How do you choose a first car for a new driver? Most people look at reliability, practicality, comfort features, and the car’s safety rating. While these are indeed very important aspects, most cars that tick off all of the boxes are bland and boring.
This list covers some cars that are relatively safe, affordable, and very fun to drive, whether that means a roadster with a stiff suspension, an agile hatchback, or a sedan with a V8 engine under the hood. If you are looking for more in a vehicle than just getting from point A to point B, you should continue reading.
2019 Subaru Impreza
The list begins with an exciting car by a Japanese manufacturer famous for its rally-inspired sports cars. The Subaru Impreza is known for its award-winning performance, thanks to an all-wheel-drive drivetrain, and the 2019 model carries its legacy.
The 2019 Subaru Impreza is very dependable and its offroad performance is a lot better than many current SUVs and trucks, thanks to its AWD drivetrain. The car is equipped with a 2-liter flat-four engine that makes 152 horsepower and has quite a good fuel economy (24mpg in city conditions). If you are looking for extra performance, consider the Impreza STI.
Ford Mustang (Fifth Generation)
Mustangs are hard to overlook when browsing potential first cars. The fifth-generation Mustang tempts young drivers with its roaring V8 (or V6 in non-GT models), aggressive styling and a relatively low price tag, starting under $20,000.
What might make the Ford Mustang a good choice for you? It is a true American muscle car that you can get without breaking the bank. The recommended trim to choose would be the GT equipped with a 5-liter V8 engine. The V6 is slightly more fuel-efficient but the dip in performance is very noticeable.
Cadillac CTS From The Early 2010s
Cadillac updated the 3.6L engine in the CTS in 2012, giving it 318 horsepower. The powerful sedan provides a good balance between a less-practical sporty coupe and a large 5-door car. It is a luxury car for a fraction of the cost, with an average price of less than $12,000.
A luxurious interior finish, Bluetooth, satellite radio, and a Bose stereo system all come as standard on the 2012 Cadillac CTS. Extra options include a sunroof, rear parking sensors, a rearview camera, and heated seats. Buyers with deeper pockets can choose the CTS-V, a CTS powered by a V8.
Ford Crown Victoria
Why would any young driver want a vehicle that looks like a cop car? The Crown Victoria is one of the cheapest ways to get a V8 and rear-wheel-drive combo. Used Crown Vics are nearly bulletproof when it comes to reliability and will run for hundreds of thousands of miles with little to no repair costs.
While some drivers will like the attention that Ford Crown Victorias get, others can find it irritating. Especially if you choose the same color that can be found on actual police cars.
Dodge Neon SRT-4
The Neon SRT-4 is a sporty sedan developed by Dodge from 2003 to 2005. It may not be the prettiest car ever made, but it does come equipped with rear-wheel-drive, a 2.4L flat-four engine, and a 5-speed manual transmission. It weighs just 2900 pounds and can sprint to 60 miles per hour in 5.3 seconds (5.6 in 2003 models).
This fast sedan was the second-fastest car sold by Chrysler when it first came out, only surpassed by the Viper. It is definitely more than just a regular Neon with sporty bumpers, that’s for sure.
Honda Del Sol
This is a rare alternative to the regular Honda CRX. “Del Sol” translates to “of the sun,” which is a reference to the car’s Targa top. This lightweight two-seater is one of the most interesting FWD-cars from the ’90s. The del Sol is cheap and has lots of customizable aftermarket parts available all over the country.
The CRX del Sol’s downsides, like most Targas or convertibles, are the lack of space and an underpowered engine. The del Sol is not famous for its reliability, either, as the Targa tops are notorious for leaking.
7th Generation Toyota Celica
The Toyota Celica is another sporty coupe that can be the ideal first car. The 7th generation came in two variants based around the same 1.8L engine: one made 140 horsepower, while the more powerful variant peaked at 192. It may not sound like a lot compared to the Mustang GT’s 300HP 5-liter V8, but Toyota had a secret weapon.
The 7th generation Celica is light. In fact, it weighs just 2,650 lbs. That’s almost a thousand pounds less than the mentioned Mustang GT! This lightweight coupe handles like a real sports car and is the perfect way to begin your journey with exciting Japanese cars.
