Buying a first car can be a big moment in one’s life, and one that comes with both nervousness and excitement. 

Whether you’re a parent buying for your teenager, or you’re buying the car for yourself, the idea of spending thousands of dollars on a car can be daunting. Making sure you set comprehensive criteria for your shopping list will give you the confidence and reassurance to effectively evaluate your options and make the best possible choice.

When considering a first car you may automatically think that it has to be affordable to buy and run, reliable and popular, but all too often the most important criteria is missing - safety.

We reviewed last year’s used vehicle sales to see which of the most popular models offered a safer option and were worthwhile considering.

Toyota Aqua (2010-2017)


  • Safety rating: 5-Star (VSRR)
  • Price: Lowest price as advertised on Driven $7,670 (+ORC)*
  • Registrations in 2020: 5,104

The Toyota Aqua is a great economical option, and can be found for less than $10,000. Not only is it a hybrid, it’s also compact, making it great for around town driving.

Coming in at just 3,995mm in length and 1,695mm in width, it’s great to safely practice those maneuvers you need to master for your driving test.

The Aqua is economical, too - just last year, we tested a 2013 model and achieved an impressive fuel consumption of just 3.73L/100km.

Mazda Axela Hatch (2013-2016)

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  • Safety rating: 5-Star (UCSR)
  • Price: Lowest price on as advertised on Driven $10,700 (+ORC)*
  • Registrations in 2020: 5,984

The Mazda Axela is an incredibly popular car on our roads. In fact, last year it held the largest market share of used cars at 5.3%.

The main benefit is its versatility – it offers a reasonably spacious interior, along with great storage at 340 litres with all the seats up. We think it looks pretty smart too.

Unlike the Toyota Aqua, there are several engine choices available, starting with a smaller 1.5 unit all the way up to the most popular choice - a 2-litre variant with an automatic transmission.

Toyota Prius (2009-2016)

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  • Safety rating: 5-Star (VSRR)
  • Price: Lowest price as advertised on Driven $7,970 (+ORC)*
  • Registrations in 2020: 3,879

The Toyota Prius has only been around since 1997, and since then, it’s become the cornerstone of Toyota’s commitment to low emission vehicles. Thankfully, used imports have meant that Kiwis have had a steady stream of these hitting our ports, and they’re a slightly larger alternative to the smaller Aqua – commonly considered perfect for taxi drivers.

The popular third-generation model uses a 1.8-litre engine, operating in conjunction with a 27kW electric motor powered by a Nickel Metal-Hydride (Ni-MH) battery, returning a fuel economy of 3.9L/100km with a CO2 emission rating of just 89g/km.

Toyota took things one step further with this model, making its bumpers out of recycled plastic bottles to be even greener than before, so if you need decent space, cheap running cost and a safe ride, then the Prius could be the ticket.

Volkswagen Golf (2009-2013)

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  • Safety rating: 4-Star (VSRR)
  • Price: Lowest price as advertised on Driven $8,990 (+ORC)*
  • Registrations in 2020: 2,530

The VW Golf is a classic option if you’re after some European flair which won’t break the bank. In fact, the Golf was the most popular used European import in 2020.

There are a variety of engines to suit most drivers, with power outputs ranging from a mild 77kW to a feisty 199kW.

Many variants also come with an energetic DSG transmission which adds a sportier feel, even if you choose to opt for one of the more reserved powerplants.

The VW Golf is one of the more sensible used European choices for first time buyers.

Nissan Leaf (2010-2016)

Nissan Leaf 2011 1

  • Safety rating: 4-Star (VSRR)
  • Price: Lowest price as advertised on Driven $9,985 (+ORC)*
  • Registrations in 2020: 2,251

The Nissan Leaf is by far the most popular used import electric model on the market with 2,251 vehicles sold in 2020. The hatch has made buying a used electric car a real prospect for first time vehicle buyers.

The Leaf is powered by an electric synchronous motor with 80kW driving the front wheels. The early Leafs are equipped with a 24kWh lithium ion battery, however, the later models increased to 30kWh.

Used leafs are easy to drive and make for a great, green commuter option.

Making a safer choice

When buying a first car, car safety should always rank highly on your shopping list. We always recommend buying the safest car you can afford, even if this means considering a car with higher mileage.

Remember that you are twice as likely to die or be seriously injured in a crash in a 1 or 2-Star-rated car as you are in a 5-Star vehicle.

If you think you’ve found the right car, AA Motoring recommends that you also invest in an AA Pre-Purchase Inspection to help ensure the vehicle is in a good condition before you commit those hard-earned savings.

The best way to get familiar with the safety rating of cars is to head over to

Find out more about how the AA can help when buying a used car:

Vehicle experts you can trust

*Advertised price online at at time of writing

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