When determining the best used cars to buy right now for the Family Car Awards, we first looked at cars that you can find Certified, Pre-Owned (CPO) and that, according to TrueCar.com — a site we trust — would be significantly lower than their new-car equivalents. We then whittled down our list to the five winners below, based on criteria including price, features, maintenance, and longevity.
Now, to remind you, CPO is a kind of dealer system that mostly takes just-off-lease cars, services them, and the dealer goes through a checklist to make sure the vehicle’s in good condition. CPO programs work as a kind of insurance policy for both you and the dealer, since mostly they’re offered with an extended warranty. The dealer doesn’t want the headache of servicing a car if they can avoid it, so they hedge by not entering cars into CPO if they smell a costly repair coming.
CPO is possible on older cars, too, which is why you’ll see some 2016s on our list, too. Both the Toyota Prius and Subaru Crosstrek (below), for instance, have very good reliability ratings, so it’s OK that they’re older, and in these cases, we’re trying to find you a good car that’s safe, and also more affordable.
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Lastly, you’ll see that none of these cars are particularly sporty or luxurious. We considered this a list of used family cars or those that would make for a teenage driver’s first car or, god help you, SUV. Insuring a teen driver is expensive — they’re in far more accidents — so we chose vehicles that won’t be as pricey to insure. We also chose models that, like the rest of our picks, did well in IIHS’s crash tests.
A Word on Buying a Car for a Teenager
Having your teenager hit the road for the first time can be a scary thing. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), teen drivers are four times more likely to be in car accidents than drivers 20 or older and die in those crashes three times more often. This is certainly a terrifying statistic. But you can do a lot to mitigate these risks.
First, IIHS recommends that you buy the safest car you can afford for your teen driver. That’ll mean one produced recently, with current safety features like backup cameras stability control, a blind-spot alert system. These all help mitigate the mistakes a new driver is more likely to make.
Further, insurers like Allstate, Nationwide, and State Farm have different programs and apps that measure driving habits and that reward safer behavior through discounts. Geico has a useful checklist, too. It acts as a contract between parents and their teenage children. It’s very straightforward, but it’s smart. The key feature is never use your phone in the car, since driver distraction is one of the leading causes of car accidents, and a 2020 study found that in states with laws that ban texting and driving, there are fewer crashes. The Geico pact, then, is basically a commitment by you and your kid not to break the law. That seems like a good idea.
If you want to take this a step further, there are also several tracking apps on the market, too, such as Life360, that enable parents to monitor their kids’ driving behavior and set speed limits and phone-use limits as well as geo-fencing. Yes, you should be weighing the pros and cons of helicopter parenting, but you also know your kid best. If they’re less likely to engage in risky behavior if they know you’re digitally lurking, then the deterrent might be necessary. Shop around beyond Life360, too. Several let parents set top speeds and geo-fences, as well as curfews.
So, there you have it. Here are five excellent used cars for families — or for teen drivers hitting the road for the first time.
The Best Used Cars of 2020
2018 Toyota Highlander Hybrid AWD
TrueCar Price: $29-$35,000
Capacity: Eight passengers
Max Cargo Space: 83.7 cubic feet
Want a vehicle with three rows and all the safety features you need? You’re looking at roughly $40,000. That’s why a certified pre-owned 2018 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited is a smart choice. You’re getting an excellent large family vehicle and saving a decent amount of money at that. Buying a two-year-old Highlander Hybrid nabs you very current safety tech in the most current body style, and a slick, upscale cabin (sleek dash, huge center console, big audio knobs, easy-to-clean seating surfaces). And there’s actual utility in this SUV. On-door bottle holders are oversize and there’s at least one (and often more) in every row, and there’s a hidden cubby by the driver’s left knee, which is handy for emergency gear, like a flashlight and space blanket. And because Toyota also knows that kids=devices, there are five USB plugs. And also because kids=different temperature demands than their parents, Toyota built rear-seat climate controls, too.