It is easy to overlook the RSX when you’re looking for an exciting first car. This Acura certainly isn’t the most powerful car you can get, and it comes with an FWD drivetrain that discourages many drivers from even considering it.
In reality, the Acura RSX is one of the best-performing FWD sports cars from the 2000s. Although you can’t get the same type of RWD controlled oversteer in a front-wheel-drive, the RSX is known for its precise handling that will put a smile on your face every time you get behind the wheel.
Honda Prelude (Fifth-Gen)
The Prelude, similarly to the Acura RSX, is often overlooked when picking the first car. Honda’s sporty coupe is powered by a VTEC engine making between 185 and 220 horsepower depending on the trim, as well as a front-wheel-drive drivetrain. Its light chassis together with precise handling makes the Prelude a very enjoyable car.
The fifth-generation Honda Prelude is also reliable and easy to work on, with parts widely available in most states. The major drawback is the lack of space in the rear seats; it is quite a small car.
The Mazda MX-5 is certainly not a car for everyone. It’s small, impractical, and comes with a removable soft-top roof. Its tiny size makes it, on the other hand, incredibly fun to drive despite having a 2-liter engine that makes just 170 horsepower.
The small roadster has been around since the ’90s and there are currently four generations to choose from. The original MX-5, the Miata NA, can be easily distinguished by its iconic pop-up headlights. The newer MX-5s have become a lot more “civilized.” The new MX-5 (internally named the ND) comes with all sorts of comfort features one would expect in a modern sports car.
The 3-series has been a popular choice for young drivers for decades, and it is clear to see why. The E36 and E46 generations can be purchased for a reasonable price, they are relatively cheap (a bit more expensive than the IS300), easy to maintain and most of all, fun to drive.
The early 2000s 3-series are equipped with modern comfort and safety features and rear-wheel-drive. Some come with powerful engines, depending on the variant. You can pick up a 3-series for just a few thousand dollars.
The Lexus IS300 was the Japanese manufacturer’s reply to the Mercedes C Class and BMW 3-series. While it hasn’t exactly beaten them, the IS remains a tremendously fun-to-drive car, which is both reliable and fuel-efficient.
Why should you get the IS300 rather than a BMW 3-series from the same era? Lexus has proven to be a solid, reliable car, unlike its German rival. Repair costs also play a big part: a broken-down BMW 3-series will be more pricey to fix than a Lexus IS300. Not to mention that the Lexus is less likely to break down in the first place.
Here’s yet another fun, sporty roadster that has made the list. The SLK’s design is sleek, and its short wheelbase and low center of gravity make it extremely exciting to drive on a daily basis. There are three generations to choose from: the oldest is named the R170, the more expensive is the R171, and the latest is the R172. Prices vary depending on the generation and engine version.
The SLK isn’t perfect by any means. A small roadster is nowhere near as practical as a sedan or SUV; there isn’t much space even for the driver. Maintenance costs are high compared to similar cars in the same price range.
VW Golf Mark 4
The Golf is another car that’s known for its reliability. The Fourth Generation is perfect for a first car, as the previous gens might need repairs within the first few months. On the other hand, newer variants are more expensive, so the Mark 4 is the perfect middle point.
Volkswagen Golf Mk4 comes with some modern safety features, a fuel-efficient engine, and cheap maintenance costs. The handling is one of the best in its class, and the styling is unique. Reliability varies depending on the engine. The less powerful variants tend to be more reliable than the bigger alternatives.
Did you know that you can get a Porsche for under $10,000? It may not be a rear-engine air-cooled 911, but it is still a very real Porsche. The 944 is an affordable sports car that’s perfect for cruising along twisty mountain roads, while not being overpowered for a first car (0-60mph in 8.3 seconds).
The major issue with the Porsche 944 is high maintenance and repair costs. On the other hand, you are getting a unique style that will definitely be a head-turner. After all, who wouldn’t want a Porsche?
