Young people may not always be able to buy homes, but they're buying cars. Almost a third of millennials have taken out an auto loan over the past two years, according to a survey of approximately 3,700 Americans that CNBC Make It performed in conjunction with the market research and news outlet Morning Consult.
To help you find the best fit for your first car, we asked the experts at Consumer Reports to pick six models that are both reliable and cost-effective.
Each of the cars has the organization's seal of approval for road test performance, reliability, owner satisfaction and safety. Additionally, each of these vehicles has a list price, or manufacturer's suggested retail price, starting under $25,000.
Below, the experts rank the top six cars for first-time buyers from among the 2018 models.
1. Subaru Forester
Price: $22,795 - $36,090
The Subaru Forester brings "a lot of content for the money," according to Consumer Reports. "Hitting the sweet spot among small SUVs, the Forester delivers a spacious interior, impressive safety equipment and crashworthiness, and outstanding visibility in a right-sized, affordable package."
The car gets 26 mpg overall, which gives it an "excellent" rating from Consumer Reports.
2. Honda Accord
Price: $23,570 - $35,800
With an upgraded entertainment system that Consumer Reports says is a "big improvement," the Honda Accord also gets points for its "coupe-like silhouette" and a slick transmission. "Handling is responsive, and the ride is comfortable," Consumer Reports says.
The car also has great fuel efficiency, getting 33 mpg overall.
3. Honda CR-V
Price: $24,150 - $34,050
Honda's small SUV model gets top marks. "The CR-V is one of the better models among small SUVs, thanks to its roomy cabin, good fuel economy, and competent handling," according to Consumer Reports. The car's handling is "nimble and surefooted," while the ride itself is comfortable with little road noise. Plus, the model gets 28 mpg overall.
4. Subaru Legacy
Price: $22,195 - $31,945
"The Legacy is one of the roomier, quieter, and more refined mid-sized sedans — attributes that help it remain as one of our top-scoring models in the class," Consumer Reports says. It features optional advanced safety features, including automatic emergency braking and blind-spot monitoring.
While the experts report that the model's engine is "no rocket," it gets the job done, and the car gets 26 mpg overall.
5. Toyota RAV4
Price: $24,410 - $36,150
Toyota's RAV4 consistently ranks among the top small SUVs. Consumer Reports praises the vehicle's "reasonably quiet" cabin and the controlled ride. It has a suite of advanced safety features that come standard, including a forward collision warning system and automatic emergency braking.
The standard model gets 24 mpg overall, while the hybrid gets 31 mpg.
6. Kia Optima
Price: $22,500 - $36,090
The Kia Optima "packs a lot of substance and value," according to Consumer Reports. It handles securely, while its 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is "pleasant" and gets 28 mpg overall. Safety features like blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic warning come standard, although the forward collision warning system and automatic emergency braking are optional upgrades.
With all these models, the experts at Consumers Reports recommend looking at a lease or purchasing a used car with minimal financing.
"If you're in your early 20s, you not only have your life before you, but you've got a lifetime of expenses ahead of you as well. There are other things to be saving your money and spending it on," Jeff Bartlett, deputy editor of autos for Consumer Reports, tells CNBC Make It. Ultimately, new, used or leased cars are "all going to get you from point A to point B, so manage your costs and manage your risk."
Look at the long-term cost of owning a car before you buy, Bartlett says. Vehicles are depreciating assets. But if you buy a nearly new used car, you're letting someone else take the initial depreciation hit — meaning it will cost you less to own over time.
Leasing may also be a good option, since many lease packages come with maintenance included. With the model year changeovers underway right now for many brands, some of these 2018 vehicles can be had for a good price.
"There are many attractive lease deals out there," says Mel (Seung Min) Yu, automotive analyst for Consumer Reports.
It's important to note that, the more expensive the car, the higher the insurance. So be sure to include that cost calculation in your budget.
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