If it’s starting to sound like a living room on wheels, the Highlander doesn’t drive like a 1960s Lincoln. The hybrid powertrain delivers brisk acceleration, though don’t worry — it’s no V-8 aggressive beast. It’s simply smooth and fluid to accelerate, and you never feel the switch between electric and gas modes. Also, although it’s a large rig, it drives a bit “smaller,” so the Highlander is less of a chore than you’d guess for parking lot duties or cruising through tighter urban terrain. The driving experience is relatively mellow and poised, which is about what you want for your teen driver to learn progressively and easily.
As for safety, we spec’d the Limited model in our TrueCar shopping because it comes with features we think you want, like cross-traffic alert, blind-spot detection, and adaptive cruise control.
2018 Chevy Equinox Premier
TrueCar Price: $22–$25,000
Capacity: Five passengers
Max Cargo Space: 63.7 cubic feet
A used Chevy Equinox Premier is another great option for a used family car. It’s well-outfitted and packed with excellent safety features. More so, it was redesigned for 2018, bringing with it compatibility with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, but also a redesigned, slicker exterior and greater reliability for the engine and transmission that would otherwise cost you a boatload to repair.
We chose the Premier edition because it includes some of our favorite features, like Chevy’s unsung, but stellar MyLink entertainment system. These touchscreen systems can be immensely overwrought, as if some carmakers have forgotten that less complexity equals more safety, but luckily Chevy (and GM) have it right.
On the road, the Equinox is like a labrador: Able, friendly, and non-threatening. No, it’s not sporty, but the 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine is surprisingly strong, but unobtrusive, and the suspension is perfectly tuned to dial out cruddy road surfaces, while still providing enough driver feedback at the wheel. Up front, there are dual-zone automatic climate controls for both passengers, who also get heated front seats. All outboard seats are quite comfortable and road-trip friendly, too, and the second row is plenty roomy enough for full-sized adults. There’s also a unique driver’s seat that vibrates correspondingly to a car that’s passing in your blind spot. Ditto, if an object is super close on the right, like when you’re parallel parking. As you near an object at your front bumper in a parking lot, both bolsters vibrate. It’s certainly strange at first. But trust us, it’s very smart.
If you have a young driver ready to take the road, there’s a teen-driver monitoring function that won’t let your child drive without buckling her seatbelt, sets audio output to a certain, less rambunctious volume, and presets a speed limit. Plus, after each driving session, the system issues a report card. Report cards are good: And once your child knows the car is going to spit that out, we’d wager he’ll be less apt to floor it, because, that, absolutely, is going to be on his record.
2018 Hyundai Kona FWD
TrueCar Price: $12,000-$15,000
Capacity: Five passengers
Max Cargo Space: 45.8 cubic feet
The 2018 Hyundai Kona FWD isn’t a horsepower monster, but it’s a fun ride that gets solid fuel economy. It’s also the number two (out of 14) small crossovers tested in Consumer Reports’ reliability rankings for 2018, so you can rest easier that you’re not going to get slayed by high repair bills.
The Kona clicks a lot of the right buttons. There are audio volume/tuning controls on the steering wheel and all the rest of the functions are via nearly cartoonishly large, oversize buttons and knobs that help prevent distractions. Integration of Android Auto/Apple Car Play and a standard touchscreen does mean that drivers can use their phone’s navigation app and (if they pull over!) call home as needed — all hands-free. Though you can always use third-party apps for this, Hyundai’s BlueLink is also a nice perk, as this car-based system lets you geofence and speed track your child’s behavior behind the wheel.
Fold the aft seats of the Kona and there’s enough space for errand runs. Just note that, with the seats upright, the second row is tight for grown adults. Our TrueCar pricing is based on shopping for a certified pre-owned Kona with under 40,000 miles — about $10k off the 2020 price. Go for an SEL trim model, which should include blind-spot warning and automatic emergency braking.