Jeep Cherokee XJ
The Jeep Cherokee is an off-roader that will deliver plenty of smiles-per-hour to any young driver. It’s a more sensible and practical alternative to the company’s Wrangler, without sacrificing off-road performance and reliability. The Cherokee XJ is arguably one of the greatest Jeeps ever built and is a precursor to SUVs that are available on the market today.
The XJ remains one of the most reliable low-budget SUVs you can get. Produced between 1983 to 2001, it comes equipped with either an RWD or 4WD drivetrain. Maintenance is affordable and easy, and replacement parts are widely available, even at your local junkyard.
If you’re looking for a reliable first car, this is definitely not it. The Mazda RX8 features the last-ever rotary engine sold in the States. Maintenance and repair costs can reach thousands of dollars per year if the purchased car isn’t in good shape. A well-kept RX8 will be cheaper to maintain and won’t require as many investments.
That said, the RX8 is also one of the most fun and affordable sports cars available on the market. The body style looks like a coupe, though it has 5 doors. The RX8’s performance is exceptional considering its price.
The first-generation Veloster was released in 2011. It came as a Turbo variant with a 1.6L engine that generates between 180 and 200 horsepower, along with two naturally-aspirated engine variants that make below 150 horsepower.
The Veloster is small in size and the handling is quite agile. Hyundais are reliable, affordable to maintain, and fuel-efficient, so the Veloster is another car on this list that provides a good balance between fun and practicality. We highly recommend getting the Turbo variant, as the regular Velosters are a lot less powerful.
Ford Fiesta ST
Ford’s sporty hatchback has gained lots of popularity over in the UK and Europe. The Fiesta ST was only sold as the 5-door version in the U.S., meanwhile, Europe and Asia only had the 2-door available. The U.S.-only 5-door ST is 40kg heavier than the Euro version but remains extremely fun.
The Fiesta ST drives similarly to its bigger cousin, the Focus ST. It offers precise steering, dynamic torque, and a surprisingly good engine note coming out of its 1.6L engine that peaks at 180 horsepower. A used Fiesta ST can be purchased for around $10,000 in the U.S.
The BMW 1-Series provides a good balance between fun and practicality. On the one hand, it’s very reliable, like most BMWs. It has plenty of legroom in the front and decent space for passengers riding in the back. If you’re looking for extra practicality, get the 4-door trim. The first and second-generation 1-Series come with either RWD or AWD drivetrains.
The 1-series gets around 33 miles per gallon. The biggest downside is the lack of horsepower in the lower engine variants. Maintenance costs can exceed other similarly-priced cars, too.
Fiat 500 Abarth
The Fiat 500 Abarth is a tiny hatchback based on the regular Fiat 500. Don’t be fooled by its size, as it is a super-fun drive. The Abarth 500 is known for its exceptional handling, precise steering, and lots of pops and bangs coming out of the exhaust.
The Abarth has a 1.4L turbo engine that makes 160 horsepower. It can sprint to 60 miles per hour in 7 seconds, which is rather fast for such a little hatchback. The average price for a 2014 Abarth 500 is around $12,000.
The Mini Cooper is similar to the other hatchbacks on this list in a lot of ways. It’s quite small, doesn’t have a terrible fuel economy, and most of all, it is incredibly fun to drive. Modern Minis are very different from the classic models, as they have become safer and a lot more reliable.
Mini Coopers aren’t a common choice for young drivers, so you are bound to stand out on the roads. If your budget allows it, go for the Cooper S, as it is a sportier version of the regular model.
The G37 is an exciting coupe, convertible, or sedan powered by a large V6 engine that produces 348 horsepower in its most powerful variant. The Infiniti G37 comes with either rear-wheel or all-wheel drive. As it was produced between 2007 and 2013, the G37 features modern safety and comfort features, such as a high-quality audio system.
According to Infiniti G37 owners, the cars’ major issues are a blind spot over the left shoulder, lack of torque and a slow automatic transmission. If you choose the coupe, don’t expect too much room in the back seats or trunk.
The 2nd generation Subaru Forester is a mix between the Impreza and a full-size SUV. It is more subtle and practical than the WRX, but still maintains the brand’s famous all-wheel-drive system that will get you across any road in even the worst weather.
