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The 12 Best First Cars For New Drivers

Feb 23, 2021

Buying your first car is a major step. For a young driver, having a car means increased freedom, not relying on lifts anymore and being able to go where you want, when you want.

However, the cost of motoring for new drivers can be extreme. As well as buying a car, paying car tax and covering regular costs such as servicing and MOTs, car insurance can be eye wateringly expensive for young people heading out in their first car.

The good news is that making careful choices when selecting a car and an insurance provider can really pay off.

There’s a lot to think about when you’re trying to research the best first cars. This go-to guide breaks it down into the key things you need to consider.

Contents

What does research tell us about young drivers?

What kind of risky behaviours are associated with younger drivers?

Why does it matter what car young drivers choose?

What are your options for buying a car?

What is the best first car?

Top driving tips for new drivers

Ways to cut the cost of car insurance

A new driver sitting in their first car being handed the keys by their dad

What does research tell us about young drivers?

Each year in the UK, more than 1.8 million car theory tests and 1.5 million car practical tests are taken, many by young drivers. The younger you are, the more likely you are to pass the practical driving test – 57% of men and 54% of women aged 16-17 pass, which falls to 49% and 44% at 18-20 and 49% and 42% in the 21-30 age bracket.

Getting your driving licence is an exciting milestone that opens up opportunities for finding employment and exploring the world. However, there is also statistical evidence that shows younger drivers are also at a high level of risk.

Our brains are not fully developed until the age of around 25. The brain’s prefrontal cortex plays a critical role in regulating impulsive behaviour and the ability to anticipate the consequences of our actions. The prefrontal cortex is not fully matured until the age of around 25 in most people.

At the same time, the limbic region of the brain, which is associated with emotional response, is more active between the ages of 15 and 24. Extra activity in this part of the brain is associated with thrill-seeking and risky behaviour.

The younger you are, the more likely you are to pass the practical driving test.

A new driver sitting in their first car being handed the keys by their dad

What kind of risky behaviours are associated with younger drivers?

Younger drivers sometimes overestimate their level of driving skill, leading to over-confidence on the road. This means a younger driver might believe they are in full control of their vehicle, but engage in risky behaviours such as overtaking, speeding, tailgating, harsh braking and road racing.

Overconfident drivers have been found to be more likely to crash in the first two years of driving than people who are worried about their level of driving skill. Risk for younger drivers is not only about attitude; a lack of experience makes it harder to identify hazards on the road and respond appropriately.

Unfortunately, younger drivers are more likely to be involved in a road accident than older drivers. Within a year of passing the driving test, one in five young drivers are involved in a crash. Every year 4,000 young drivers are killed or seriously injured in road accidents in the UK.

Drivers aged 17-24 make up 5% of the UK’s licence holders, but sadly, they are involved in over 20% of fatal or serious collisions in which they are the driver.

Peer pressure plays a significant role in influencing younger drivers towards risky behaviour. Younger drivers are more likely to be involved in a collision when driving with passengers of a similar age, and when they are out late in the evening or in the early hours of the morning.

Put simply, driving with friends on a night out is a strong indicator of risk. Younger drivers have the highest self-reported rate of driving over the legal blood alcohol limit of any age group. Younger drivers also have the highest rate of driving under the influence of illegal drugs.

Young drivers with passengers are much less likely to wear seat belts and ensure that their passengers are buckled up, too. Driving at night also gives young drivers a false sense of security because the roads seem empty, while visibility is reduced in the hours of darkness.

Distraction is also a major factor for young drivers. Although inexperienced drivers need to pay closer attention to the roads, many admit to using a mobile phone while driving. An RAC survey found that half of all drivers aged 17-24 admitted to using a phone while on the road, the highest percentage among all age groups.

Overconfident drivers have been found to be more likely to crash in the first two years of driving than people who are worried about their level of driving skill.

A young driver driving along a motorway as the sun sets in the distance

Why does it matter what car young drivers choose?

There’s a lot to think about when choosing your first car. The best first car will be one you can afford without too much of a financial squeeze, and you need to think about more than just the purchase price. Running costs, insurance costs and safety need to come into play as well.

The average cost of car insurance for all age groups is £692 a year according to Statista figures, but if you’re in your 20s the average cost is a whopping £1,036. However, youth is not the only thing that affects car insurance costs. Different car models are put into risk bands by the Association of British Insurers (ABI), based on factors such as the new car price, engine power, security features and the price of parts.

Car models are placed in ABI ratings groups from 1 to 50, with vehicles in group 5 and below representing the best value in terms of insurance. These tend to be cars that have smaller engines and have good safety records.

You might think that buying an older, less powerful car will work out cheaper because of the low purchase price and lower insurance costs, but this is not always the case. An older car may cost you more in repair bills and fuel costs because of lower efficiency. In addition, older cars may be taxed at a higher rate and be less safe than newer models.

