The best new cars for teens

Line of car hoods

Here are three very cool 2011 models that teenagers will love to drive and parents can feel good about.

Our favorite new cars are not only affordable but supremely safe, with at least six air bags and sophisticated active-safety features such as stability control and antilock brakes.

Their fuel-efficient engines will keep operating costs low and produce just enough power to be fun, not worrisome.

Chevrolet Cruze

The Chevrolet Cobalt always seemed a little behind the times -- mechanically and stylistically.

No one will say that about its replacement, the all new Cruze. This compact sedan has an expensive, substantial look that most kids will like.

The Cruze is large and roomy enough that it technically can be called a midsize car, and it's got an enormous trunk, a useful thing if, like most families, your teen's ride has to pull more mundane duties, such a trucking home the week's groceries.

But what we like most is the Cruze's surprisingly sublime and responsive handling and quality ride. We'd insist on moving slightly up the lineup to the 1LT trim (starting at $18,175), which brings the sweet-running and economical new turbocharged 4-cylinder engine.

Don't panic: It might be turbocharged, but the engine is so small, just 1.4 liters, that you won't have to worry about the modest 138 horsepower transforming the Cruze into an after-hours dragster, and at 24 miles per gallon in city driving and 36 m.p.g. on the highway, it will be easy on whoever's paying for the gas.

Ford Fiesta

The all-new Fiesta's design isn't quite quirky, but for Americans still not accustomed to seeing European-influenced subcompact cars, Ford's latest fuel-sipper is an attention-grabber, so your teen can't accuse you of going conservative.

Ford really has it cooking with the features younger buyers want, too, including the excellent Sync hands-free connection system for cell phones, iPods and the like. Any option like Sync that encourages eyes on the road and hands on the wheel is equipment any parent should find compelling and comforting.

The Fiesta may be classified a subcompact, but the full suite of safety gear is standard, and it gets an overall four out of five stars in the tougher NHTSA crash-test rating for 2011, including five stars in the side-impact category. The Fiesta drives big, too, and can handle long interstate trips without inflicting pain even on backseat passengers.

To extract the most versatility, we'd go with the 4-door hatchback with SE trim. All Fiestas use the same 1.6-liter, 120-h.p., 4-cylinder engine. It's plenty snappy to get the Fiesta moving but not powerful enough to keep you awake at hours when offspring are still carousing. Even with the sophisticated new 6-speed automatic transmission and some options including Sync, you're out the door for less than $18,000, and fuel economy is a pretty fab 29 m.p.g. in the city and 38 m.p.g. on the highway.

Volkswagen Golf

The Golf will cost about $1,000 more than a comparably equipped Cruze and close to three grand more than the Fiesta.

But get behind the wheel and you'll quickly see why the Golf is worth the extra money. It's a dense and sophisticated compact car with predictable handling and a secure feel in just about any situation.

That's because the Golf is considered a mainstream family car in Europe, and it's been one of the best-sellers there for decades. Everything about the Golf oozes quality and class -- maybe a bit too much for your teen, actually, but most kids' cars double as family chariots, too, so the extra investment in the more expensive Golf may pay long dividends if you or other adults spend significant time behind the wheel.

The Golf's standard 2.5-liter, 5-cylinder engine is one of the largest in the class, but the smaller optional 2-liter engine is turbocharged and actually is more of a performance play. The 2.5-liter engine churns out 170 h.p., tops by far of our three choices here, but the extra power is blunted by the fact that the Golf is a heavy compact car.

That's one of the reasons its fuel economy ratings (24 m.p.g. city/31 m.p.g. highway) are the worst of our teen favorites. But the upside to all this is that you can buy the base Golf 4-door sedan with VW's marvelous 6-speed automatic transmission, starting at $19,685, and not need a single option.

Volkswagen has made sure the Golf is refreshingly well-equipped. The spacious hatchback layout means the Golf is ready for anything the family needs it to do, while its Euro-chic lines will have your teen the envy of the school parking lot.

Before you buy, check out our 6-step plan to get the lowest price and cheapest loan.