Many teens are driving cars that are poorly matched to their driving skills, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The institute released its first list of recommended used vehicles for teens Wednesday after finding in a survey of 500 parents that 83% bought a used, rather than new, car for their teen to drive.
The organization reviewed crash ratings and safety features — such as electronic stability control systems — for used cars and then obtained price data from Kelley Blue Book to build its list.
Mindful that families can have varying budgets, the group recommended cars along a broad spectrum of prices. It recommended, for instance, the Lincoln MKS from the 2009 model year, which starts at about $15,500, but also 2006 to '08 Volkswagen Passats, which start at about $5,000 on the used market.
"These lists of recommended used vehicles can help consumers factor in safety in addition to affordability," said Adrian Lund, the group's president.
The institute found that teens tend to drive small or subcompact cars that don't offer good crash protection and also older cars, from the 2006 model year or earlier. That's a problem because older vehicles are less likely to have important safety features such as electronic stability control and side air bags.
Teenagers killed in crashes are more likely than adults to have been behind the wheel of small and older vehicles, the institute said. Among fatally injured drivers ages 15 to 17 from 2008 through 2012, 29% were in small or subcompact cars. That compared with 20% for drivers ages 35 to 50.
When picking a car for their new driver, parents should follow these guidelines:
• Avoid high-horsepower vehicles that could tempt teens into speeding.
• Select bigger cars that have the mass to protect occupants in an accident.
•Put young drivers in vehicles equipped with electronic stability control, which helps a driver maintain control of the vehicle on curves and slippery roads. Such systems are as important as seat belts, the insurance group said.
•Parents should also pick vehicles with good Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration safety ratings.
"You don't want to get your kid the spiffy red BMW that will be tempting to race," said Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety.
Parents purchasing a used car for their teen should also check to see if the vehicle has been recalled but not fixed, Shahan said.
"There are something like 36 million cars out there that have a pending recall," Shahan said.
The insurance group found that, on average, parents spend about $9,800 on a car for a teen. But the median point of car purchases for teens is far lower, at just $5,300.
"Unfortunately, it's very difficult to get a safe vehicle for a teenager at the prices most people are paying," said Anne McCartt, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety senior vice president for research. "Our advice to parents would be to remember the risks teens take and consider paying a little more."
All the cars on the group's list have electronic stability control and provide good crash protection.
The group's "best choices" for less than $20,000 also have good ratings for side crash protection, good head restraints and seats for rear crash protection, and good roof strength to protect occupants in rollover crashes.
Vehicles considered "good choices" for less than $10,000 have good or acceptable side crash protection and head restraints rated better than poor.