The Incomplete Guide to Buying a Car for Your Teen

Hummer H2
Do you really want to buy a vehicle for your teen that makes them overconfident about their driving abilities?

 

fourwheeldriftI get called for advice whenever a friend (or a friend of a friend) needs to buy a car for their high school-aged child.  Buying a car for a teenager is a big decision made more difficult by pressures to balance safety, reliability and coolness.

First and foremost, I’m of the belief that no teenager deserves a cool car.  A person’s first car sets how they view and treat the privilage of owning and driving an automobile.  Giving a teen an expensive new car or cool used car can seriously skew their view of the value of basic transportation, as well as mask their understanding of how hard most people have to work to afford a car. 

Most importantly, a nice car does not communicate that as a teen, there is a lot to learn about how to drive safely.  You wouldn’t buy a beginning guitarist a Les Paul, a first-time golfer a set of Ping clubs or a Bar Mitzvah boy an Armani suit, so a recently licensed driver doesn’t need a BMW. 

When I was a lad my first car was a red (with rust and oxidation) 1977 Buick Le Sabre with red vinyl seats and a radio that would cut in and out with the turn signal.  The Buick left me stranded at least five or six times in the first year, so my uncle donated his 1977 Chrysler LeBaron to me.  In a vain attempt to make it less geeky, I had the light-tan exterior painted evening blue by Earl Scheib,because with the tan leather interior it matched the colors of a Ferrari 308 GTS I had seen on television. 

That Chrysler left me stranded multiple times, as well.   I even had to call in an emergency ride from my cousin to drive me to my last day of high school after it failed to start. 

Consequently, I have appreciated every car I’ve owned. I’ve always been a careful driver — with no accidents or violations on my record.  By the time I purchased my first sports car, I was able to resist opening it up on public streets.  On the track I was responsible enough to keep the it within the limits set by the car and my skills.

In contrast, my wife’s parents bought her a brand new Camaro for her sixteenth birthday, because they felt her 4.0 GPA somehow made her deserving of a new car.  She bonked it into the garage twice in six months, so they took it away, replacing it with a brand new Ford Bronco.  She called the punishment “asinine” and complained bitterly that her parents were unreasonable.

To this day, my wife treats her car like someone else will soon replace it, whereas even before I was an automotive journalist, I handled cars (especially the reliable ones) with care and respect.  Of course, these are just two data points, rather than a statistical survey. (And I will be sleeping on the couch tonight.)

In all honesty, parents often find themselves in a situation where they project their own needs into the vehicles they purchase for their teens.  Teens do not need expensive, luxurious, high performance vehicles.  They need safe, reliable transportation that will reinforce good driving habits, as well as teach the importance of proper vehicle maintenance.

When looking for a specific car the only factors parents should consider are:

Safety

Buy something safe, period.  The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety maintains data indicating crashworthiness.  Spend less time looking at the ratings based on static tests – the annual driver’s death rates studies and injury, accident and theft loss reports are the absolute best for identifying the safest cars. I also suggest looking at multiple years’ worth of reports to identify the occasional anomaly.   Sometimes cool cars are safe, but not usually.  Would you really rather have a cool dead child than a living one in a not-so-cool car?

The safest vehicles are large four-door sedans with side-impact airbags and vehicle stability control (aka VDS, yaw control, Active Handling, Stability Management.)  No matter what you’ve read, heard or believe, SUVs and pickup trucks are not safe.  Teens are more likely to be involved in single-vehicle accidents where speed is a factor.  SUVs are more likely to be involved in single-vehicle accidents where speed is a factor.  Don’t make the mistake of putting a teen behind the wheel of a SUV or pickup that handles worse than a sedan, takes longer to stop, is more likely roll in an accident, and more likely to kill occupants wearing seatbelts. Heck, even if you put a good driver in a SUV, they still battle Miata-sized blind spots. 

Teens feel overconfident in SUVs and pickups, causing their egos write checks that their driving abilities and physics can’t cash.

Furthermore, the more seats in a vehicle, the more likely it is that the child will be put in situations where the car is dangerously overloaded.  A Honda Pilot or Ford Explorer can seat seven, but maximum weight isn’t much more than five average weight occupants with some extra bags.  Since the Pilot and Explorer are nearly identical in length to an Accord, third row occupants essentially sit in the area reserved for the trunk in the Accord, meaning in a rear impact, the force either crumples the seating area or is transferred throughout the entire body. (That’s just basic physics!) 

Small SUVs, like sports cars, are generally about as safe as Russian roulette with six bullets. No teen should be put behind the wheel of a car that will roll during an emergency lane change, nor should they be given the keys to a sports car capable of tripling the legal speed limit on county roads.

Reliability / Running Costs

Check JD Power’s Vehicle Dependability Study for how certain types of vehicles hold up.  Buying a car requires that one understands the total cost of ownership – which means the cost of initial purchase + insurance + fuel + upkeep.  An old Range Rover can be cheap to buy but insane to repair, as are Volkswagens, Volvos, Saabs, BMWs, Audis and Mercedes.  Parts prices can vary wildly, and even duplicating an ignition key can cost anywhere from three dollars to $350.

Expected Usage

How will the car be used and for how long?  If the car just needs to last through a couple years of high school and then be thrown away when the child attends college, this opens up opportunities to buy well maintained high mileage cars.  If the car needs to last many years, a lower mileage vehicle makes more sense.  Also, if the driver won’t be going skiing or battling frequent winter snow, there’s absolutely no reason to buy something with four or all-wheel drive.

No matter what vehicle you consider, you should request service receipts and have the vehicle inspected by a reputable mechanic.  Even if the car has been maintained, regular service items like timing belts, shocks/struts, brakes all need to be addressed at some point, so ensure you are not paying top dollar for a vehicle that will soon need major scheduled maintenance.

With that all said, here are my top picks for teen drivers:

Honda Accord and Toyota Camry sedans — Here are two cars that are safe, reliable and won’t get your teen in trouble with the fashion police.  They are well-designed, comfortable, easy to work on and offer cheap replacement parts.  If you can afford it, buy one with side impact air bags.

Accords and Camrys can go 300,000 miles, so don’t let mileage scare you.  More important is to see the service history to ensure that the car has been well maintained.  Six cylinder cars are quite peppy and still get great MPG.  Four cylinder cars are the best for younger drivers with heavy accelerator feet.

Subaru Wagons – Instead of buying an SUV, grab one of Subaru’s many wagons.  Over the years, I’ve been impressed by Subaru’s ability to create cars that simply keep running.  Since they tend to be heavy, and the engines aren’t that powerful, it results in cars that won’t get kids in too much trouble.  (Just stay away from the WRX!)  All wheel drive means awesome wet and snow traction, but low centers of gravity give better handling and security than traditional SUVs.

I’ve had one friend walk away from a roll-over in a Subaru.  Another four friends of mine were absolutely unscathed when the Subie they were in veered into a raspberry field and crashed through a series of vertically positioned railroad ties.

Sure Subies will creak and rattle like an antique house with wooden floors, but they’ll battle-on for years after Explorers, Expeditions, Tahoes and Durangos have all bitten the dust.  They are easy to fix, and parts are very reasonable.

Big BuicksThey’re not the most reliable, cool or impressive, but the resale values of the Park Avenue and Le Sabre are so low that you can buy a slightly used one for a song.  (This makes it worth all the complaining your teen will do when you bring home a Buick.) Parts prices are cheap.  The cars are a breeze to work on.  There are some inherent build issues, like plastic intake manifolds that are prone to leaking on the 3800 V6 engines, plastic interior parts that break and brake calipers that seem to require resurfacing every 15,000 miles, but these cars are still better built than Chevys and Fords…plus safer than any Volvo.  Throw a set of snow tires on these front-wheel-drive beasts and their spacious trunks make for perfect transportation up to the ski hill.

