While a kid needs bare-bones transportation, not luxuries, it's worth considering models or option packages that include the latest safety technologies. One key breakthrough is electronic stability control (ESC), which senses when the car isn't going where the driver is steering and selectively applies antilock brakes or reduces engine power to individual wheels to prevent skids. "ESC is stunningly effective at controlling conditions that can lead to a rollover," says Joe Wiesenfelder, senior editor at cars.com. "It's the most significant safety feature to come along in recent years because it actively prevents accidents from happening in the first place." According to the IIHS, ESC lowers the risk of a single-vehicle crash by about half and the risk of a fatal rollover by up to 80 percent. Side curtain air bags that protect the head during a side impact add yet another important layer of protection that may not be available in older models or lower-priced trim lines.
"I wouldn't buy a car for a teen, especially a small car, unless it has at least both front and side curtain air bags," says Wiesenfelder. If you're considering an SUV, budget about $600 extra to get one with ESC. (Neither air bags nor ESC can be retrofitted into older vehicles that don't already have them.) "ESC isn't cheap, but if it saves your child from just one crash, it's worth it," says Wiesenfelder. For a list of vehicles that offer ESC as standard or optional equipment, go to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at safercar.gov.