In 1973, my parents bought my teen sister and I our first share car – a boxy little ‘68 Toyota Corona. They chose the Corona because it was cheap, reliable, and it didn’t encourage speeding. It was so gutless, in fact, we could barely coax it up the hill to our house without gathering a gaggle of impatient drivers behind us.
The car suited its purpose, though, of trundling us to and from school. It even proved relatively safe, as I learned by turning it on its side one month after getting my license and walking away unscathed.
Today I’m a parent and soon it will be my turn to fret over what kind of car my daughter will drive. When it’s time for our sons and daughters to start driving themselves to work or school, should we just toss them the keys to our own car, give them the family’s old clunker, or start shopping for a car of their own? It’s not a decision to take lightly.
Car crashes are the leading cause of death for 15- to 20-year-olds. Some stats indicate that seventeen teens a day are killed in crashes.
“The main problem with teen drivers isn’t the vehicle, it’s lack of driving experience and judgment,” says Tim Hurd, spokesperson for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “The first year of driving is the most dangerous, which is why many states have adopted graduated licensing laws requiring teens to drive supervised by an adult for many hours before being granted full driving privileges.”
Parents can increase their children’s safety by limiting night driving and restricting the number of teen passengers who ride in the car with their teen, says Russ Rader, spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). “Having two or more teen passengers in a car with a teen driver increases the risk of a fatal crash five times,” he says.
When selecting a vehicle, consider these factors:
Crash protection: Look for good tires and anti-lock brakes (ABS) to help your teen avoid a collision, and airbags to protect them in the event of a crash. The IIHS recommends that teens drive only mid-size to larger passenger cars because they have more sheetmetal to crumple in a crash. But why not give them small, maneuverable, easy-to-drive vehicles with which they can react quickly and avoid crashes altogether?
Stability: The IIHS and NHTSA warn against giving teens trucks and sport-utility vehicles, because they have a higher center of gravity than cars and pose a greater rollover risk. Sport-utes have different dynamics than cars and require special driving techniques.
Performance image: “Horsepower and teenage exuberance are a deadly mix,” Rader says. i.e., Don’t give your kid a Camaro.
For more safety information, including crash test results and rollover ratings, consult the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (www.nhtsa.dot.gov) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (www.highwaysafety.org).
New or Used?
In a study conducted by Autobytel, an Internet marketing services company, 70 percent of parents and teens said they were looking for a used vehicle for the teen’s first car purchase. Both parents and teens cited sticker price as their reason for shopping for a used rather than new vehicle. Nearly 80 percent of both teens and parents said they planned to spend less than $10,000 on a used vehicle.
By its very nature, buying a used vehicle entails risk. If you buy from a private party, have the vehicle checked out by a licensed mechanic before shelling out any dough. You also might look into one of the many certified pre-owned vehicle (CPO) programs offered by automakers. CPO programs ensure that each vehicle meets a checklist of inspection items and most include an extended warranty, which lets you command a higher price when you go to sell it.
Insurance and fuel economy
A teen driver will pack a wallop to your family’s auto insurance bill. That’s because insurers base their auto rates on how likely a driver will get into a crash, and young, inexperienced drivers account for a disproportionate share of crashes. Gender counts, too; plan on paying higher rates for Jordan than for Hayleigh, in other words. And don’t fool yourself. The kids will be coming to you for gas money.
New Teen-Worthy Picks
While most parents and teens will opt to buy a used vehicle for the teen’s first car, if you’re in the market for an affordable new car, check out these five fun choices. Each offers a balance of style, safety, fun-to-drivability, practicality and affordability (base priced under $20,000):
Ford Focus ZX3 ($12,415) – With its edgy Euro styling, crisp handling and responsive power, Ford’s zippy two-door hatchback looks and feels like a German-engineered car. It’s amazingly big inside, so your teen won’t have to rent a U-Haul when trekking off to college.
Honda Civic Coupe ($12,810) – The most conservative of the bunch, this car is roomy, reliable, comfortable, safe and simple to drive. It’s so darned practical, even the parents will approve.
Toyota Matrix ($14,670) (and similar Pontiac Vibe) – Targeted at Net Geners, Toyota’s four-door hatchback combines sporty styling and SUV utility with the affordability of a Corolla. It’s available with four-wheel drive for ski trips and is big enough to snooze in while waiting for the lifts to open. The Pontiac Vibe is essentially identical, except a bit more expensive.
Mini Cooper ($16,300) – Get in line now and your teen just might get one by graduation time. This is the two-door hatchback that thinks it’s a Porsche and has the safety of a BMW sedan. It comes standard with six airbags (including head protection airbags), ABS, and free roadside assistance. You’ll be fighting your kid for the keys.
Volkswagen New Beetle ($15,900) – Not only is it a blast to drive, it’s surprisingly spacious and safe. It comes standard with anti-lock brakes and dual front and side airbags, and earned a five-star rating in government crash tests. Rear seats fold down for hatchback utility. Volkswagens are cool; this one’s a happy face on wheels.