As for cars to specifically avoid — here are my top ten worst cars to buy for a teen.

10- Dodge/Plymouth Neon:  I’ll admit that they are very fun to drive, are easy to park and are not bad looking in comparison to other econoboxes, but Neons are so horribly built that owners usually carry monthly bus passes as backup.

 

9-Volkswagen Jetta: For the same reasons as the Neon, but with parts costs that make owners think they’ve bought a Porsche.

 

8-Acura Integra: A great car — so great that probabilities state that your teen will likely find it missing from the parking lot.  It’ll be found as a shell only, with all the parts already headed to unscrupulous parts dealers.

 

7-Anything from Scion:  I’ll admit that the jury is still out on Scion, but for some reason, all the models are near the bottom of the heap in their respective class for safety.  This could be a demographics thing — meaning that the type of people that buy Scions are high risk drivers. It could be, however, that the cars are poorly designed for accident situations.

 

6- VW Vans: To quote Car Talk’s Click and Clack: “those things are deathtraps.”  They are too slow to merge safely on a highway, too top heavy for evasive moves, and crush like a soda can in a wreck.  They also cost a fortune to maintain.  Plus, do your really want your teen to have a bed in the back of their vehicle?

 

5- Classic Cars: I like old cars and have logged several thousand miles in old pony, muscle and sports cars over the last decade, but 30-plus year old cars are not reliable or safe enough to serve as a teen’s daily transport.  Crumple zones didn’t hit the domestic-built cars until the 1980s. Old brakes are easy to lock.  Rear-wheel-drive plus high power means tail-happy dynamics in the wet.  And those old non-inertia seat belts have a terrible habit of breaking collarbones.

 

4- Jeep Liberty and Wrangler: Cheaply made (is there a louder, more uncomfortable ride than a Wrangler?) but more importantly, these vehicles sit too high for such a short wheelbase.  When the Liberty debuted, Autoweek magazine rolled one simply trying to measure times through a low-speed slalom.

 

3- Ford Explorer:  Old Explorers killed occupants who wore their seatbelts.  Newer ones try to pack seven occupants into a package the same size as an Accord — and still there are cries from watchdog groups about the SUV’s ability to handle routine safety maneuvers.

 

2- Suzuki Areo and Suzuki Forenza: Not only are people extremely likely to have an accident in an Aero or Forenza, they are more likely to require medical attention than in almost any other sedan.  Cheaply made, so not safe.

 

1- Chevy Camaro / Pontiac Firebird / Ford Mustang V8:  Why you’d ever want to give your child the keys to one of the cars that kills more teens per year (normalized for the number of registered vehicles of each type,) than any other, I’m not sure.  These cars are a case study in demographics: simply being an owner of a Camaro/Firebird or Mustang GT simply puts one in a group that tends to exhibit a lack of maturity necessary to drive one safely.  These cars seem to make kids do stupid things…heck they make adults do stupid things, and they have more sense than teens.

 

Have a question about a specific vehicle? Don’t hesitate to leave a comment and I’ll reply with my analysis.

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74 Responses to The Incomplete Guide to Buying a Car for Your Teen

  1. maria says:

    my son is interested in buying a 97 explorer with low mileage. it has dual airbags and we will be buying him new tires for the truck. what is your opinion. thank you

  2. Maria:
    I would strongly suggest your son look for a different vehicle.

    The Ford Explorer is one of the most statistically dangerous models ever produced. While it is true that the Firestone tires were one factor in initiating Explorer accidents, they weren’t the primary reason for the extent of the injuries and death.

    The fact that so many people died in Explorers while wearing their seatbelts is very troubling. Essentially, Explorers have a nasty habit of rolling…and this is not because of tires, but due to poor suspension design. One can roll an Explorer in a simple emergency lane change at over 35 mph.

    Once a roll has been induced, the lack of structural integrity leads to passengers being crushed by the roof collapsing.

    You must really ask your son “why do you feel you need a SUV?” Quite honestly, the overwhelming majority of SUV buyers would be better suited with a midsize sedan. Keep in mind that the larger, third-row equipped Explorer is still the exact same size as a Honda Accord. An Accord or Camry can also tackle slippery conditions better than a rear-wheel-drive Explorer. A four-wheel-drive Explorer can accelerate better in snow, but doesn’t turn or stop as well due to the increased weight.

    There are reasons to buy SUVs. If your son has a big dog, carries tall equipment or regularly tackles terrain requiring significant ground clearance, then a SUV can make sense. I simply would suggest one with independent rear suspension and stability control would significantly reduce the risk of a roll over accident.

    If the vehicle is simply going to be a daily in-city commuter, please consider a good front-wheel-drive larger sedan with front and side airbags.
    They might not be “cool,” but they cost less to buy, are cheaper to fuel and are statistically safer.

  3. Jennifer says:

    We have a 2005 extended cab Dodge Dakota for our 15 year old son…what do you think? We have been searching the internet for the best car for him. This one is paid for and loaded, but it does have a V8.

  4. Jennifer,
    I wish my parents had provided a nice two-year-old truck for me when I was turning 16. Instead, I got a well-used, extremely unreliable Buick LeSabre sedan with an anemic oil crisis-era V8 devoid of any punch.

    A Dodge Dakota certainly isn’t the worst ride for a new driver, but it isn’t the best either. The way to think of it is that it is a vehicle with many positives and many negatives, all which are trade-offs.

    It’s relatively good sized, which is good. It also will have at least front air bags and anti-lock brakes — both good. It might also have side-impact bags and some sort of traction and/or stability control.

    On the other hand, since it’s a truck, it doesn’t necessarily meet the same safety standards as cars were required to meet in 1975. Trucks have a nasty habit of crushing occupants…and Dodge trucks (along with Jeeps) have a history of producing vehicles that break drivers’ ankles when the pedal area collapses in an offset impact.

    While the Dakota will do well in an accident with a standard mid-sized sedan (again, provided it isn’t offset,) statistics show that a pickup truck is much more likely to be involved in a single-vehicle incident, such as a roll over or a car-versus-tree impact. Why? Those driving pickups tend to exceed the speed limit on rural and suburban roads and fail to control their vehicles when things start to go wrong. And in this situation, the drivers and passengers tend to get hurt — and badly at that.

    So what it boils down to is asking yourself a very important question: “Can this new driver be trusted with a car that is easier to roll, harder to stop and more likely to fly off the road?” The easiest way to do this is the same way the insurance companies do: does he have good grades? Is he responsible in other areas of life? Does he hang out with responsible friends? Is he good with saving money? (Insurance companies have found one of the best indicators for risk is credit score — those who are bad with money management most frequently are the same ones who crash cars.)

    The V8 isn’t a big deal, since a V6 or four-banger can be ultra-dangerous in the wrong hands (such as the foolish teen who slammed his Civic into a tree a block from my house doing 100-plus mph passing a school bus.) If your son has a lead foot, however, the V8 might simply be adding fuel to the fire.

    So while a Buick Lucerne or Toyota Avalon are inherently safer statistically than a Dodge Dakota, any car is a weapon in the wrong hands. There are some aspects of the Dakota which are inherently more dangerous when compared to other vehicles, but none that would make it a no-brainer to sell the vehicle rather than allowing a well trained, responsible 16 year old to drive it.