2016 Toyota Prius Three
TrueCar Price: $16,000-$19,000
Capacity: Five passengers
Max Cargo Space: 50.7 cubic feet
Don’t want to shell out for a new electric vehicle? A used Toyota Prius is an all-around great buy. Note the extraordinary fuel economy. And by the way, don’t sweat the battery life. If you live in a state that complies with California emissions laws, Toyota warranties the battery for 10 years/150,000 miles. You get eight years or 100,000 miles in other states. This is why we ran our TrueCar pricing for a 2016 car with 40,000 miles on it — and also because that gets you reasonably up-to-date safety tech.
The Prius is hardly sporty but its interior is very sharp for the money, with wireless phone charging, dual climate controls, steering wheel buttons for the audio, as well as advanced cruise control. Handling is “conservative,” with traction and stability control quelling hard driving. Its mild demeanor feels decidedly controllable in the way that a massive SUV will not.
As with other smaller cars on this list, second-row quarters of the Prius are more confined, yet it’s still adequate for car seats or smaller kids. Because this is a hatchback, there’s a very large cargo hold. Folding those backseats flat makes it a perfect, highly effective errand-running machine on weekends.
The ideal mix we shopped for on TrueCar was the 2016 Prius Three with the optional Advanced Technology package that includes automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning with steering assist, automatic high beams, and advanced cruise control that not only maintains a safe distance between the Prius and the car you’re following but allows you to come to a complete stop in traffic, then resume cruise control at the push of a button. The Prius Three is going to cost more, so this is a need/want scenario you should weigh while you shop.
2016 Subaru Crosstrek
TrueCar Price: $16-$19,000
Capacity: Five passengers
Max Cargo Space: 51.9 cubic feet
A tall-riding SUV lets you see down the road. That’s why people dig crossovers. The 2016 Subaru Crosstrek splits the difference; it rides high enough to give you some of that perspective while delivering decent fuel economy, yet still has AWD and 8.7 inches of ground clearance that can get you to the base of a ski slope on a powder day. The hedge here is that its 148hp engine is on the weaker side, tuned to give you good take-off and merging acceleration, but mostly, to be efficient rather than fire breathing.
But the suspension is excellent, tuned for compliance and road-tripping comfort, so it mutes the random pothole but won’t make second-row passengers seasick.
Consumer Reports’ readers have run into some relatively inexpensive, but bothersome costs with their Crosstreks, including brakes and in-car electronics. Again, this is why we recommend buying a Certified, Pre-Owned car, to be sure that the dealer has checked these areas, and this is also why you should always test-drive a car before buying. Turn on everything, from the A/C to the audio system (crank it reasonably, to hear if the sound is clear, or maybe there’s a busted speaker?), use the wipers. Get out and make sure the signals and lights all work, etc. “Kicking the tires” isn’t metaphorical.
For daily driving, we also chose this car because of the good outward visibility paired with the fact that the Crosstrek itself isn’t huge, so it’s easier for drivers to perceive precisely where the car sits in relation to other vehicles on the road. Heat, audio, and other functional switchgear are as no-nonsense as a military school proctor — direct, succinct, and sure, a tad vanilla. But also, totally non-distracting and rock solid. There’s a touchscreen where you can access deeper functionality of a paired phone, but again, by not burying the basics on that screen, your kid can keep his eyes on the road.
Note that as is typical of most Subarus, the cabin isn’t plush in the slightest. The vibe is crunchy, and a bit unpolished and proud of that fact. Subaru is targeting this car at dog owners and outdoorsy folks who get themselves and their cars grimy, and so there’s a method to the M.O. since all the surfaces are easy to clean and high-gloss filigrees that would just get scratched were nixed out of hand.
TrueCar pricing for a CPO Crosstrek with automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning — and very cool speed-limit tech that can actually read posted signs and will slow the car to match those speeds when you’re using cruise control.