► Just passed your driving test? Here’s what to buy
► Safe, cheap to insure and easy to drive
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We all remember our first car. It’s a rite of passage, an adventure in the making, freedom on four wheels. Even if it’s only a Dacia Sandero and none of your friends stump up petrol money.
A first car needs to tick a lot of boxes. It should be cheap to insure, safe and easy to drive. For most younger drivers, an affordable price tag and low running costs are also vital.
If insurance is causing a headache, consider having a telematics ‘black box’ fitted for your first year. Look carefully at the available safety features when you buy, too. Some may only be available on higher grades or as extra-cost options.
The best first cars for new drivers in 2021
We’ve rounded up the 10 best cars for new drivers, including a small SUV and a couple of all-electric alternatives. And yes, there’s a Sandero, but don’t worry about what your mates think. You’re paying for the petrol, right?
You’ve learned to parallel park and mirror-signal-manoeuvre. Now it’s time to actually enjoy driving, something the Ford Fiesta encourages wholeheartedly. Britain’s bestseller gets the objective stuff right: it’s safe (five Euro NCAP stars) roomy, economical and laden with gadgets. But peppy Ecoboost engines, effervescent steering and a limber chassis also add plenty of subjective sparkle. You’ll savour every B-road and relish every roundabout – even if your enthusiasm is shackled by an ever-watchful black box.
The entry-level Fiesta Trend costs £16,385 or £165 a month, although climbing one rung to Titanium spec gets you sat-nav and parking sensors – both useful add-ons for a first car. This current, seventh-generation Fiesta was launched in 2017 and used prices start from £6,000. There are hundreds for sale, but Ford’s three-year, 60,000-mile warranty isn’t as generous as many rival offers
Read our Ford Fiesta review
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- Best for hybrid efficiency
Today’s young drivers are perhaps more worried about their eco credentials than power or 0-62mph times. We look at electric cars lower down this list, but the new Yaris – one of the few supermini-sized hybrids – is a more versatile all-rounder. Its pairing of a three-cylinder petrol engine and electric motor serves up 114bhp and CO2 emissions from just 86g/km. And as a ‘self-charging hybrid’ in Toyota-speak, it never needs plugging in – important if you don’t have a driveway at home or are living away at university.
The Yaris is smart looking and amiable to drive, with the reassurance of a five-year, 100,000-mile warranty – not to mention Toyota’s peerless reputation for reliability. The downside is high prices, which start at £19,910 or around £189 a month. This model hasn’t yet filtered onto used forecourts, but the previous 2011-2020 Yaris costs from £3,000 for the 1.3 petrol, or £6,000 for the hybrid.
Read our Toyota Yaris review
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Best city car (still!)
It’s hard to believe the Volkswagen Up was launched in 2011. That’s also when the Iraq war ended, William and Kate got hitched and an unknown group called Little Mix won X Factor. Much has changed over the past decade, but the Up remains our benchmark city car. Its crisp design and packaging, revvy engines, less-is-more cabin and lively steering simply haven’t aged. And while its Seat Mii sibling has gone electric-only (see below), the Up is still available with petrol power.
Actually, some traits of the Up aren’t so timeless. A five-star Euro NCAP safety score in 2011 translates to a three-star rating today. Also, its 1.0-litre engine isn’t as efficient as you’d hope – the 64bhp version manages 54.9mpg and 117g/km of CO2. Yet it’s hard not to fall for the Up’s simple charms, particularly when prices are so affordable. As for used models, they’re available from just £3,000.
Read our Volkswagen Up review
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Best on a budget
Speaking of affordable… the Dacia Sandero starts from £7,995, making it Britain’s cheapest new car. In the past, your financial frugality was rewarded with scratchy plastics and outdated tech, but the new Sandero – based on the CMF-B platform of the current Renault Clio – is bang-up-to-date. Stretch to the £11,595 Comfort grade and you get an eight-inch touchscreen with navigation, plus Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity.
The Dacia is a decent steer, too. Its eager 999cc triple serves up 89bhp, 53.3mpg and 0-62mph in 11.7 seconds. Our Anthony ffrench-Constant described it as ‘alarmingly competent’, pondering why anyone would spend the same cash on a city car. You can’t buy the current Sandero used yet, but consider that £7,995 is the price of a three-year-old Fiesta with 25,000 miles under its wheels. You, er, do the maths.
Read our Dacia Sandero review
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Enthusiastic drivers will prefer a Volkswagen Up, but i10 fights back with better tech, a broader choice of engines and Hyundai’s five-year, unlimited mileage warranty. Few cars will fit so painlessly into your life. If you have recently ripped up your L-plates, the 66bhp 1.0-litre petrol makes sense. It offers 0-62mph in an unhurried 14.6 seconds and 51.4mpg. Just avoid the jerky automated manual transmission (AMT).