    In the end, the most important issue is to teach your child to be a safe, attentive and competent driver by spending time driving with him. It is very easy to demonstrate how easily a car can spin or overshoot a corner by doing some moves in a large parking lot.

    The other school of thought is that if your child isn’t responsible enough for a V8-powered pickup, he isn’t responsible enough to be on the road in anything. There is merit to this angle, but it can often be too extreme for some parents to swallow.

    But teach, reinforce and keep you child on an extremely short leash…it could save his life no matter what he drives.

  5. Michael says:

    We are shopping for a car for my 17 year old to drive to school/work this year and then to college in the fall. She will be commuting to college in New England about 3 times per week 40 miles each way.

    We saw a 2003 Camry LE that appears in excellent shape. The dealer is checking on the records for me now, but I am concerned as the vehicle has 95k miles. The car had a single owner that commuted almost 200 miles per day to work.

    The dealer of course tells me these cars get 200k+ miles, but it still seems high to me. Any thoughts?

    Thanks

  6. Michael,
    If properly maintained, a Toyota Camry can easily do over 350,000 miles. The key part is to ensure the car was properly maintained.

    Buying a high mileage car can be a real great deal. A friend of mine bought a 165,000-mile eight (or so) year-old Mazda 626 for $1000 after college to drive across country then throw away. He wound up keeping it for another 150,000 miles, and sold it to someone who continued to drive it daily. The car was always maintained, so despite the high miles and visual signs of use, it kept humming along.

    My first piece of advice is: don’t trust the dealership regarding the previous ownership. Most salesman have no clue who the previous owner was, and therefore, when they disclose something about the previous owner’s habits, it’s usually completely bogus. (If we would all believe dealers, all used Corvettes were owned by dentists who traded them in for a new one.)

    What you want to do is establish that all services were done at the proper mileage intervals. In this case, you’ll want to see that oil changes, trann and rear-end fluids have been changed, and the timing belts have already been done. The dealer service department will have a schedule for what gets replaced when, and you should be looking at the schedule for extreme usage. (95K miles on a 2003 is definitely severe usage.)

    I would suggest that either you negotiate a warranty or have the car evaluated by a mechanic you trust. There are literally hundreds of parts that can wear out on a car within 100,000 miles (brake pads/rotors, bearings, seals, shocks/struts, etc…) But of course, this goes for all cars: an inspection is your best chance at buying a good car.

    After that, you simply need to ensure you negotiate a good price. Dealers can be tough to negotiate with, but you must understand that a 95K car is harder to sell than bermuda shorts in Siberia.

  7. Julie says:

    How do you feel about Mustangs for a 40-something mom who feels in a slump and is tired of driving boring sedans? I’m a slow and safe driver who has only had one ticket. (I was doing 45 in a 35mph zone) and no accidents ever. Only have one elementary aged child to tote around. Do you think a Mustang is a very practical idea for me? I really want to drive something fun for a change and I’m mature. Maybe you have other suggestions…
    I know this question isn’t about teen drivers, but I really enjoyed your article so thought I’d ask.

  8. Julie,
    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with buying a Mustang. In fact, the less than expected sales of the new cars has translated to some great rebates — so from a financial standpoint, Mustangs are good deals right now.

    Statistically, Mustangs are not the safest cars in the world. This can be chalked-up to two reasons: engineering and demographics. Since Mustangs are designed to be a cost-effective sporty car, much of the advance safety features and designs one would find on a BMW, Mercedes or Volvo simply can’t be justified for a $20K car. Furthermore, since the car is affordable and sporty, Mustangs fall into the hands of people ill-prepared to drive safely.

    But in the right hands, the Mustang is a great way to cure the vanilla-sedan blues. Go test drive one and see if you like it!

  9. Jerie says:

    i am an older mother of 16 year old twin boys. We live in Louisiana where driver’s licenses are issued to 16 year olds after they have had permits for at least 6 months. Our sons will be driving to school and back and after school activities. The do not have much experience with driving around at night with a bunch of friends. We have been very particular who they can ride with and they completed an excellent driver’s ed program with flying colors. We will not allow them to have riders for at least 6 months after they have their license. Your information has been so helpful as we have been looking for SUV’s but now I think we will reconsider. We want to raise good drivers and above all we want them safe because as we all know, a driver’s license does not mean one can really drive. What would you consider the top safety features we should look for in a sedan?

  10. Brandon says:

    I’m a 17 yr old driver and i own a 1993 Buick LeSabre Custom, i happen to think its a phenomenal car. It has just rolled over 244,000km and is still running strong, we’ve had minimal problems with the 3800 V-6 and it packs all the people i could ever want in it with room to hold our bags! I wouldn’t trade that car for anything to be honest. Sure it isn’t very “cool” looking or a rocket but its a tank and it handles very smooth.

  11. Cheyenne says:

    I was thinking about buying a Jeep TJ for my 16 year old daughter but I have heard that they have a really high rollover rate. I was just wondering what your oppinion on these vehicles is.

  12. Becky Rae says:

    I wanted to buy a sunfire for my 16 year old daughter but I don’t know to much about vehicles. I want something that is safe and reliable and good on gas. And she wants something that isn’t ugly. We both liked the looks of the sunfire but we can’t find any information on them. So we would like the advice of an expert. So do you think that the sunfire is a good vechile or should we look for something else. And if we should look for something else what should it be?

  13. Cheyenne,
    Jeep products have traditionally had a lousy safety record. The Wrangler/CJ line is definitely rollover-prone. Part of this is poor driving from owners, the other is a small wheelbase and primitive suspension. Quite honestly, I’ve always thought these were among the most uncomfortable and least impressive vehicles for the road one could purchase. Every time I’ve driven a Jeep product, with the exception of the Grand Cherokee, I’ve been underwhelmed (at best.)

    As for the Cherokee line, for years the design has been prone to crushing the driver’s feet in a frontal impact. The footwell collapses. Additionally, the door pillar crushes in, causing the potential for head injury. They’ve tried to address both of these issues in the last few years, but my understanding is the footwell problem still exists.

    Becky,
    The data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is pretty conclusive on the Pontiac Sunfire. Despite being in six percent more accidents than average (normalized for the number of different vehicles on the road), Sunfire occupants have a 36-percent higher likelihood of being injured in an accident.

    Basically, they’re poorly built, so aren’t very safe in an accident.

    Statistically speaking, the safest cars on the road are larger sedans. Think Toyota Avalon, Acura RL, Buick LeSabre, Audi A6, Buick Park Avenue. Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys are also good vehicles.

    While I can’t say what your child will think is ugly vs. cool, I can say that the ugliest safe car is a lot cooler than the prettiest wheelchair or bed in the Intensive Care Unit. (This is an old safety saying.)

    When she is older, she can buy herself a cool car that is also safe, such as a Corvette Convertible or Porsche 911, both of which are extremely safe vehicles statistically speaking.

  14. Nicole says:

    my daughter wants to buy a small truck. we live in a place where we get all sorts of weather. would it be reasonable for her to get a small truck?

  15. Small trucks are deathtraps, plain and simple. In terms of pure statistics, the smaller cars, trucks and SUVs account for a scary number of injuries and deaths.

    If you want your daughter to be safe, and you know she’ll be driving in snowy conditions where the roads are unlikely to be plowed, instead of a truck, seriously consider something like a Subaru Legacy, Outback or Forrester. These are absolutely unstoppable vehicles in all climates, plus they are solid enough to support the entire body weight on the roof, which most small trucks cannot. This is very important should the vehicle roll over — which is common in single-vehicle accidents where speed or road conditions are a factor.