When it comes to car insurance, once you get insurance in your own name you begin to stack up time towards a no claims discount that will reduce the cost of your premiums over time. The longer you go without making a claim on your insurance, the higher the discount becomes.

Sometimes young drivers are tempted to avoid high car insurance premiums by misrepresenting the main driver of the car. For example, a driver might buy a car but have a parent take out insurance in their own name with the young driver named as an additional driver on the policy.

While it might seem like a good way to get around high insurance premiums, this practice is illegal. Known as fronting, misleading an insurance provider in this way is a form of fraud and the consequences can be serious. An insurance provider might refuse to pay out in the event of a claim, pursue a policyholder to recover uninsured costs of a claim, or refuse to provide insurance for the policyholder in the future, making it extremely difficult to obtain cover from other providers. On top of all that, you could also face criminal charges.

When it comes to car insurance, once you get insurance in your own name you begin to stack up time towards a no claims discount that will reduce the cost of your premiums over time.

A young woman sitting in her car holding the key out of the window smiling

What are your options for buying a car?

The most obvious way to buy a car is to pay the full price yourself. Depending on your circumstances, this might take a while to save up for but the vehicle is entirely yours from the beginning, and you will not have to make interest payments. When you’re buying a car you should always carry out your research to make sure you can afford additional costs such as car tax, insurance and repairs as well as the purchase price.

If you know your way around a vehicle, you might be able to find a secondhand bargain, either through a dealer or a private classified ad. A reputable dealer should carry out full checks on the vehicle, whereas a private sale could see you buying a dud if you don’t know how to check a car yourself.

Buying a new car outright is costly, and you should be aware that the value of the vehicle begins to depreciate the minute you drive away from the dealership. However, a new car is likely to come with a warranty and should not have any pre-existing problems that could cause you trouble.

If you don’t have a huge wad of cash to hand, there are plenty of financing options that mean you can buy a car sooner rather than later and pay it off over a number of years. You should understand the terms of your agreement, and be clear that you can afford the monthly payments as well as the vehicle running costs.

If you do decide to use a financing option, you are likely to get the best deal if you make the largest downpayment you can afford. The less you borrow, the less interest you pay and the better the deal will work out in the long run. Paying even a small amount of the deposit using a credit card will give you consumer credit protection in case anything goes wrong.

One popular finance option is hire purchase (HP). This form of finance is offered by many dealers. You make a downpayment of around 10% on a vehicle, then pay the remainder over a term of anything from one to five years. These often offer competitive interest rates, but you should be aware that most of the time, you do not own the car until you make the final payment.

Personal contract purchase (PCP) is another increasingly popular finance option. With PCP, you obtain a loan based on the likely value of the car at the end of the hire agreement, rather than its value on the day you buy it. When you come to the end of the agreement, you can either trade in the car and begin a new agreement, give the car back without making any more payments, or pay a balloon payment based on the resale value of the vehicle.

A PCP arrangement can deliver lower monthly payments than HP, but you may pay more overall than you would with HP. You also have to keep the car in good repair, as any damage could result in additional payments, and keep to an agreed mileage.

Personal contract hire (PCH) is another option. Under this arrangement, you’re not really buying a car, you’re hiring it and you must return it to the dealer at the end of the hire period. For a monthly fee, you have usage of the car as well as servicing and maintenance without further payment. You generally pay a deposit of three months’ rental. Although this can be convenient as you don’t have a depreciating asset or maintenance costs to cover, you also never own the car and may pay more overall than you would with other purchase options.

If you don’t have a huge wad of cash to hand, there are plenty of financing options that mean you can buy a car sooner rather than later and pay it off over a number of years.

A man handing over the keys to a new car the the new owners

What is the best first car?

The answer to this question will depend heavily on your own personal circumstances. For example, the right car for you depends on whether you live alone, have a partner, or children and a dog; whether you like to take trips with lots of equipment that need space; whether you care about a car looking sleek or just want a reliable run-around.

Safety is all-important for young drivers, both in terms of protecting you and ensuring your insurance premiums are not sky-high. While you’re still gaining experience and confidence on the road, it’s probably best to go for a less powerful car with a reputation for reliability rather than speed.

That doesn’t mean you have to be stuck with a boring motor though! There are plenty of good-looking cars that fit the bill without breaking the bank.

Let’s take a look at some of the best first cars for young drivers on the market today.

1. Ford Fiesta

The Fiesta is the best-selling car in Britain, and for good reason. It’s cheap to run, reliable and fuel efficient. That fuel efficiency (the 1.0 litre EcoBoost petrol model is a top seller) means you pay less road tax because this is priced according to vehicle pollution levels.