Similarly to other Subarus from that era, the Forester shouldn’t have any mechanical issues as long as it’s properly maintained. The car’s interior is durable but it looks and feels cheap. It is the go-to compact crossover for summer and winter adventures on any surface.
VW Golf Mk7
A more expensive alternative to the Golf Mk4 is the seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf. Produced from 2015 in the US (or 2013 in Europe), the Golf Mk7 comes with all sorts of modern safety and comfort features one can expect in a reasonable car.
Just like its predecessor, the Mk7 is very reliable and fun to drive. Drivers who are looking for more power and better handling than the standard trims can opt for the GTI, a sportier variant of the Golf. This fast hatchback is fun, practical, and fuel-efficient.
Mitsubishi Lancer X
The North American Mitsubishi Lancer X came powered by a 2-liter engine that made 152 horsepower, as well as a 168 horsepower 2.4L in the more powerful trim. The Lancer X is a practical and fun-to-drive FWD sedan that handles similarly to the Lancer Evolution.
The reliability, however, of the Lancer X remains questionable. J.D. Power rated the compact sedan’s reliability at 3 out of 5, which is the industry average. The Lancer’s fuel economy isn’t best either, especially considering its lack of power. It’s still a decent first car for most beginner drivers.
Hyundai Genesis Coupe
The CEO of Hyundai USA stated that the Hyundai Genesis Coupe was designed to challenge cars such as the Infiniti G37. The Genesis Coupe is an affordable sports car that comes powered by either a 2.0L or a 3.8L engine and a rear-wheel-drive drivetrain, as well as modern features such as keyless entry or hands-free Bluetooth that came standard on the car.
There are, of course, some downsides to the Hyundai Genesis Coupe. The 2.0L, less powerful engine variant suffers from turbo-lag, and the engine noise is weak across all trims. The rear seats are cramped and have little legroom.
The Ford F-150 needs no introduction. The best-selling vehicle in the United States, The F150 is known for its reliability and practicality. When looking for a first car, the latest model may be out of your budget, but don’t hesitate to look at F-150s from the early 2000s.
The F-150’s main advantage is its practicality. It has a large bed and between 2 and 5 seats depending on the cab type. Fuel economy certainly isn’t the best in the world, but on the other hand, maintenance and repair costs are very affordable.
Ford Focus ST
This sporty Ford is a larger and more powerful alternative to its smaller cousin, the Fiesta ST. There are two generations to choose from (Mark 2 pictured), depending on your needs and budget. The Focus ST Mk3 comes with more sophisticated safety and comfort features as well as a more powerful engine, though it is also more expensive.
The Ford Focus ST is one of the best hatchbacks available on the market. It’s powerful for its segment, fun to drive, and very practical.
The Mazda 3 is a more practical alternative to the MX-5 roadster. It’s roomier, quieter and more fuel-efficient, just as you would expect from a hatch. It is still an exciting car in its class and can be a sensible choice over the Miata.
The Mazda 3 proves that practical and economical cars can be fun. It handles exceptionally well for a hatchback, comes with a stylish interior and is powered by 155 horsepower. If you are looking for more power, there is a more powerful variant that comes with a 184 hp engine.
Toyota GT86/ Subaru BRZ/ Scion FR-S
The Toyota GT86 or Subaru BRZ (or the now-defunct Scion FR-S) is a joint project from the three manufacturers. The sporty coupe looks and drives like a proper sports car, while its precise handling along with rear-wheel-drive make the GT86 a very enjoyable car to drive.
The GT86 may not be the most powerful car on the market, as it’s powered by a 2L boxer engine that makes 200 horsepower. It does, however, have lots of aftermarket parts to make the engine more powerful if needed. It is the perfect starting point for drivers who want to get into the world of sports cars.
The 350z is a stylish, sporty coupe made by Nissan. It’s powered by a V6 motor that makes between 291 and 310 horsepower depending on the production year. The powerful engine combined with an RWD drivetrain make the Z a very unique, cool car. Its styling and interior finish make it look a lot more expensive than it is, too.
