The best first cars for young drivers 2020

  • We round up the best new cars for new drivers
  • Cheap to buy, cheap to run, but still cheerful
  • Don’t break the bank of mum and dad

Learning to drive is still a rite of passage for young people in the UK, and buying your first car is the natural next step. Yet it can be a fraught process, with many factors to consider.

Finding a car that’s not only affordable to buy but offers the right combination of safety, equipment and yes, even desirability is difficult enough, but doing all that while keeping insurance costs as low as possible can be very tough indeed.

However, today's young drivers who can buy new can enjoy all of those factors, as the low end of the market where they’ll be looking at is jam-packed with slick city cars and superb superminis. Today’s small cars often have all the essential equipment you’d expect, as well as some you might be surprised at.

> Parkers First Car of the Year Award 2020

What to look for in a first car

The biggest hurdle facing most young drivers is a financial one. Even with the bank of mum and dad helping out, the costs of owning a car can be prohibitive enough to keep many on the bus even after they’ve passed their driving tests.

It's worth noting that many drivers will choose to spend their first years in an inexpensive used car rather than purchasing brand-new, which is often a sensible move. But even with a couple of years experience, it can still be very expensive to run a car - so the principles of buying a first car still apply.

The most difficult cost to stomach is that of insurance. As a new driver with no experience, you’re a risk to insurance companies and as such will attract sky-high premiums. There are a few ways to help lower this cost, such as opting for a black-box policy or adding an experienced named driver to your plan, but it all starts with the right car in a low insurance group.

> Use our tools to find out a car's insurance group

As much as you may want a powerful first car with a beefy engine, that will ramp up your insurance cost at a frightening rate. The lowest insurance groups in a car’s range correspond with the smallest and least powerful engines – they’re almost always powered by petrol, and fitted with manual gearboxes.

Safety is important – inexperienced young drivers do statistically have a lot of accidents, so for peace of mind it’s best to opt for a car with as high a crash test rating as possible. This is one area where opting for a newer car will have great benefits over one that’s even a few years old – active safety features such as autonomous emergency braking have the ability to stop an accident before it turns into an expensive crash.

> Best small cars 2020

Then of course, there are all the important qualities to look for in a car regardless of when you’re buying it. Good visibility, responsive engine, a no-nonsense interior with controls placed in logical spots and enough practicality to cover your usual needs.

We’ve rounded up our pick of the best first cars for young drivers below. Read on for our picks, or click on the links below to jump straight to the model you’re interested in.

Best first cars for young drivers 2020

Renault Clio 

2020 Renault Clio side profile

Taking home the Parkers Award for ‘Best First Car’ means the Clio gets top billing on this list – simply put, we think it’s the best small car you can buy at the moment.

The Clio’s success story begins with its good looks. Superficial, yes, but fashion-conscious young buyers want something that looks fresh, and this certainly does. That carries over to the inside, where all Clios get an up-to-date dash design. Mid-spec trim levels have all the tech you’d want, while top-end cars get some really premium stuff like digital dials, a 9.3-inch portrait infotainment touchscreen, and wireless charging.

A range of frugal and fun engines cap things off, but it’s the value proposition where this car distinguishes itself. It’s cracking value on finance and significantly cheaper than most of the competition to buy outright, too. Opt for the 75hp engine and insurance is only Group 3 – perfect for a young driver.

Price new: From £15,295
Lease this car: From £163 per month
Search for a used Renault Clio on Parkers here

Volkswagen Up 

2020 Volkswagen Up

There aren’t too many city cars around these days, with most manufacturers deciding it’s too difficult to make a profit on such small, cheap cars. That means, however, that the ones left are really excellent little vehicles – and we think the Up is one of the best of the bunch.

It’s roomy for such a tiny car – there’s space for four six-foot adults at a pinch, and it can even come with five doors so it’s easy to get into and out of. It even has a reasonably-sized boot, at 251 litres in capacity.