    Also keep in mind that the more airbags, the better. Head, side-impact, curtain etc…

  16. Todd Williams says:

    First, this is a great article. My friend forwarded this to me – he and I are considering cars for our 16 year olds. It is the most helpful and practical article I’ve read on the subject. Here is my question : when you comment upon small SUVs and also Subaru Wagons, where would the Subaru Tribeca fall? In other words, what is your opinion of that vehicle make as it relates to “reasonable” vehicle for teenage driver? Thanks so much in advance !! Todd Williams

  17. Todd,
    Subaru wagons are fantastic vehicles. They can go anywhere, do anything…and can practically run forever. Subies might not offer the highest quality interior bits (they’ll rattle and buzz from new), but they are safe, and well engineered. In fact, over 20 years ago, I knew two people who rolled Subaru wagons and both (as well as passengers in these separate incidents in which the drivers made serious errors and drove off the road) walked away completely unhurt. They’re even significantly more solid now then they were back in the 1980s.

    As far as the question between a Subaru wagon and B9 Tribeca, here’s where it pays to look at the numbers. The Tribeca is billed as Subaru’s big SUV, but like SUVs from most manufacturers, you’re paying for image, not reality.

    The Tribeca is 189.8 inches long, 73.9 inches wide and 66.4 inches high. The vehicle weighs 4245 pounds. The Outback, on the other hand, is 188.7 inches long, 69.7 inches wide, 63.2 inches high, but weighs just 3375 pounds. In other words, Tribeca consumers get 1.1 inch of length, a little more than 4 inches of width and 3.2 inches of height, but pay for it with an extra 870 pounds to accelerate, turn and stop. To cap it off, the Tribeca costs more.

    So in reality, the car is not really any larger in terms of realistic interior space, but costs more, guzzles more fuel, and performs worse. In the case of a collision, it also means more mass from which to generate force — and there’s nothing to indicate a Tribeca would actually “win” in a collision versus a lighter vehicle of similar size, such as an Outback.

    I’ve always regarded Subies as the best, most balanced AWD vehicles. Buying a Subaru for a teen is a great move, provided you aren’t arming a teenager with a WRX! Go with a four-cylinder car with all the safety goodies, and you’re making a safe cost-effective choice.

    Finally, thank you for the kudos on the article, and thank you for taking the time to read and reply to The Four Wheel Drift.

  18. Todd Williams says:

    Sam, Once again, your advice is so appreciated. All of us reading this forum thank you for your help, and we are sorry that you had to sleep on the couch to educate us!! Hopefully, your wife has forgiven you!! OK, here’s another one I know you can address. I have read some of this info out there on “electronic stability control”. They make it sound like it’s on the order of the invention of the wheel, especially in terms of the SUVs on the market. The topic showed up in the recent Forbes article on SUVs over and over again. They make it sound like that if you don’t have ESC, you are somehow shortchanging yourself or those you love in the safety arena. Your thoughts on that in terms of overall safety in vehicles would be most welcomed. Mucho thanks, todd williams

  19. Todd,
    Stability control is a very important feature to have, certainly if you live in an area with torrential downpours or snow. I would rank it behind three-point seat belts, front and side-impact airbags and anti-lock brakes in terms of importance, but it is important, indeed.

    While it is not a replacement for good driver training, ESC does what no driver can do in an emergency situation: individually operate any one of four brakes. ESC cannot overcome physics, but it can control a car in some situations in a way a driver alone would be up-the-creek.

    I have driven in snow and through standing water with ESC on. I cannot imagine tough road conditions without it now. The technology can truly be a life saver. I have even raced Corvettes with ESC on, and it is amazing what types of motion can be stopped by individual braking of a wheel.

    Is it worth the money? Yes. Unfortunately, some manufacturers only put ESC on their top-of-the-line models.

    But how much it is worth to you entirely up to you. I would argue that if you can afford to buy a teen a new or nearly-new vehicle, the marginal cost to add ESC is minimal to you.

  20. Todd Williams says:

    Again Sam, this is just awesome stuff!! You know your field and you know how to summarize it and explain it. I wil be forwarding this to so many friends of mine in the “same boat”. OK, here’s another one for your opinion. I realize that there are many permutations on interpretation for this one, but I’d love to ask it. Here goes. My oldest son is a responsible kid who wouldn’t be described as spoiled or especially selfish (now this is just regarding my oldest………I have four and, well, let’s just say they are all pretty different in this manner – haha). He will be a safe driver in general terms, but, heck, he’s still a teenager !!! My biggest single concern is safety………safety, safety, safety. How cool it is does matter to me some (and you’ve covered that beautifully), but safety still matters most. Reliability doesn’t even matter that much to me (overall). And, finally, cost doesn’t matter to me either. With the knowledge of the above, particularly in regards to the fact that safety matters the most to me and I can afford to buy “whatever”, can you just give me several (or as many as you’d like) specific vehicle options to consider…………even if they are new or pricey or (god forbid….haha) a little bit “cool”. Blessings and thanks, Todd W

  21. I would argue that reliability should be higher on your priorities, probably up near safety. As someone whose high school cars left him stranded, I can tell you that being late or missing classes entirely is bad. Having your car lose brakes or shut down while moving creates bad safety situations. My sister-in-law the orthopedic surgeon will also tell you that she’s had to amputate way too many limbs of people who were struck after they got out of their broken-down cars on the freeway.

    It’s also a tough call, because I’ve never met a person who appreciated the car they had as a teen when their parents gave it to them. (I know plenty of people who purchased wonderful cars by working multiple jobs after school and on weekends, and they wound up lifetime car enthusiasts.)

    I suppose I am of the feeling that no teenager should have a cool, fun car, because at that age, they should be focusing on other things, such as school, being safe, becoming good/well grounded people.

    If I were suggesting a car for an adult based on your criteria, I would probably list the BMW 7 and 5 series cars, the Infiniti M and G series cars, the Mercedes E and S cars, and the Acura TL as a front-wheel-drive choice. In terms of cars suited for lots of snow, it’s hard to stop the Audi Avant wagons and the Subaru Outback. The Subaru Outback, granted, isn’t very “cool” in the traditional manner, but the fact they sell so well indicates that cool is overrated.

    The only car I’d suggest for a teen in that group is the Subaru. The other cars will simply instigate jealousy among friends and others.

    Car enthusiasts should show restraint when buying a car for their children. The car needs to represent not what we would have liked as a teen, but didn’t get (or got, but shouldn’t have), but rather what is safe, reliable, what will teach the value of transportation, the cost of operation, and responsibility of car ownership.

    There’s always time later for a cool car later in life. And they’ll apreciate it much more when they are out of college and paying for it on their own.

    In the end, it’s your decision. You’re the parent, and you know your child. Just keep in mind that insurance statistics for collision, injury and deaths are littered with people who had parents convinced they were mature enough to own a Camaro, Mustang, GTO, Corvette, BMW M3, Mercedes AMG, Pontiac Firebird etc…

  22. Todd Williams says:

    Fantastic……….the Subaru sounds like a great idea, and all of your reaons hold water very tightly. I can’t thank you enough !! I’ll be forwarding this commentary page to many who share my situation. Blessings, todd w

  23. cret315 says:

    Hi there,

    I hope this doesn’t sound foolish, but what would you think of a case of giving a (16-year-old a 2007 Acura TL, regular version? I’m at odds because it is a large sedan with VDS and other safety features that have reasonable ratings, but it is geared towards driving fast. What are your thoughts?

    Thank you!