Like any other car, the Nissan 350Z isn’t perfect. Its biggest problems are limited visibility out of the front windshield and practically zero rear visibility, as well as very low ground clearance.
The Z3 gained lots of popularity after it was driven by James Bond in Goldeneye (pictured). It was also the first BMW that was produced in the U.S. Although the car is over 20 years old, it has aged very well and remains a very interesting car at an affordable price.
The Z3 came as a roadster or coupe, with engines between 1.8L and 3.2L depending on the trim. BMW Z3 drives like a sports car, thanks to its sporty suspension and a low center of gravity. The 3.0-liter version can accelerate to 60 miles per hour in just 6 seconds. The car, however, comes with limited practicality and high repair costs.
The Subaru WRX is the perfect budget car that provides a good balance between road and offroad performance along with practicality and a lot of fun to drive. The “Bugeye” WRX makes 227 horsepower from its 2L boxer engine.
The real fun with a WRX begins in the snow, so it is definitely an option to consider if you plan on driving in extreme weather conditions. The WRX is a 5-door sedan, so you can take up to four friends and a fair amount of luggage on a winter road trip. Get ready for frequent repairs and high maintenance costs though, especially if your WRX isn’t in the absolute best condition.
If your main priority is buying a first car that is fun to drive and certainly not boring, rather than focusing on fuel-efficiency and practicality, the Jeep Wrangler might be the perfect solution. Any car that can be taken on off-road journeys will be exciting, and the Wrangler’s exceptional off-road performance make this car fun to drive pretty much anywhere.
What’s more, the Jeep Wrangler has an enormous market for modifications. Whether that means power adders, suspension lift kits, or exhaust systems, aftermarket parts are relatively cheap and widely available.
Dodge Dakota (2nd gen)
The second-generation Dodge Dakota, much like the Ford F150, is a solid and practical truck that can be a good first car. The Dakota came with a straight 4, two different V6 and two V8 engines. The midsize truck is a smaller alternative to the large Dodge RAM and features a more sporty suspension.
Try to find a Dakota with the V8 engine. Their performance is a lot better than the magnum V6, and the fuel economy is quite similar. According to fuelly.com, the 5.2 V8 Dodge Dakota gets 14MPG.
The boxy 240 is pretty much a tank when it comes to reliability. It can take quite a beating and, if maintained properly, will last forever. The Volvo 240 is a good economical way of getting into the world of classic cars.
One point to consider is the potential maintenance costs. 240s are affordable and very reliable, but some things are bound to break in a 30-year-old vehicle. Proper maintenance will lower potential repair costs, but if you buy a Volvo 240 in questionable shape there might be some extra repairs needed.
21st Century Honda Civic
The Civic may not be the most exciting car in this lineup, but it is one of the most sensible choices for a used first car. The models built between 2001 and 2020 are extremely reliable, practical, fuel-efficient, and cheap to maintain.
The Civic is a fun to drive front-wheel-drive compact offered in many variants, such as a coupe, hatchback, sedan, and station wagon. Along with a practical interior, strong aftermarket support, and an affordable price tag, the Honda Civic can very well be the perfect choice for a used first car. Looking for extra horsepower? Go for the Civic Type R.
Love it or hate it, the Beetle is undoubtedly an icon in the automotive world. The “new” version is a cute, funky car that is affordable and unique. Not everyone is fond of it due to its controversial styling, but those who do like it enjoy a helpful community of owners and enthusiasts.
If you are looking for a sports car, this is not it. It’s powered by a small flat-four engine that makes just 178 horsepower in its most powerful variant. The good news is, the new Beetle is built on a Volkswagen Golf platform, so it is durable and reliable.
The Z4 first came out in 2002 as the successor to the Z3 roadster. There are currently three generations: E85/86 (2002-2008), E89 (2009-2016), and the latest G29. The BMW Z4 comes with a stiff suspension, agile handling as well as many comfort and safety features.
Similarly to the Z3, one of the BMW Z4’s main setbacks is expensive maintenance and repair costs. The first generation Z4 has an outdated interior, and the smaller engine variants might feel underpowered after a few months of driving.