It’s an absolute hoot to drive, too. It may only have 60hp on offer from its 1.0-litre, three-cylinder engine, but the Up is a tenacious performer and handles like a dream, with supple suspension striking a great balance between ride comfort and cornering performance.

Most models are in insurance group 1 or 2, and unless you’re driving like a loon you’ll see fuel economy approaching 60mpg.

Price new: From £12,705
Lease this car: From £185 per month
Search for a used Volkswagen Up on Parkers here

Kia Picanto 

2020 Kia Picanto

This brilliant city car takes a more conventional approach than the Volkswagen, with a sporty edge to its styling but a very straight-edged and sensible interior. It offers a great blend of practicality and dependability, plus the peace of mind that comes with Kia’s impressive seven-year warranty.

The Picanto’s offered with either a 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine or a 1.2-litre four-cylinder – it’s the former you’ll want, as it’s in insurance group 4 rather than 8. It has plenty of pep for nipping around town, though, and doesn’t feel too strained on faster roads either – though you’ll certainly need to stir the five-speed manual gearbox more than you would in a more powerful car.

The Picanto’s interior feels incredibly premium for such a small car, with high-quality materials and the option for high-end features such as heated seats or a big infotainment touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity.

It’s not quite as chic as some of its rivals, but the Kia Picanto is a wonderfully sensible city car that’ll do stellar duty for a first-time driver.

Price new: From £10,220
Lease this car: From £149 per month
Search for a used Kia Picanto on Parkers here

Ford Fiesta 

2020 Ford Fiesta

Even if you didn’t learn to drive in a Ford Fiesta chances are you’ll still be familiar with this massively popular supermini. It’s been the best-selling car in the country for years and for good reason – British buyers can’t get enough of its perky character and ease of operation. Driving a Fiesta just feels right – Ford’s perfected the formula to the point where even an unexperienced driver can feel right at home behind the wheel in a matter of moments.

Insurance for the basic (but still well-equipped) Trend model starts at Group 4, when equipped with the peppy 1.1-litre Ti-VCT engine. Better yet, all models come with all the equipment you could reasonably want, including air-conditioning, remote central locking, and a touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

It looks cool without trying too hard, drives like a dream and should prove cheap and dependable to own and run. What could possibly be better than that?

Price new: From £16,640
Lease this car: From £181 per month
Search for a used Ford Fiesta on Parkers here

Fiat 500 

Fiat 500 front three quarter

Fiat’s retro baby is massively popular – since it was launched in its current form back in 2007, it’s sold thousands of examples in the UK, and plenty of those have been as a first car.

It’s easy to see why the 500’s so popular among young buyers. It’s cute and dinky, with pastiche styling that’s not overdone – the 500 may be common on the roads, but that doesn’t make it any less desirable.

Basic 500s are cheap to buy, too, though the price does begin to climb if you peruse the options list. Don’t think of that as too much of a negative, though – you can personalise a 500 like very few other cars on the road, meaning that your model doesn’t have to be the same as anybody else’s.

Insurance groups for the basic 1.2-litre engine start at a low 5 – which is ideal, as it’s the engine we’d recommend, blending strong efficiency with more than enough power for a city car.

Price new: From £12,770
Lease this car: From £139 per month
Search for a used Fiat 500 on Parkers here

Peugeot 108 

Peugeot 108

The 108 is part of a trio of city cars which also includes the Citroen C1 and Toyota Aygo. Mechanically, these three models are nearly identical, but we think the 108 is the most attractive of the bunch - it's available in a selection of funky colours and, if you're buying used, a range of two-tone finishes.

You can even opt for a 108 Top, which is Peugeot shorthand for a full-length fabric sunroof turning this tiny city car into a dinky psuedo-convertible. 

Though insurance groups start at a comparatively high 6, this won't be a problem for many because of Peugeot's 'Just Add Fuel' finance offer. This is available to drivers as young as 18, and lumps purchase cost, VED and yes, insurance into one easy-to-digest monthly payment.