  24. cret315 says:

    I forgot to add, I am thinking about the Acura TL because I believe my son is a very mature child, though I know not perfect. He himself is cautious and actually doubtful of himself. Should I just provide him with a cheaper but practical alternative?

  25. The question really is: are you going to give your child a car you already own, are you going out to buy a car for him? If you already own a 2007 TL and are considering giving him your car and buying yourself a new vehicle, then I’d say, that’s fine.

    Now if you are specifically going to buy a car, I’d make some suggestions. The TL is a great car. It’s front-wheel-drive and has good safety statistics. There are, however, some drawbacks.

    Playing in the midsize segment, the TL is essentially a luxurious, sporty Honda Accord. You essentially pay quite a bit more for a level of luxury that a 16 year old can’t appreciate, and sporty features that he simply doesn’t need. Furthermore, because it is a recognizable nameplate, you are opening up your child to be judged simply on the fact that he drives a car that the majority of Americans cannot afford. Jealous kids (and adults) can be mean.

    Finally, Acuras are somewhat more likely than other cars to be stolen and parted out. The TLs aren’t as bad as the old Integra and RSX models, but it is something to take into account.

    If you are planning on going out to simply buy a car, I would steer towards something in the same size segment, but possibly less flashy, such as a Toyota Camry (which actually is just as fast, if not faster than a TL) or Accord. Nobody challenges Camrys and Accord sedans to races, but Acuras seem to have signs on them saying “challenge me.” The fewer people noticing your son while he’s driving, the lower the probability that he will be pressured into a dangerous situation.

    At the end of the day, you want your child in a safe, reliable car. There is plenty of time in his future to drive a nice luxury car. He’ll appreciate it when he’s older, but I assure you won’t appreciate the difference between an Accord and TL now, except for pure bragging rights.

  26. Bud says:

    Sam, I am considering buying a 1997 Olds. Aurora for my son, just wondering your thoughts on it….? By the way, I was very impressed with your article!

  27. An Oldsmobile Aurora is a great car for a teen. They are relatively big, very comfortable and reasonably reliable. On the safety side, they are too early for stability control, (which first appeared in 1998 on Corvettes,) but they have front airbags for both front seats and good ABS brakes.

    The downsides of Auroras are some typical GM quality/design problems of the era. (Warping brake rotors from too little disc brake cooling, fit and finish issues with interior panels, lightbulb sockets that burn up.) But as far as GM sedans went in 1997, the Aurora was certainly one of the very best.

    The other upside is that your son probably will never know he’s in an Oldsmobile. The company went to great lengths to hide the Olds name from the vehicle, simply choosing to call it an Aurora. Similarly, the 1998 Intrigue (which is what my wife drives daily) has only two places where you can find the Olds brand name: on the radio (which is a Delco-Bose parts-bin piece shared with other Oldsmobiles of the year, and a subtle embossed Oldsmobile script on the taillight.)

    As with any ten-year old car, make sure the vehicle has been well cared-for with frequent oil changes, regular scheduled services on other areas, and not abused. A pre-purchase inspection from a reputable mechanic is a good idea. They will know to look for Olds/GM-specific issues, such as any cooling problems stemming from the use of Dex-Cool coolant that was specified for GM cars. (Despite being touted as a 100,000 mile maintenance-free coolant, Dex-Cool turned out to create a nasty muddy sludge in the cooling passages within 30,000 miles.)

  28. Bud says:

    Thanks Sam! I guess the only concern I have though is the 8cyl part, I mean, I trust my son, but kids will be kids sometimes…..

  29. It’s not necessarily the cylinder count, but rather the power-to-weight ratio. If memory serves, the 4.0 liter V8 in the original Aurora was rated at 250hp / 260 ft-lb of torque in a vehicle I would ballpark at about 4,000 pounds. To give some perspective, a modern Camry with the 3.5L V6 makes 265hp in a car roughly 300 pounds lighter.

    The best advice I can give about the whole “kids will be kids” thing is: tell your son that you simply will take away the car and stop paying insurance on it if he gets a ticket and causes the whole family’s insurance rates to go up. My parents did that to me, and it wasn’t until I was 23 that I was pulled-over for speeding (the only time that ever happened.) I have always been petrified of causing my insurance rates to go up — even after the multiple decades since the last time my father issued the warning!!!

  30. Amanda says:

    I’m 17 years old, with a year of high school and then four years of college ahead. I’m looking for my first vehicle (although I’ve been driving my parents ’01 Chevorlet Blazer for the past year and a half). I drive from Toledo, Ohio to Northville, Michigan (about an hour and a half) about twice weekly. I drive all around town and the highway, through surprise blizzads, heavy rain, and unbearable heat alike. I’m buying this car, so I’m looking through craigslist and toledo blade for used cars less than $1,000. Any good tips about buying used vehicles, any specifics I should avoid, and anything I should look for? Any help would be appreciated!

    Thank you!

  31. Amanda,
    What you’re facing is a tough situation. You need a safe, reliable, comfortable vehicle, but at your price point, you’ll find mostly unreliable, unsafe, uncomfortable vehicles. Don’t give up hope, though.

    There are a couple of ways to go about this. You essentially want a car that has been religiously maintained, but now is no longer needed by the current owner. Look for a car that has not sat for a long time without use.

    You need a front-wheel-drive car for snow. You also want a car with smaller wheels, because it’s possible the vehicle you’ll be buying will need new tires, which can be expensive with big aftermarket rims.

    You might get lucky and find an early 1990s Honda Civic or Accord at that price point, but it likely will have body panels that resemble braille. Old Hondas are still desirable, so chances are that the cars will still be in the $2000+ range.

    Your best bet is probably a Toyota from the early 1990s. You can most likely find a Camry or Corolla that has been well-maintained. These cars get excellent fuel economy, are fairly comfortable, and are easy to fix by any good mechanic.

    I usually don’t suggest people look at old Mazdas, because Mazda doesn’t have the best reliability record. The 626, however, was nearly indestructable. I’ve known plenty of people who have told of stories of buying very high mile (like 250,000) 626s for a few hundred dollars to serve as a road-trip car or one-year-only transportation while working away from home, only to find the cars ran flawlessly for another 100,000 miles with nothing more than gas and oil changes.

    You can also look for a Buick, or six-cylinder Oldsmobile. (Don’t buy any vehicle with the “Quad Four” engine.) The GM cars tend to get worse fuel economy, and don’t tend to last as long as the Toyotas and Hondas, but you often can get a more luxurious car at the same money. I’ve also seen people sell very nice Buicks for $500, because the cars needed $500 in brake or cooling system work.

    As a strategic point, you should be looking at cars on Craigslist that are asking as much as $2500. Remember, the asking prices are just that — asking prices. Often, this is what the sellers are simply wishing for. You might be able to offer $800 in cash and walk away with a $2500 car.

    But one thing I’d strongly suggest is to either bring a very good mechanic with you (if you have a family friend who works in the trade,) or arrange with a local shop to do a pre-purchase inspection. Used cars can hide thousands upon thousands of dollars worth of problems. I’ve even seen cars brought into shops that looked great from above, but the mechanics refused to let the car be driven out, because suspension and brake parts were literally falling off, making the car totally unsafe for driving.

    Don’t take a car to a dealer for a pre-purchase inspection, rather an independent mechanic with a good reputation. Dealers simply tend to check for codes and any major leaks that can be seen in thirty seconds or less. Independent mechanics tend to spend a little more time and look the car all over.

