wheel-drive Outback, has a loyal following for good reason. This model got a major overhaul in 2010, getting bigger and turning into more of a crossover than a station wagon, standing on wide haunches and looking ever so ready for rough road conditions. The Outback boasts more than 34 square feet of cargo space, and a roof rack comes standard, making the car ideal for hauling furniture and dorm supplies. Find an Outback equipped with the high-end Harman Kardon audio system and Bluetooth for “cool parent” cred. The touchscreen navigation system will stream an iPod but won’t allow playlist changes while the Outback’s moving, for safety reasons. The base 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine gets up to 29 mpg.

Volkswagen Passat
Available as a sedan or wagon, the 2010 Passat is true to the distinctive and innovative Volkswagen brand. This Passat was made for active driving and was the first VW to get the six-speed dual-clutch Direct-Shift Gearbox, which allows for automatic manual shifts and deft, efficient, sport-style handling. Safety features include side-curtain and side-mounted airbags; electronic stability; and active head and seat restraints. The Passat is loaded with cool standard extras such as fog lights, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and Bluetooth connectivity. Seventeen-inch wheels are standard, but the 18-inch upgrade comes with sport suspension. The turbocharged 2-liter 200-horsepower four-cylinder engine gets a nifty 31 mpg highway.

Volvo S60
The sporty S60 took a year off in 2010, so instead we’ll look at the redesigned 2011 model – and it’s a piece of work indeed. Befitting Volvo’s reputation, this Swedish beauty is loaded with advanced safety features. Start with the front and side airbags, traction control and City Safety, which scans nearby vehicles to determine if the S60 is closing in too quickly. Then there’s the Drive Alert system, which detects whether the driver might be too sleepy by monitoring driving habits, and urgently advises a rest stop if necessary. Other systems warn when a crash is imminent or another car is getting too close. Pedestrian Protection actually brakes the car when an unseen pedestrian is in the car’s path. The all-wheel-drive S60 has a 3-liter six-cylinder engine rated 26 mpg highway. Or opt for the 2012 T5 model with a 2-5 liter inline-5 engine that gets 30 mpg.

Robert Young, Brand Publishing Writer

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