The 108 isn't really a class-leading city car any more, as it's a little gutless and unrefined - but it's good fun to sling around town, has a well-laid-out interior and a great reputation for reliability inherited from its Toyota underpinnings. It's also one of the smallest of its kind on sale, making it an absolute doddle to drive and park.

Price new: From £12,580
Lease this car: From £178 per month
Find a used Peugeot 108 for sale on Parkers here

Skoda Fabia 

Skoda Fabia

The Skoda Fabia may not be the most desirable first car next to style icons like the Fiat 500 or MINI; instead, it's a pragmatic choice.

Available as a five-door hatch or a truly cavernous estate, the Fabia has space aplenty in both the back seat and the boot, while its dashboard is a model of simplicity and intuitiveness.

Remarkably, considering the Fabia's comparatively large size, it starts in insurance group 1 with a 75hp engine. The lower-powered 60hp petrol, which we don't recommend as it struggles with the Skoda's bulk, is in insurance group 2.

Price new: From £14,280
Lease this car: From £177 a month
Find a used Skoda Fabia for sale on Parkers here

Hyundai i10 

Hyundai i10

What's not to like about the Hyundai i10? This is a car that so effectively proves small doesn't have to mean cheap-feeling, cramped or unrefined, it almost makes you wonder why anybody bothers with anything larger.

The i10 can seat four comfortably in an amazingly small footprint and retains one of the largest boots of any city car, making it ideal if you're the first of your friends to get a driving licence. It's not just the space on offer - the i10's interior is exceptionally good. It's well-designed, well-screwed together and packed with equipment, even some more familiar to larger cars like a fully-featured infotainment touchscreen.

The basic 67hp 1.0-litre engine isn't a pocket rocket but it's more than enough for everyday use and doesn't feel too out of its depth on the motorway, and the ride is particularly comfortable, too. Low running costs and a long warranty help matters further.

The only sticking points are a slightly high purchase price and insurance groups starting at a high 5 - but i10s tend to be driven sensibly, so you may be able to negotiate a lower quote. 

Price new: From £12,820
Lease this car: From £171 per month
Find a used Hyundai i10 for sale on Parkers here

Nissan Micra 

Nissan Micra

Okay, no teenager in the country lusts for a Nissan Micra - with an image that's more blue rinse than Blue Lagoon, the particularly fashion-conscious can look away now. But look at things more pragmatically and you'll notice that the Micra is big, it's handsome, it's safe, and it's in insurance group 1.

The current Micra really isn't deserving of its retirement-home image, either. It shares a lot of its technology, including its engines, with the Renault Clio, and while we wouldn't consider the 71hp 1.0-litre option you need for that low insurance group a particular firecracker, it's more than adequate for a first car.

The Micra also has a stylish interior with plenty of equipment - especially on top-spec versions which retain the group 1 insurance classification. We're particular fans of the Bose stereo, which adds speakers in the headrest for a more immersive music experience.

Price new: From £14,215
Lease this car: From £204 per month
Find a used Nissan Micra for sale on Parkers here

Dacia Sandero 

2020 Dacia Sandero

Glamorous? No. Fun? Not necessarily. The Dacia Sandero overthrows desirability for pragmatism - it's an incredibly sensible and rational purchase.

Part of this stems from its asking price. In entry-level form it is, put simply, the cheapest new car on sale in the UK. Even the range-topping models equipped with lots of bells and whistles undercut rivals. Yet for that price, you get the largest car on this list, with space for a young family and a large, well-shaped boot.

There are annoyances. The Dacia's engine range is limited and relatively thirsty, active safety kit is nonexistent and the interior is rather poor-quality and oddly laid-out. But it's a modern, brand-new car for barely any money, that should also be cheap to insure.

Price new: From £7,995
Lease this car: From per month
Find a used Dacia Sandero for sale on Parkers here

Further reading:

> Parkers First Car of the Year 2020

> Best small cars 2020

> Best small automatic cars