There are many different models of Ford Fiesta, from the swanky ST-Line to luxurious Titanium. Modern Fiestas have an in-car infotainment system with touchscreen, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, air con, a heated windscreen and lots of great safety features.

A blue ford fiesta driving along a tarmac area

2. Nissan Micra

The Micra used to have a slightly frumpy reputation, but it’s had a revamp and is well worth a look. The Micra is now a much sleeker machine, with great tech as standard including air con, automatic wipers, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, cruise control and a rear-view camera.

You can choose an engine size to suit your needs, balancing fuel efficiency and performance as you wish.

3. Volkswagen Polo

Perhaps the main appeal of the Polo is that it is very cheap to run, as well as being a great all-rounder. The vehicle has an infotainment system with touchscreen, air con and electric windows, and you can opt for a flashier model with satellite navigation and parking assistant.

VW Polos are hugely popular and can last well over 100,000 miles if they’re taken care of, which means it’s usually easy to pick up a great secondhand example.

A Volkswagen polo parked outside a house on a residential road

4. Kia Picanto

The Picanto is well built, practical and reliable with a choice of 1.0-litre three cylinder or 1.2-litre four cylinder petrol engines. The car has been updated with a sporty look with the Mk2, and it’s now only available in 5-door models.

The smaller engine model is economic to run, and there is all the tech you could want, from touchscreen infotainment to a sat nav, auto lights and hill start assist. It’s ideal for city driving, as the Picanto is small and manoeuvrable for the years when you’re still perfecting your parallel park. 

5. Volkswagen up!

The award-winning up! is available as a petrol or electric vehicle. This car has great economy of around 55 mpg, and it’s a really cheap and reliable car to run. There are loads of safety features, including six airbags and an optional automatic braking system.

The up! also looks great, so you can drive a good-looking car without paying the eye-watering insurance premiums that usually come with it.

6. Hyundai i10

This popular car might not be the most powerful on the market, but it makes up for it in being cheap to run and really intuitive to drive. The i10 comes in 1.0-litre and 1.2-litre engine options, with plenty of tech such as an integrated infotainment system, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, air con and cruise control.

The i10 is a compact car, making it the perfect choice for city dwellers looking for the perfect first car.

A steering wheel with a Hyundai logo in the centre of the steering wheel

If you’re looking for the best first car to suit your needs but don’t want to go for a dinky hatchback, there are plenty of vehicles you could consider. It might be that you have a family, a Great Dane or a surfboard collection that needs more space, or maybe you’re happy to pay a bit more for a more powerful vehicle?

1. Volkswagen Golf

The Golf has a spacious boot and is well-designed so you can make the most of the space inside. It has an economical engine, making it relatively cheap to run, and is a reliable and popular family car.

There are plenty of safety features and the vehicle is easy to drive, with accurate steering and good agility.

A Volkswagen Golf parked on a road in a snowy mountainous area

2. Dacia Duster

The Dacia is a practical SUV that offers really good comfort for a relatively low price. The lower price tag means you miss out on some of the tech of smarter SUVs, but there is still an infotainment system, sat nav and aircon. The higher-end models also offer parking assistance such as a bling spot warning system and all-round camera – great for first-time drivers.

There is plenty of space on board and the 1.6-litre petrol engine model is fairly cheap to run.

3. Ford Focus

The Focus is a cracker of a car – perhaps one of the best first cars for families. The Focus is a really smooth ride, so you’ll enjoy driving even if your kids are squawking in the back.

Although the Focus is not the cheapest option on the market, you get a reliable car, plenty of space and lots of great kit onboard.

A Ford Focus driving through a city at night

4. Toyota Corolla

This hybrid car has an extremely efficient engine, minimising your fuel costs and car tax bill. There’s plenty of space inside and all the equipment you’d expect in a modern car.

This is a stylish option for a family that wants a spacious, eco-friendly vehicle.

5. Skoda Scala

The Scala is a great all-rounder, with a relatively low price, a good infotainment system, lots of space and low running costs. The Scala is popular for good reason – it’s also great to drive, with good handling and well designed controls.

The Scala has tons of space, but beware – the lower purchase price also means the resale value is less than you would find with other comparable cars.

6. Peugeot 3008

The Peugeot might not be the best-looking car around, but if you can get past that, this is a great option if you’re looking for a high-quality, roomy vehicle. Although it’s an SUV, it’s on the smaller side and has plenty of options with good engine efficiency so the 3008 is a more economic car than you might think at first glance.

The 3008 also has a 5* safety rating from NCAP, the European ratings agency. It has great handling and is a comfortable and enjoyable drive.

The front grill of a Peugeot 3008

Top driving tips for new drivers

Your driving lessons might stop once you get your driving licence, but that doesn’t mean that the learning stops as soon as you ditch the L-plates. In your first few years of driving, you will gain invaluable experience and knowledge about the road. What is the best way to approach those early years?

