This only partially applies, but is a response I wrote on my blog (onefastdriver.blogspot.com). Our friend was looking for something very cheap (and safe) which is a hard combination to find at that price. But you might be able to glean a few hints about safety and reliability from the article.
(This is an excerpt from an email to a friend who asked for advice on buying a car for her newly-turned-16 daughter. She wanted to spend $2000 or less.)
$2000 or Less: An unsolveable dilemna?
Here Come the SwedesUnfortunately, these days, there isn't much out there that is very safe at that price ($2000). An exception exists with old Volvo's. They are quite safe - both station wagons and sedans; I'm thinking the 240's, and the 700-900 series - with the classic look. I believe that most in those series were 5 cylinders. Newer models include the S40/60/80's and their equivalent wagons: V50/70. Volvo's are a little higher maintenance than some cars, except for the 240 series. Expect mileage to be in the low to mid 20's on the older models and anywhere from mid-20's to low 30's in the newer versions. The Saab 9000 series are extremely safe too. Their maintenance can be higher too, but you could run them straight into a brick wall and they'd be fine. I've owned several. They tend to have minor electrical problems and periodic (every 50k or so) replacements of the Direct Ignition cassette which costs about $400. Their snow traction is superb. Saab 900's are also quite safe and tend to be more reliable. The 9000 turbos and the 900's get good gas mileage (low 30's on the highway). The non-turbo'd versions of the 9000's achieves about 23 mpg.
EnticingI'd stay away from any of the early-ish Hondas, Toyotas, Hyundais, Mazdas etc. They all had crash test problems until well into the 2000's. Structurally, I seen many that were severely compromised here at a local body shop that I pass every day. This, of course, is just an opinion.
A Trusty Land YachtLand Cruisers are also extremely safe and incredibly reliable. They're a little more cost-wise. Don't even worry a minute about the mileage on these. Mine has 220,000 and runs perfect ... every single day. They routinely run up to 400,000 miles if you don't run them out of oil. The main wear item on them is seats and timing belts. You often have to buy covers or tape up the rips on the older ones. They're generally slow, have great 4wd systems, and are not fuel efficient. They'll seat 7. Probably best stick to the FJ60 and FJ80's series. Lexus has a nearly exact equivalent called the LX 450 which is an FZ80 straight-line 6 cylinder. Gas mileage is 12-15 but also provides the greatest margin for safety and reliability combined.
Final ThoughtsThe main thing is that your kid is going to be driving at the most compromised time of his/her life ... distractions, inattention, inexperience, out late etc. I'd personally stay away from anything too fast based on the (lack of) judgement I've seen so far from my teenage son. Safety trumps all, in my opinion.