With light controls and a weeny footprint, the Hyundai is easy to drive and even easier to park. It’s also impressively Tardis-like inside, while all except the entry-level SE have an eight-inch touchscreen and smartphone connectivity. There’s even a Bluelink app, so you can send a route directly to the sat-nav. This iteration of the i10 was launched in 2020, but the previous model is a stoutly sensible used buy. Prices start from £3,500.
Read our Hyundai i10 review
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Best for turning heads
The 208 and Corsa are brothers from different mothers. But while they share a platform and engines – including the option of pure electric power – the Peugeot has a pizazz that the vanilla Vauxhall lacks. CAR’s Gavin Gavin rated it ‘a notch or two above any Korean or Japanese rival in design, dynamics and distinctiveness’. That design draws from the classic 205, of course: arguably the best looking supermini ever. And the 208’s interior has a wow-factor to match, with 3D instruments and tactile piano-key switches.
Granted, a Corsa is cheaper to buy, and a Fiesta is more fun to drive. Some dislike Peugeot’s trademark i-Cockpit with its tiny steering wheel, too. Nonetheless, the 208 feels genuinely premium in the right spec. We’d go for the 99bhp 1.2 petrol if your insurance company allows it (or the 74bhp variant of the same engine if not). Used examples cost from £12,000 and are well within Peugeot’s three-year, 60,000-mile warranty.
Read our Peugeot 208 review
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Our sister title crowned the Clio its Best First Car in the Parkers New Car Awards 2021. So who are we to argue? Well, the Renault is a great all-rounder – and attractively priced. The basic Clio Play Sce 75 costs £15,895 (£179 a month on PCP) and ducks into one of the lowest insurance groups. It’s practical, thanks to the biggest boot in class, and infotainment is top-notch. Safety is also a strong point, with a five-star Euro NCAP rating, plus standard lane-departure warning and emergency braking with pedestrian detection.
For us, where the Clio falls down slightly is on the road, where it lacks the sparkle of (you guessed it) a Fiesta. Still, if you prioritise comfort over fingertip feedback, there’s much to like. Renault’s five-year, 100,000-mile warranty is also up there with the best. Find a used 2020 Clio from £10,000 and you’ll enjoy peace of mind until 2025.
Read our Renault Clio review
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Not everyone starts their driving life young, free and single – you may need a family-sized first car. Equally, you might prefer the style and upright stance of an SUV. If so, the Ford Puma is our pick of the compact crop. CAR’s Phil McNamara called it ‘a distinguished newcomer in an undistinguished class’. Most buyers opt for the 123bhp 1.0-litre engine, which uses mild-hybrid tech to deliver 0-62mph in 9.8 seconds and 50mpg.
The Puma looks like a Porsche Macan after a boil wash and drives like a 911 GT3. OK, it drives... better than the crossover norm. Even with three kids in the back, you’ll enjoy its positive steering, slick manual gearbox and taut chassis. There’s also a surprising amount of space for something based on a Fiesta, including a practical boot with an underfloor compartment that Ford calls the Megabox. A second-hand Puma costs upwards of £17,000 – or you could forget SUVs and spend a fraction of that on the Ian Callum original.
Read our Ford Puma review
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Seat Mii Electric
Does an EV make sense for your first car? If you can afford the upfront cost or higher monthly payments, and can recharge it at home, perhaps so. EVs are straightforward to drive, with no gears and regenerative brakes for ‘one-pedal’ progress in town. Electricity is also cheaper than petrol, and maintenance costs less than for a conventional car. Insurance may be a stumbling block, though, so check before you buy.
The Seat Mii is a Volkswagen Up with a Spanish badge and batteries beneath the rear seat. It musters 82bhp for 0-62mph in 12.3 seconds, despite being 299kg heavier than a petrol model. The zippy Seat excels in the city and a 161.5-mile covers all but the longest commutes. It’s good, clean fun. Put down a decent deposit and you could finance one for less than £250 a month.
Read our Seat Mii Electric review
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Everyone loves a 500, nobody more so than Fiat itself. Launched in 2007, the reborn 500 saved its maker from financial meltdown, then spawned a pair of corpulent cousins (500L, 500X) – neither of which came close for classless appeal. Now there’s an electric 500, and mercifully it follows the original template. Prices kick off at £19,995 for the Action with a 115-mile ‘city battery’, but upgrading to Passion brings swifter performance (0-62mph in 9.0 seconds) and a 199-mile range. There’s also a roll-top convertible.
For many, the 500e will be a ‘love at first sight’ car, thanks to its iconic styling and chic interior. Yet there is sufficient depth for a meaningful long-term relationship, including swift charging, a pliant ride, point-and-squirt handling and plenty of active safety kit. We don’t suggest a used, combustion-engined 500 for your first car, partly due to its three-star crash rating. Consider a Mini Hatch to scratch that retro itch.
Read our Fiat 500e review
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Further first car reading: