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The 10 best cars for teen drivers

With the kids heading back to school, you may be thinking about putting some of your older ones on wheels. But what are the best cars for a teen driver?

Coming up with the right model can be a challenge, but there are some important factors to keep in mind, safety first and foremost. So, while your teen might have a BMW M3, Ford Mustang or Volkswagen Golf R high on their list, you're likely to look for something a bit more practical.

And affordable. You don't want to strain your household budget or stretch the thin wallet of a teen heading off to college. And affordability involves more than just the up-front price. You also have to consider fuel and insurance costs. Teens typically get socked with hefty premiums, though you can bring that down with the right car.

teenage driver
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The good news is that it's possible to hand your teen driver keys to a car they'll enjoy—and that you can afford and feel confident in as far as safety.

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Here's a list of the top 10 cars for teens, according to a new study by Cars.com. The list, which is not ranked in order of preference, factors in total cost of ownership and only includes models that have earned a top safety rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

  • Honda Fit. Slightly smaller than the familiar Honda Civic, Honda has come up with a car that's both fun and practical to own and drive thanks to its versatile "magic seats." You can pack in your friends—or a dorm room's worth of stuff when heading off to college. It starts at $16,060, and using the Kelley Blue Book online calculator has a total cost of ownership of $28,018. Fuel economy is 29 miles per gallon in the city, 37 mpg on the highway, according to the EPA.

  • Kia Soul. This boxy crossover has earned a huge following for both its style and flexibility. This tall urban hatchback offers plenty of options, from bigger wheels to an 8-inch navigation screen, but you can drive off with a reasonably well-equipped base model for just $16,015. The total cost of ownership is estimated at around $29,900, and you'll get a reasonably good 24 mpg city, 30 highway.

  • Mazda3. The small Japanese maker has long been known for adding a bit more fun to its products, large and small. That zoom-zoom factor only enhances the overall appeal, especially if you opt for the forward collision warning that boosts the hatchback's rating to Top Safety Pick+, according to the IIHS. Base price is $18,815, with a total cost of ownership estimated at $30,069. Fuel economy is rated at 30 mpg city and 41 highway with the automatic transmission.

  • Chevy Sonic. Not traditionally known for its small cars, Chevy has scored well with the U.S.-made Sonic because of its style, well-outfitted interior, spaciousness and functionality. It also boasts one of the best infotainment systems in a small car. Prices start at $15,070, with a total cost of ownership of $30,108. Fuel economy runs 26 mpg city and 35 highway.

  • Hyundai Elantra. Hyundai has done a bang-up job transforming itself from an econobox brand to one offering surprisingly sophisticated styling and great value. The roomy Elantra compact is one example. It's roomy, has a great safety rating and is reasonably affordable to operate. Base price is $18,075, with a $31,793 cost of ownership. Fuel economy is rated at 28 mpg city and 38 highway.

  • Subaru Impreza. Yes, Impreza impresses, whether you're looking for something practical, fun to drive or safe, it delivers on all counts. Teen drivers are likely to appreciate its on-road manners, as well as its great infotainment system. Parents might want to opt up to the EyeSight crash avoidance system. Available as a sedan or wagon, pricing starts at $18,990, with the cost of ownership estimated at $31,864. Expect 28 mpg city, 37 highway.
  • Toyota Prius. The current Toyota hybrid isn't the most exciting vehicle, but it has a Top Safety Pick rating and incredible mileage. A new version of the world's best-selling hybrid will be hitting market in the coming months, so some shoppers might want to wait for its arrival. Expect better styling, more space and as much as a 10 percent bump in fuel economy. The 2015 Prius starts at $15,035, with a $34,633 estimated cost of ownership. Fuel economy is 51 mpg city, 48 highway.

  • Volkswagen Golf. VW has launched a whole "family" of Golf models for 2015, so there are plenty of options to choose from. As a group, they've won a wide range of awards, including North American Car of the Year and Motor Trend Car of the Year. There are diesel, electric and gas versions and the sporty Golf R. You can buy into the Golf family starting at $18,815, with an estimated $35,710 cost of ownership. Fuel economy is 25 mpg city and 37 highway for the base model.

  • Jeep Renegade. While many teens lust for the familiar Wrangler, the all-new Renegade is a safer, more practical and affordable alternative for teens. It is roomy, capable and fun to drive and even has removable roof panels. The new SUV starts at $18,990. Because it's so new there's no data for figuring cost of ownership. Mileage is 24 mpg city, 31 highway.

  • Ford Focus. Rounding out the list is Ford's compact model. It's roomier than the little Fiesta yet gets nearly the same fuel economy. It's one of the most stylish models on this list and offers both practicality and fun. There also are plenty of options, including a superefficient 1.0-liter turbo EcoBoost engine that will boost fuel economy to 40 mpg. The base price is $19,785, with the total cost of ownership estimated at $34,153. The base model comes in at 26 mpg city, 36 highway.