If your kid is anything like most, he or she wants a cool car. This often means a fast and feisty car. As a sane person and a naturally paranoid parent, you want to give them something slow, easy on mistakes, and safe, since teens tend to drive their cars in to things.
What you need is a vehicle that gives the illusion of speed and fun without the actual potential for any serious speed. You want your kid to have all the predictable understeer of front-wheel drive, and some solid safety ratings to boot. Here's what to consider.
1. 2015 Ford Fiesta
Why you like it: It's front-wheel drive and not terribly powerful; has solid safety ratings and a cramped back seat that discourages piling a dozen people in the car; and is cheap to own, insure, and operate.
Why the kid likes it: Sure, it's not a WRC Fiesta or even a Fiesta R2, but it does have nice handling characteristics and is associated with Ken Block, the only pro driver most young people know. There are also about a billion factory customization options, meaning that this small and practical hatch can actually stand out.
2. Honda Civic Del Sol (used)
Why you like it: It's new enough to have airbags and a solid roll bar, but still old enough to be had for just a few thousand dollars. Being heavily based on the Honda Civic, it's also cheap to run and maintain. Better still, the engine only makes about as much power as a pair of harnessed pomeranians, and those figures referred to when the car was new.
Why the kid likes it: Look at it! It looks like a tiny little race car, and driving it is almost as fun as driving an actual race car.
3. Honda Fit
Why you like it: It's immensely practical, and will fit all the stuff one would want to take to college, it's safe, it's one of the cheapest new cars to own, and it's less powerful than your grandmother's left hook.
Why the kid likes it: It drives well, and it's new enough that it won't look like a relic at the school parking lot. The design isn't particularly compelling, but the Fit will do whatever you ask it to, from commuting to hardware store runs for the odd project, and probably more.
Why you like it: Once again, it's a new, affordable, front-driven car with little power and quick dynamics.
Why the kid likes it: The Mazda2 is a feisty little thing with attractive styling that's easy and fun to drive. Better still, it seems that a large number of them are in that wonderful bright green color. Fun stuff.
5. Subaru Impreza
Why you like it: It's a bloody Subaru. Subarus are known for being safe, reliable, safe, and all-wheel-drive. The Impreza is relatively small, as idiot-proof as a car gets, and has great crash test ratings. Perfect.
Why the kid likes it: It's at least tangentially related to the Impreza WRX, which is one of the cars that is most lusted-after (and most crashed), by young drivers. If you have a WRX enthusiast in the house, disappoint them ever so slightly with a regular Impreza and let them spend a few years learning and saving to buy the dream car.