JUST AS THEY DO over clothes and music, parents and teens often clash when it comes to buying cars. While affordability, reliability and safety are often top priorities for parents, teens tend to focus on more esoteric concerns, like "will this make me look cool?"
To help allay some of those tensions, the folks at Kelley Blue Book recently released their picks for the top new and used cars for kids heading back to school. Overall value was a top priority for cars making the list, says Jason Allan, road test editor for kbb.com. The price tag needed to be low enough (below $18,000 for new cars) so as not to make parents shudder when their kid leaves the back seat littered with gum wrappers and empty cans of Red Bull.
And while there are "very few unsafe cars put out on the road today," Allan says, safety features like anti-lock brakes and airbags also figured prominently. After all, the crash rate per mile driven for 16- to 19-year-olds is four times the rate of drivers who are 20 and older, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a nonprofit that conducts annual crash tests of new vehicles. (See IIHS's most recent crash test ratings
Of course, KBB didn't forget about the coolness factor, which was gauged by how fun a car is to drive (think speed and handling) and its technological features, like GPS navigation and MP3 player compatibility.
For KBB's full list of the best new and used cars for students, check out kbb.com.
24 mpg city / 32 mpg highway
Affordable and cutting edge, the Mazda3 makes regular appearances on KBB's top 10 lists, and is the only vehicle named to both the new- and used-car lists in this year's roundup. With a starting price slightly above $14,500, this four-door is easily within reach of most college students. The lean price doesn't mean Mazda shortchanges drivers on the features. Once only available as a luxury feature in higher-end cars, the Mazda3 now offers such options as heated leather seats, Bose stereos and DVD-based navigation units with detailed maps and voice interaction. One more bonus: KBB says the Mazda3's handling is "simply superb."
20 mpg city / 27 mpg highway
When it comes to auto safety, bigger is usually better -- except when it comes to Subaru's Impreza. This subcompact four-door is the only car to make both KBB's list and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's list of Top Safety Picks for 2008 (based on its crash tests). The Impreza offers all-wheel drive and front, side and rear airbags. Also, "it's one of the heaviest small cars," says Russ Rader, a spokesman for IIHS. In fact, the Impreza received IIHS's highest overall safety rating of "Good" based on front, side and rear crash tests and optional electronic stability control.
Best Fuel Economy
24 mpg city / 35 mpg highway
Ford's Focus may finally enable it to shake its notorious reputation for making gas-guzzling SUVs and pickups. The Focus is Ford's smallest and most fuel-efficient entry in the U.S. It's a two-door coupe, so don't expect a lot of room to store gear for weekend road trips. But what the Focus lacks in cargo space, it makes up in stellar fuel economy -- 35 miles to the gallon on the highway. In the latest model, Ford added safety equipment like passenger-side airbags and a feature that will appeal to most wired teens: SYNC, a voice-activated system that adds in-car connectivity for cellphones and MP3 players.
28 mpg city / 34 mpg highway
True to Honda form, this gas-sipping hatchback wins high marks in reliability -- as well as flexibility. The Fit's maintenance costs over a five-year period come to just $1,172, according to KBB, the lowest amount compared with the other nine cars on the list. However, for college-bound drivers, the real attraction is the Fit's "Magic Seat" which folds down to free up space for necessities like snowboards or futons. Interested drivers should take note: The Fit is in such high demand that it's selling for above sticker price, says Allan. "People are having a hard time getting them," he says. "It's a very hot car right now."
22 mpg city / 29 mpg highway
This maker of the legendary Beetle has long known how to appeal to youthful tastes while offering the durability that parents love. In fact, Volkswagen's entry-level economy model, the Rabbit, is one of Allan's favorite all-around cars. "You get inside, and it's sort of a step above everything else on the list in terms of quality and refinement," he says. The 2008 model seats five and offers added horsepower that will appeal to any teenager's need for speed. Another draw for teens: The radio comes with 10 speakers and an auxiliary input jack for MP3 players.