The Situation: You need a safe, efficient, inexpensive and practical car for a first-time driver.
The Obvious Choice: 2014 Mazda 3
Pros: Fun to drive, highly fuel-efficient, choice of transmissions
Cons: Engine noisier than some competitors
With a relatively low cost of entry, wildly efficient powertrain and rewarding driving manners, the 2014 Mazda 3 is a solid first-car pick. The 3i's 2.0-liter four-cylinder cranks out 155 horsepower, which pushes the car to a quick-for-the-class 8.3-second 0-60 time. More importantly, it produces a 34 mpg EPA combined rating with the six-speed automatic. A six-speed manual transmission is standard but lowers the EPA combined rating to 33 mpg. Even so, having a choice of transmissions is valuable for first-time drivers.
The federal government gives the Mazda 3 a five-star overall crash test rating, while the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety named it as a Top Safety Pick plus. All Mazda 3 trims come standard with antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control, active front head restraints and six airbags. Higher trims make blind-spot monitoring, cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, forward-collision warning and collision mitigation available. A rearview camera is standard on the top-shelf Grand Touring trim.
The 3 is also available as a five-door hatchback, though that body style adds $2,000 to the starting price.
Starting Price: $17,740 (i SV sedan), $19,740 (i Sport hatchback)
Configuration: Transverse front-engine, front-drive, five-passenger sedan/hatchback
Powertrain: 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder, 155 hp, 150 pound-feet of torque; six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission
EPA Fuel Economy: 34 mpg combined (30 city/41 highway) with automatic transmission
The 2014 Mazda 3 gets an "A" rating from Edmunds. See it here.
The All-Weather Choice: 2014 Subaru Impreza
Pros: Good value, all-wheel-drive utility, choice of body styles and transmissions
Cons: Slow acceleration, light on personality
That the 2014 Subaru Impreza isn't very quick is actually an asset if you're of the mind that nobody needs a fast first car. It is this seeming weakness that actually helps land the Impreza on this list, not to mention its various strengths.
You get a lot for your money with the Impreza. It is, essentially, an all-wheel-drive compact sedan or wagon that's competitively priced with front-drivers. Every Impreza comes with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder cranking out a conservative 148 hp, but as with the Mazda 3, there is a choice of transmissions: a five-speed manual or a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Fuel economy is 30 mpg combined for both body styles when equipped with the CVT. Manual transmission versions are rated at 28 mpg combined.
NHTSA gives the Impreza a five-star crash test rating, and the IIHS named it as a Top Safety Pick.
But it's the price that really makes the Impreza shine. Sedans start at $18,865, while wagons start at $19,190.
Sure, the Impreza's modest power and soft suspension detract from some of its overall appeal, but if all-weather abilities factor high in your purchase decision, you won't find a better car for less money.
Starting Price: $18,865 (2.0i PZEV)
Configuration: Longitudinal front engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan or wagon
Powertrain: 2.0-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder, 148 hp, 145 lb-ft, five-speed manual or CVT
EPA Fuel Economy: 30 mpg combined (27 city/36 highway), CVT sedan
The 2013 Subaru Impreza gets a "B" rating from Edmunds. See it here.
The Midsize Option: 2014 Nissan Altima
Pros: Excellent fuel economy, brisk acceleration, good ride comfort
Cons: Occasional CVT drone
Possibly you subscribe to the "bigger is better" philosophy when it comes to the right car for a first-time driver. Fortunately, physics usually agrees. And in the case of the 2014 Nissan Altima, so do the authorities. The Altima earned a five-start crash test rating from NHTSA and is named an IIHS Top Safety Pick. It's also the biggest car on this list.
But it's not just safe. We like the Altima for a variety of reasons that make it a good first car. It's available only as a sedan, but it's a roomy, comfortable sedan. Two engines are available, but it's the 2.5-liter Altima that's the only real contender for first-car duty. Paired exclusively with a CVT, the four-cylinder cranks out 182 hp.
Fuel economy is an Altima strength. The EPA rates it at 31 mpg combined (27 city/38 highway), and we've actually exceeded those numbers in real-world testing, which is rare in any car. Impressively, the Altima will still hit 60 mph in 7.8 seconds, which is very good for a four-cylinder midsize sedan.
Inside, the Altima offers among the highest interior quality in the segment as well as some of the most comfortable front seats we've experienced in any vehicle. Bluetooth is standard across the line.
Downsides are few, but like most vehicles utilizing a CVT, the Altima suffers from engine drone under hard acceleration. It's a small price to pay for this kind of fuel economy, however.
Pricing for the 2014 Nissan Altima starts at $22,980. It also gets an "A" rating from Edmunds. See it here.
Starting Price: $22,980 (2.5 Sedan)
Configuration: Transverse front engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan
Powertrain: 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder, 182 hp, 180 lb-ft, CVT
EPA Fuel Economy: 31 mpg combined (27 city/38 highway)