Buying a first car is one of the most exciting moments of one’s youth: it symbolizes a transition away from parental dependence, a step towards adulthood, and a first foray into the lifelong responsibility that is car ownership. Additionally, for most young drivers, buying your first car will likely be the biggest purchase that you’ve ever made (even if your parents are chipping in or paying outright, you should want to spend their money as wisely as your own!).
For these reasons and countless others, it’s important to make sure that you get things right when buying your first car. With the importance of this decision in mind, let’s go over what makes a good first car, and the best cars that meet those requirements.
What makes a good first car?
In my opinion there are 4 major considerations that should go into purchasing one’s first car. In no particular order, these considerations are listed below:
- Price: One of the biggest considerations for a first car is always going to be price. Virtually all young drivers and their parents are going to be on some sort of budget, and while I struggled to find a national average price-paid for first cars, I would guestimate that number to be somewhere in the ballpark of $10,000-$15,000. It can certainly be higher or lower, depending on how much you’ve saved, and how much your parents are willing and able to help with the purchase, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll stick to cars priced in or below that range.
- Reliability/Maintenance Cost: The last thing that a young adult needs is to be worrying about spending too much on car repairs and maintenance. For this reason, it’s best to buy a first car that has a proven reliability track record, and a low cost to maintain.
- Safety: If you only have one car, it’s important that it be a safe one. This is a surprisingly tough pill to swallow for young drivers, as it’s awfully tempting to buy something like an E30 BMW as your first car, due to their incredible value and unfailing coolness, and then call it a day.
- However, E30s and many of their similarly aged and similarly cool counterparts don’t even have airbags, let alone side curtain air bags and blind spot monitoring. So, while these older cars may be cool and tempting, they’re not a good option for a first car because of their lack of modern safety equipment. Just wait a few years until you can afford a second car, and buy something like this for sunny summer weekends.
- Cool Factor: As a car enthusiast, I firmly believe that there is never a reason to buy a boring car. We spend so much time in our cars, so you might as well buy one that you really love, and that has something special about it! Now, I don’t mean you have to go out and buy something that’s going to break necks at every car show (those types of cars are usually expensive, anyway). What I do mean is that you don’t have to settle for an Accord, when for the same money, you could buy a slightly older Acura, which will have the same reliable bones but the upscale feel and driving experience of a luxury car.
Cars that fit the bill: the 5 best first cars
Now that we’ve gone over what makes a good first car, lets take a look at some cars that fit the bill. They’ll all be priced under (some well under) $15,000, be generally reliable and inexpensive to maintain, safe, and somewhat cool and/or interesting in their own way.
3rd Generation Acura TL
The third generation Acura TL, produced from 2004 to 2008, is not only one of the most attractive cars that Acura has ever produced, but it makes for a great first car. It’s plenty spacious for a sedan, looks fantastic, and has a fun and nice sounding 270hp 3.2L V6, equipped with Honda’s beloved VTEC variable valve timing system.
Additionally, the TL, being a Honda at heart, is sure to give you many trouble-free miles (so long as you find a good one). I recommend the 2007 and 2008 model years specifically, as the car got an update in 2007 that included a refreshed interior and slight tweaks to the transmission to address issues with the earlier ones failing prematurely.
As a bonus, Acura made a sportier Type-S version of the TL in these years as well, and while they’re more expensive, they’re just as reliable, and twice as cool and fun. These TL’s can be found easily well under $10k, with some even below $5k. However, if you want to spend a bit more, $12k-$15k is all you need for a very good condition Type-S variant.
Okay, the Lexus LS400 doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype of a young person’s car. It’s a big, heavy luxury sedan designed to shuttle executives to and from their C-Suite positions at publicly traded companies. That said, if want something with road presence, a V8, and incomparable comfort and build quality, the LS400 is the car for you.
Commonly lauded as one of the most reliable cars ever made, the LS400 is sure to get you where you need to go and when you need to be there, too. I recommend the 1998-2000 model years, as they got an updated body, engine, and transmission. Even these later model years can be had in excellent shape for well within our budget. And, while old, the LS400 still got great safety ratings in its day, and being a flagship model, it had safety equipment well ahead of it’s time.
F30 BMW 3-series
The 3-series has always been BMW’s young-persons car, so why not a first car, too? The F30 3-series was produced from 2012-2018, and while it came in many variants, the only variants that will have reasonable mileage and still be in our price range are the 320i and 328i versions. The 320i version is just too underpowered, so let’s focus on the 328i. It came with a 2.0L 240hp turbocharged I-4 dubbed the N20 (or N26 SULEV version). While not as sonorous as the sweetheart I-6 that the N20 replaced, it is a fine engine that will more than satisfy the requirements of young drivers.
Additionally, despite misconceptions that BMWs are unreliable and expensive to maintain, the F30 has proven itself to be a properly reliable car. While the N20 engine powering the 328i has had reports of timing chain failure, this is a rare problem that BMW has (mostly) remedied in the form of extended warranties. I like the F30 so much that I’ve owned two of them myself, and I’d recommend them to anyone! Nice examples of the F30 328i can be found below our $15,000 limit with less than 70,000 miles pretty easily, too.
9th Generation Honda Civic Si
The 9th generation Honda Civic was produced from 2011 to 2015, and during those years, Honda, as they always do, made a sportier version of the Civic dubbed the Si. For the 9th generation, the Civic Si got a larger engine compared to the normal Civic, bringing total output to just above 200hp from a 2.4L four cylinder.
The Civic Si brings together all of our requirements without any caveats: it fits the budget without a problem, it’s incredibly reliable (I mean, it’s a Honda, of course it is!), it has modern safety tech, and it has the added coolness of that Si badge, as well as all of the sporty add-ons that the Si package brings. If you’re looking for something a bit newer, but the F30 isn’t your speed, the Civic Si is probably the way to go.
Just for the sake of balance, I thought it would be appropriate to include an SUV on this list, and what better than a 4Runner? The Toyota 4Runner has long been the poster child of automotive durability, and for good reason. Even older, high mileage examples are known to run like tops for hundreds of thousands of miles, and that’s not something that can be said about most cars.
I didn’t list a specific generation of 4Runner here, because your budget will largely determine which you can get, but in most cases, there’s a 4Runner for everyone out there somewhere. There are a few things that all have in common though: they’re built like tanks, incredibly reliable, cheap to keep running, and subtly cool on the road. They’re not cool in the traditional sense, but a Toyota-built off-roader focused SUV is always going to be at least a little cool.
There you have it, folks! My 5 picks for the best first cars that money can buy. They’re all reasonably cheap, reliable, safe and cool, meaning that they all have the makings of a great first car. That said, it’s still incredibly important to be a diligent shopper: no matter how great a car is generally, specific examples of anything can turn into a nightmare if you buy a car that’s been poorly maintained. So, do your research, ask the right questions, and GET A PRE-PURCHASE INSPECTION! Happy car shopping!