    Most importantly, resign yourself to the fact that you won’t be driving anything “cool”. Buying a cool car means you’ll be paying more to get a car that will inevitably be a lemon. Buy a great used car that won’t win any beauty contests, but will provide years of service.

  32. Robin says:

    I loved this article!
    My daughter has been driving my 2003 Honda Element, I’ve given thought to passing it along to her and treating myself to a new car. I have no clue how safe my Element is, but I do know she takes her turns a bit too sharply for my taste. Every time she goes out, I just imagine my poor box-car (and child) flipped on their side and… Well, do I trade it in to get a safer car or should I even be that worried?

  33. Robin,
    Of course you should be worried — that’s our Constitutional right as parents! The fact that you’re worried expresses you care about the safety of your child…something this world needs more of.

    The Honda Element isn’t the safest car on the road, but it is far from being the most dangerous. I wouldn’t necessarily specify an Element for a teen, but now that it’s already in the family, it would not be a smart business decision (taking into consideration factors such as safety, reliability, economics) to trade it in. Sometimes we have to be realistic and just be happy that a certain car is far safer than those we all drove in high school.

    The most important thing that you can do as a parent is stand up and demand your daughter slow down, especially around corners. Because the Element is essentially a car, not an SUV (built on a car platform), it’s unlikely she’ll roll it simply by turning quickly. If she cuts the edge of the road, however, it can flip just about anything.

    Remember that you have the ultimate power to control your child’s driving. If she drives aggressively with you in the car, she’s much worse alone or with her friends.

    If there’s no change, take away her car. If she gets a ticket for speeding, take away the car. Make her take the bus for a while, and she’ll understand that driving is a responsibility. Insist she pay for insurance, and she’ll understand the value of being a careful driver versus a risky one.

    Most teens will call the bluff of a parent who threatens to take away a car for unsafe driving. Stand firm — because it’s much better to have a teen on a bus than a teen (and other victims) in the hospital or cemetery.

  34. Debbie says:

    Thank you for this super informative article. We will now be looking for a used Honda Accord for my soon-to-be 16-year old son instead of a small truck. Do the Accords have the vehicle stability control and how new a model must we search for to get it?

  35. Unfortunately, Honda was extremely late to the game with stability control. The Accord got VSA (Honda’s acronym) in 2006, over eight years since the Corvette first got stability control. Still, not all Accords had it, so you’ll have to go with an EX model.

    Please keep in mind that if you live in a climate without snow, ice or severe rain showers (where there will be standing water) stability control is not entirely essential. If you teach your teen vehicle dynamics, as well as how to control a car in emergency situations, the need for stability control is reduced. Stability control is only used when the driver exceeds the limits of the vehicle and physics. A responsible driver never hits this point. Of course, even responsible drivers have momentary lapses of judgment.

    More important are airbags — side impact/curtain. Honda has these going back many model years.

  36. Leigh says:

    I am looking for a car for my 16 yr. old daughter. I don’t want to put her in a new expensive car, I think that is crazy. I found a 2003 Mazda6I, seems like great condition, runs good, drives great…my only fear…it has 92,000 miles…is that ok?

  37. Leigh,
    You are correct — a new expensive car makes no sense for a 16-year-old child. A 2003 Mazda6 is a great choice. It’s a midsize sedan, but nothing too powerful or crazy. It is safe, on average, and is also not too snazy as to cause jealousy among peers.

    In terms of miles, 92,000 is not trouble on its own. For reference, in 1993, a friend of mine bought a Mazda 626 with over 200,000 miles on the odometer to drive across the country before he attended law school. He figured he’d throw the car away after the journey. Instead he put another 100,000 miles on the car.

    The most important thing to do is to have a trusted mechanic provide a PPI (pre-purchase inspection.) Usually these inspections cost about $120. Don’t take it to a dealer, but rather a good shop with a trained ASE Master Mechanic on staff who will put the car in the air and check for leaks, loose things (like wheel bearings, clamps, etc…) and signs of abuse.

    If the the PPI shows the car is in good condition, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy this as a first car for your daughter.

    Keep in mind, though, that you should also take an active roll in her driver training. Make sure she is a good driver before handing over the keys, and ride with her from time to time to ensure she stays a safe driver.

  38. Noel says:

    Can you give me any feed back on a 1996 Toyota 4Runner. We are Toyota fans and have been satisfied with the upkeep. Our 17 year old is looking at a two owner 4 runner with 150k milage. It is in great shape but most likely needs a timing belt.

    We just found you website and must say you “cut it straight!” Thank you for your valuable information and advice!

  39. Noel,
    As much as I love Toyota 4Runners for people who are serious hikers, cross-country skiiers and adventurers, I cannot say they are the best vehicles for teens.

    For most of the 1990s, 4Runners were involved in much higher than average number of accidents, resulting in an average number of injuries, but higher number of fatalities. It’s hard to pinpoint if it was simply bad design, or if driver demographics played a large part. One report showed less than twenty percent of 4Runner deaths were young males, which indicates -maybe- it was the car more than the drivers.

    In any event, 4Runners tend to be very popular with teen males, because they have a rugged, yet sporty look. Unfortunately, they don’t have the handling or performance to back up the look. When driven correctly they are great vehicles, but when put beyond their limits, 4Runners are prone to rolling and flipping.

    I would strongly suggest a sedan over an SUV. A large to large-midsize sedan will be longer, more stable and certainly safer. A used Avalon might not be as cool, but for similar money to a 1996 4Runner, one can pick up a much newer Avalon that is much safer, has better legroom for rear seat passengers, plus it will last longer.

  40. Debbie says:

    What are your thoughts on the Honda Civic (sedan) for teens?

  41. A good friend of mine was driving a 1993 Civic when he was pushed off the highway by a drunk driver. The car rolled over the embankment at 60 mph. My friend and his passenger both walked away without serious injury. This speaks volumes about the Civic’s structural integrity.

    The only weak spots are the doors, which don’t protect occupants well in t-bone accidents.

    Civics are also very prone to theft.

    All in all. though, they are the best compact sedans made.

  42. SA says:

    would a hyndai tiburon be a good buy in your opinion.

  43. This current generation of Tiburons is actually pretty darn good for the price range. It is fairly large as small coupes go. It is not too powerful, and it has decent braking and handling. It’s actually a great looking little car, as well.

    Statistically speaking, it still is pretty small to be safe in the hands of a teen. Giving a teen a sporty coupe is usually a recipe for disaster…or at least the vehicle death reports show this. For roughly the same price, one can get a Sonata or other sedan, which would certainly provide more safety. Obviously, the Sonata (or other large or midsize sedan) isn’t nearly as cool as the Tiburon, but it is more practical and less likely to inspire a teen to drive in a sporty manner on the public streets.

    In terms of reliability, Hyundais are not great. I cannot recall Hyundai being above average in reliability during its history in America. This is not a deal killer, but one might say that you get what you pay for.

  44. Robert says:

    I agree, Subaru is a great deal. It’s tough and it’s best for teenagers who sometimes go berserk on the raod.

    And fourwheeldrift is right. “Civics are really prone to theft”.

    Great post!

  45. Beth says:

    Hi, I came across your site today (nice site by the way!) and since you’ve written about teen drivers, I thought I’d let you know about a free resource for new drivers and their parents. Driver’s Ed Guru provides free articles, practice tests, videos, and a lesson plan newsletter. There is even an article about whether or not you should buy your teen a “junker” or not. http://www.driversedguru.com/driving-articles/drivers-ed-for-parents/should-i-buy-my-teen-a-junker-for-their-first-car/

  46. Chris says:

    You suggest a Subaru wagon, but is there such a thing? The Forester and Outback are both considered an SUV as well as the Tribeca. We were looking into a 2006 Tribeca for my son to drive because it seemed that the heighth to width ratio was fairly large and it had a four star rollover rating. The Tribeca had “Good” ratings all the way around when tested by iihs; however, the Forester and Outback had mostly “Good” ratings with some “Acceptable” ratings. So what about the Tribeca? Is it a bad choice?

