Good first cars that are safe, reliable, and cheap in 2022

Bruce Newton

Posted February 07, 2022

Here are our picks for the safest, most reliable and cheapest first cars that should be on every young adult’s radar. 

Buying your first car can be a perilous trip into the unknown.

Just as when spending any substantial amount of money on anything, let alone a first car, it’s best to let your head rule the roost and not your heart.

Emotional car buying decisions come later, when you’ve got spare cash and a hankering for something special.

What to look for in a first car

When you start out, it’s always best to go for simplicity, reliability (the two often go together), safety, solid engineering, functionality and composed driving manners.

Unless you’re lucky, you’re most likely going to be buying used. To be frank it’s the more sensible option anyway. First-time owners are usually still learning the craft so best to start out with something modestly sized with similarly modest engine performance. 

They might want a V8 Holden Commodore or a Toyota LandCruiser, but often that’s not the appropriate choice.  Nor are those types of vehicles notably affordable to buy, run or insure.

So, bear this in mind. When it comes to the design and manufacturing of mainstream, affordable cars - the Japanese brands do it the best. If the selected model from that Japanese brand is built in Japan, even better. 

We’ve backed that advice up in our list of cars below. Most are Japanese and the rest are Korean. There’s no Europeans – they’re a niche buy that can be expensive - or Chinese-made cars. No doubt, their time will come but they still have to put runs on the board.

Bear in mind when shopping that equipment levels vary not only between these different vehicles we’ve listed below, but also between models within each range. For instance, autonomous emergency braking is a key safety aid but not universal, especially in smaller used cars that are a few years old.

Bottom line: Do your research.  


Mazda2 is a great commuter

The Mazda2 is a great safe and practical commuter for any uni student.

The 10 best first cars for young adults in 2022


We’ve already lauded the Japanese for their quality and Mazda is as good as any of them. Which makes the Mazda2 mini-car a logical first buy, especially if the focus is on city living and commuting.

Mazda CX-3

As the Mazda2 above, the Mazda CX-3 is just that little bit larger in both engine and body size, making it even more usable. The 4x4 option makes it extra-helpful if there are gravel snow roads in your driving life. 

Toyota Yaris

The Yaris mini-car is now pretty expensive as a new buy, but being so popular, there are lots of examples on the used market. And being a Toyota, it’s got build quality and reliability built in. The Toyota Yaris is also backed up by the biggest and best dealer network in the land. The legendary Corolla provides similar service in a slightly bigger package.

Toyota C-HR

Australia’s number-one-selling brand is chucking a plethora of small crossovers and SUVs at us these days. The Toyota C-HR has been around a couple of years and is striking for both its look and non-Toyota drive experience (we mean it’s fun). There’s even a hybrid version to save fuel. 


The Toyota C-HR recieved a 5-star ANCAP safety rating.

The Toyota C-HR was awarded a 5-star ANCAP safety rating in 2017.

Subaru XV

Compact five-door with a touch of extra ride height to deliver that crossover look, the XV has typical Subaru good manners aided by standard all-wheel drive. Impreza small car is also good, has same body just rolls at a lower ride height.

Kia Rio 

Competent mini-car from a constantly improving Korean brand. The five-door Kia Rio does all the driving basics as expected and is well-priced and well-equipped in both safety and comfort terms. It also offers an excellent transferable seven-year warranty and capped priced servicing deal. 

Kia Cerato

Provides the same fundamentals at the Kia Rio but with a touch more space. A "safety pack" costs an extra $1000 on the two cheapest version but is well worth considering if the budget can stretch to it. Another advantage of the Kia Cerato is the ability to pick either a regular sedan or five-door hatch without having to worry about a price difference ... it comes down to user preference rather than cost.

Suzuki Swift

Yet another Japanese small car! Sorry if this is sounding a bit like a broken record, but the Suzuki Swift deserves inclusion for its good driving manners, simple mechanicals (which means lower cost) and affordability.


The stylish Suzuki Swift is cheap, yet safe.

The Suzuki Swift is affordable and reliable.

Nissan Qashqai

Some people just need more room and for them the Qashqai five-door SUV makes sense. While there’s decent boot and backseat, it’s still compact enough in overall size to not intimidate an inexperienced first-time buyer. It also has safety-first front-wheel drive underpinnings to look after them as well. 

Hyundai Veloster

We could pick any one of a number of Hyundais to go in this list, but thought it’s time for a bit of a wildcard. The Veloster is a Hyundai i30 small car under the skin – so all well-known and simple and safe – but it drapes it in a sporty four-door skin. That’s two doors on the passenger side, one on the driver’s side and a hatchback. Cool for school!


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The information provided is general advice only. Before making any decisions please consider your own circumstances and the Product Disclosure Statement and Target Market Determinations. For copies, visit As distributor, RACV Insurance Services Pty Ltd AFS Licence No. 230039 receives commission for each policy sold or renewed. Product(s) issued by Insurance Manufacturers of Australia ABN 93 004 208 084 AFS Licence No. 227678.