Firstly, the fact that you’re reading this is a good sign. Assuming you know everything there is to know about cars is a sure way to be overconfident behind the wheel and overconfidence can lead to dangerous mistakes.

In the first year of driving, you can boost your skills (and reduce your insurance premiums) by taking the Pass Plus course that gives you advanced driving skills in challenging situations such as driving in urban or rural areas and motorway driving.

Younger drivers need to be able to concentrate on the road. Make sure you banish any distractions such as your mobile phone, noisy mates, and avoid fiddling with the sound system when you’re on the move.

Don’t attempt any marathon trips before you are ready, or when you’re tired. Driving when you haven’t had enough sleep can be as bad as driving under the influence of alcohol, so plan ahead and don’t take the risk.

It’s also tempting to think that once you have your licence, you can relax a little about checking your blind spot, looking in your mirrors and so on – this is a big mistake.

You are taught to carry out those checks for a reason, and failing to look could cost someone’s life. If in doubt, try heading out on a bike sometimes to remind yourself how vulnerable other road users can be.

Assuming you know everything there is to know about cars is a sure way to be overconfident behind the wheel and overconfidence can lead to dangerous mistakes.

A young driver smiling as she driver her car

Ways to cut the cost of car insurance

Car insurance is one of the biggest costs for new drivers. The prices might make you wince, but there’s a reason premiums for new, younger drivers are so expensive. The statistics show that this age group carries a higher risk profile than other age groups.

Over time, if you prove yourself to be a careful driver by not getting involved in accidents, chalking up speeding fines or being convicted of road offences, your premiums will come down. In the meantime, insurers will continue to view you as a risk based solely on your age bracket.

However, there is some leeway in the cost of insurance for new drivers. Let’s look at some ways you might be able to bring down the cost of your car insurance in the first few years.

There’s no getting away from the importance of your choice of car in determining your insurance premiums. As stated above, there are a number of different aspects that insurers consider but cars are given an ABI rating – the best first cars are those from a cheaper band, as this will cost less to insure. Generally speaking, these are non-luxury vehicles with a good safety rating with less powerful engines and no modifications.

Another option is to go for telematics insurance. This insurance uses a so-called black box device which is installed discreetly somewhere in your car and records important aspects of your driving that indicate whether you’re a risky driver. For example, the gadget notices if you brake or accelerate sharply, take corners too fast or frequently drive at night. If your data shows you’re a careful driver, your insurer may be able to offer you a reduced premium for the following year.

Insurers take account of your full range of characteristics when calculating insurance prices – this includes elements such as where the vehicle will be kept, where you live, and what your profession is as well as your age and the length of time you have held a driving licence. If you can, keep your vehicle off-road in a secure location such as a driveway or garage as this will reduce your premiums.

There’s no getting away from the importance of your choice of car in determining your insurance premiums.

Close up portrait of a driver hand fastening seatbelt in a car

It’s also advisable to consider how your job role is presented. You should never mislead your insurer but the same role can sometimes be described in different ways – for example, a DJ will be quoted a higher price, but if you only play music at children’s parties then you could call yourself a children’s entertainer and probably bring down your insurance costs.

Fronting an insurance policy by misrepresenting the main user of the car is fraud, but it’s entirely legal to add a driver with a lower risk profile to your policy, which can bring down the price. If you have a partner or family member who has a lower risk profile than you, adding them as a named driver on your policy could make it cheaper. You can also often save money by going for multi-car insurance, if you live in a household with more than one vehicle.

There are some aspects of insurance that newbie drivers don’t always appreciate, such as the timing of your insurance renewal. Insurers are free to quote different prices depending on how close you are to your renewal date. Never allow your insurance to auto-renew, do your research and see how much you could save by shopping around.

You might think that the lowest level of cover would be the cheapest, but this is not always the case. By law, you are only obliged to take out third party insurance to cover the cost of any damage or injury you cause to another person. However, the type of people who want the lowest level of insurance are also often risk-takers. Counter-intuitively, opting for comprehensive insurance (which also covers your own losses in the event of a claim) is usually cheaper.

When you take out insurance, you will be asked what level of excess you are willing to pay. This is the amount of a claim you cover yourself, before the insurer steps in to pick up the tab. The higher the excess, the cheaper the insurance premium. If you can afford to set a high excess, this can save you a lot of money. The caveat is that you must actually be able to afford the excess. If you set it too high, you might find you can’t afford to have your car repaired if something goes wrong.

There’s a lot to get your head around when you’re starting out as a new driver and researching the best first cars for someone in your position. However, once you know the basics about how insurers assess risk and what you can do to keep yourself safe and save money, you can rest assured that your first few years of driving will be enjoyable and affordable. Happy driving!