  47. The only reason that the Outback and Forester are considered “SUV”s are because Subaru knows that Americans don’t like buying vehicles labled as “station wagons”. Put the Outback next to a BMW 328 “wagon” or an Audi A4 Avant (their name for wagons) and you’ll see that no matter what Subaru calls the Outback and Forester, they are wagons.

    Car companies will go to great lengths to make people believe they are driving a cool “SUV” or “Crossover” or “SUT” or “SAV” instead of a wagon like their mother drove or a minivan like their wife. BMW has the audacity to tell us that its new X6 is a sports activity coupe, even though it is simply a four-door small SUV ala the Lexus RX350 or Nissan Murano.

    My personal opinion is that the Outback is a much better buy than the Tribeca. The IIHS ratings are static, meaning they are done in a lab. In real-world driving, the Outback, Tribeca and Forester are going to be nearly identical. The Tribeca only has a very small size advantage over the Outback and Forester. They are much more expensive and consume more gas. The Tribeca is still a pretty small vehicle, so using a third row seat for humans is like sitting kids in the trunk of an Accord or Camry.

    The Tribeca isn’t a -bad- choice, but you don’t get much — if anything, more for your money than the Outback or Forester. Apples to apples, they are all wagons that seat five comfortably and haul some gear or a dog. The Tribeca doesn’t give much more cargo room or ability to tow, and you get the same engine choices, so why not buy the one that is less expensive, more popular, and has less chance of rolling over in the first place? Put the money you save in your son’s college fund — or help him pay for gas…he’s going to need it!!!

  48. Mona says:

    I haven’t seen any comments on a Nissan product. Is that because they are bad for teen drivers? We are entertaining the idea of getting our 17 year old son a “newer” auto before he leaves for college. He currently drives a 1991 Ford Bronco. I am scared to death for him to drive it but my husband says “it’s better than anything I ever had…” . Will buying something newer but with greater saftey features increase our insurance tremendously? We are thinkging about a Nissan Altima or Maxima. Somewhere around an 02 or 03. What do you think? Would an Accord still be better or are they about the same?

  49. Mona,
    I’m guessing your husband must have driven some pretty scary cars in his day, because Ford Broncos (both the full-size and Bronco IIs) are death traps. Broncos are very prone to rollover accidents, due to short wheelbases and high centers of gravity. Furthermore, the roofs cannot support the weight of the bodies. Most cars from the 50s-70s were far less likely to roll…and if they did, could maintain some “room to live”.

    As far as Nissan goes, the only reason that they are not mentioned in the same lines as Honda and Toyota is that Nissan’s quality is not quite as high. The Altima is an okay vehicle. Maximas are a little overpowered for being front-wheel-drive cars, but really both are generally pretty safe. Just given the opportunity, I’d probably take Camry, Accord, Civic, Avalon over Altima or Maxima. It would come down to personal preference, though.

  50. Mona says:

    Thanks so much for the info….Care to comment on the Cadillac CTS or SRX?

  51. Debbie says:

    It’s me again. My son now has his driver’s license and we still have not found a used Accord or Civic is our price range of $11,000 or less that suits us. They are in great demand now since they get such good gas mileage! We have gotten so discouraged that yesterday I said we probably need to look at other makes and models. Camrys are not high on his list, but I was in awe when he said “What about a Saturn?” So I said I would check them out. So here I am now asking you, fourwheeldrift, “What about a Saturn?”

  52. Saturn started out hot, then was totally ignored during the SUV craze. Just recently (like in the past two years,) Saturn has come back on strong. The Aura is a great vehicle, but I don’t think you’re going to find one in your price range, since they have only been out about two years. (I also wouldn’t suggest buying initial production of any car by any manufacturer.)

    Saturns from four or five years ago are at best mediocre.

    You might look towards a Mazda6 (or maybe a Mazda3, but I find those too darn small) and see what falls into the price range.

  53. jerie says:

    i luckily found your website about a year ago when we were looking for our sons’ first car…..twin boys. we were considering a Highlander but after reading your information we went with a Honda Accord. Got a great deal and just replaced the tires after about a year of their driving. It has been a great purchase and i cannot tell you how much i appreciate your helpful guidance. i’ve told several friends about your site. keep up the good work!

  54. James Serfson says:

    I understand where you are driving (pardon the pun) at, and, do excuse me for saying this, but there are some points I cannot believe you wrote here.

    1. Honda Accord/Toyota Camry sedans- These are cheapskate japanese piece-of-*censored* that are horrid beyond imagination. Anything from Japan is unreliable, with the exception of Lexus and Acura, which are vaguely acceptable.

    2. What’s wrong with the VW Jetta? Wife has one

    I sincerely hope you will change this piece of information. Thank you.

  55. James,

    I understand your point of view. It’s hard to separate personal experience with long-term trends. This being said, however:

    1) On the topic of Honda and Toyota: data simply doesn’t support your claim. Both the Camry and Accord have JD Power IQS and VDS rankings over the decades that are far higher than any other in the midsize sedan segment. Furthermore, one can do their own research and survey independent mechanic shops and tow truck operators and find that Hondas and Toyotas simply are reliable, viable transportation for longer than any other in the segment.

    2) VW Jettas are the classic illustration of “when they’re good they’re great, but when they’re bad, they’re horrible”. I love the look of the Jetta, and they are wonderful to drive (although I’ve never liked VW rubbery shifters.) But again, looking at IQS and VDS surveys annually, you’ll find that VW is ALWAYS near the bottom in quality– and chatting with shops and towing companies, will support JD Power. This means that after three months and after a number years, VWs simply have significantly more problems (usually close to three times the number of reported problems) as Toyota and Honda. The cars are far more likely to have “strand you on the side of the road” type problems. Furthermore, due to the parts suppliers, VW parts tend to be far more expensive. For instance, a thermostat for a Jetta is $45. For most American cars, it’s around $10 — give or take a few bucks.

  56. Des says:

    Sam, I continued to be amazed at the number of comments from readers who just can’t bring it upon them selves to buy the Buick LeSabre you recommend. I followed your advice (see http://bit.ly/18xebs ) and it proved to be the smartest car buying decision I’ve ever made. And my teenage boys’ friends quickly stopped giving them grief about it being a Buick; they now love how six huge guys can fit in the thing in comfort. Forget the Toyota and Honda (both of which I’ve owned and loved) — the car for your teenagers should be a Buick LeSabre.

  57. Funny… the first car I drove was a hand-me-down 1977 Buick Le Sabre. It was blue…I shared it with my sister and we called it “The Blue-ick”. It wasn’t really “my” car, it was my mom’s car but I drove it often, to school and work my senior year in high school (1980-81). My sister and I shared it for a bit in college too, trading it off every other semester. It sucked for me as my school was almost 800 miles away from home and that big barge got maybe 18 MPG.

    Then in 1983 I got my very own car, a 1980 VW Rabbit Diesel, which altered my driving DNA forever. Gas was $1.25/G but Diesel was only about 60 cents. That poky little Rabbit got 50 MPG though. Best thing for a college student in the 80s. Half the cars I’ve owned since then have been Diesels and now, other than my classic car and my lawn mower everything I own or ever will own has to be an oil-burner.

    My experience with VW Jettas has been stellar, but they have all been TDIs, which does et them apart.

    As for my teens, they oddly have no desire to have a car. I’m fine with that. When my college age son does need one I’ll happily hand over the Jetta TDI though.

    –chuck

  58. Jose says:

    Thank you for this article, it was very enlightening. I am a seventeen-year-old in the market for a frighteningly cheap vehicle, and until now I had been considering small, sporty vehicles from the 1980’s. Objectively, I knew that I was not a very good driver, and that small, sporty vehicles from the 1980’s were not safe, but I had not put these two facts together. Now, I will be looking for an old Volvo, or a W123 Mercedes, which I believe is perhaps the ultimate vehicle for a new driver. They are slow, but not dangerously so, will run forever if maintained properly, and incorporate safety features not found on other cars until the 1990’s. Also, they are not totally lame as an older Buick would be.

  59. Irresponsible Teenager says:

    Hi everyone,
    I’m a fifteen year old car fanatic. I have about eight years worth of road and track and car & driver stacked up in my room, every single one of which I have read and practically memorized. I spend my summers working for no pay at a Ford dealership helping with basic repairs and oil changes, and I probably spend more time thinking/dreaming about cars than I do about girls (which is really saying something.) While I agree with fourwheeldrift that a large entry-level sedan is by far the safest and most neutral choice for a first car, I speak for myself (and other car-crazed teens) in saying that rather than driving a Toyota until I’m thirty and deem myself “responsible” enough to get that ’04 Cobra I dreamed about since I was twelve. That’s 18 years spent dreaming instead of living, and my greatest fear is that someday in the future, there might be no opportunity to own the six-liter 8-cyl engines of today. Despite predictions, there’s no way to know that fossil fuels won’t be as nonexistent as the dinosaurs they came from. My fear is that I might never get to feel a 600hp Hemi shaking my arm through the shifter, or hear a twin-screw supercharger spooling up as I go for that 10 second quarter mile. To all you parents who want your teen to live long, and die as retirees from boring desk jobs, I say, I would rather live fast (pun intended) and see the dreams of my childhood come to life. I apologize for the naive post, and maybe I will grow up see that what I just wrote makes no sense, but for now, eat my tire-smoke Toyota Avalon.

  60. Miss Molly says:

    Anyone have any thoughts about the Nissan Murano and a new driver? I am getting rid of my 10 year old mini-van and athough it will be my vehicle, my son will be starting driving next year and will learn on it. I really like the car, but wonder about the visibility? It didn’t bother me, but I wonder for a new driver…. I am also considering the Acura MDX, RDX or the Toyota Highlander. Any thoughts which direction I should go?

  61. Adel says:

    I was thinking of purchasing my teenager a 1989 mercedes benz 300e, any thoughts?

  62. Miss Molly:
    A Nissan Murano won’t necessarily be a bad vehicle for a teen. It does have some liabilities, such as very bad blind spots. My main concern would be for you, the primary driver, because the Murano is not a particularly great vehicle. Generally it is considered an “also ran” in the category. Quality hasn’t been great on the Murano, it isn’t the prettiest or most comfortable, nor does it provide the best bang for the buck.

    While I simply am not a fan of SUVs, because unless you need ground clearance and four wheel drive, a sedan is usually better built, more comfortable, more luxurious, and far more capable on-road. If you’re planning to use a SUV for a third row seat, none of these vehicles are large enough for this. (They are roughly the size of a midsize sedan, so a third row seat would be like putting your kids in the trunk of an Accord!)

    If you are totally set on a small SUV, the MDX and Highlander are the best of the group.

  63. Adel,

    If you can get the car for a steal (or free) and it is in perfect shape, then go for it, but otherwise…

    There are many problems with an ’89 Mercedes 300E: First, it’s TWENTY YEARS OLD! My first two cars were only ten years old when I got them and they both left me stranded more times than I care to remember. That being said, it’s probably a very safe vehicle for your teen, because it’s hard to get killed in a car that spends so much time in the shop!

    In all fairness, Mercedes was making mostly reliable cars back then. Still, a twenty-year-old car will need ongoing maintenance in a way that an eight-year-old vehicle won’t. Mercedes parts simply are not cheap. As a general rule, if the part says “Bosch” on it, figure the price might as well be in British Pounds, because it’s about fifty-percent more. Oh, and by the way, just about everything in a Mercedes is made by Bosch.

    While most cars from ’89 aren’t very safe, Mercedes aren’t too bad. Still, I’d rather put my kids in an S-class sedan than the relatively small E-class. No car of that vintage has side airbags, which is something you want your child to have.

    Certainly the E-Class should be cheap to buy — maybe a couple grand at the very tops, but it will cost a ton to maintain. And despite being a luxury car of its era, you’ll probably find more luxury and better performance from a first-gen Toyota Avalon or 2001 Buick.

  64. Sarah says:

    Im planning on buying my daughter a 2003 volkswagen new beetle.
    She will be 17 in august and she is getting her license in september.
    Ive heard that is really safe and it has good gas mileage.
    Is this a good car to buy for her?

  65. I am 14 and have wanted a Holden Astra Convertible for years. How badly does this car rate on your saftey test?

  66. Jake B says:

    What do you think about the Jeep Grand Cherokees?

  67. Jake,
    I’m split on the Grand Cherokee. On one hand, it has a tremendous four wheel drive system that makes it more unstoppable than a Wrangler or Hummer. Its springing also enables it to be more controllable on extreme surfaces — those that would bounce a Wrangler driver into oblivion are taken slow and easy in a Grand Cherokee.

    On the other hand, it is the size of an Accord, but doesn’t stop or handle as well as the standard midsize sedans. You get the seating for two adults and three children of an Accord/Camry, but instead of a trunk, there’s a cargo area. Then you have all wheel drive, but this means a heavier, more complex vehicle with more to maintain and larger tires to replace come service time.

    Furthermore, Jeeps have long been plagued by use of cheap materials and systems that have not been updated to improve failure rates. Ask any paint/body place and they’ll tell you Chrysler/Jeep products are notorious for peeling. The air conditioning systems also had a habit of developing an incurable nasty sweaty foot smell.

    So the bottom line is that if your teen needs a four-wheel-drive vehicle, because you live in an area with tons of snow and the roads preclude the use of sedans due to ground clearance, the Cherokee is the midsize sedan of the SUV world. Just be prepared to have some nagging reliability issues.

    If your teen doesn’t need the all wheel drive and ground clearance, then a midsize-to-large sedan is a better bet.

  68. James says:

    Just read this like a week after purchasing my first car, a 1995 Miata M Edition. Being 17 and working a fast food job 4-16 hours a week, you can imagine that I don’t have much monay, but I did have (barely) enough to pay the cost of the car in cash. My dad is paying the insurance, and also drives it himself as he has let my sister, who is at college, take his 2002 Camry until we buy another car (we also have a van). While cheap and reliable, these cars aren’t particularly safe I imagine due to the size, though mine does have ABS, quite rare for this year and part of the reason I chose this one. The previous owner told us that the owner before him rebuilt the motor 28,000 miles ago. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take it to our mechanic as the car was an hour and a half drive away, but we decided that for the price we could risk it, and so far it seems to have been a good choice. Having been set up for Autocross (a legal form of racing by mostly street legal cars on a tight track), my car lacks the driver side airbag, which I plan to compensate for by replacing the belt with 5-point harnesses (yes, it also has a roll bar). I should let any readers know that I had been previously considering a Porsche 928 from 1980-86, which can be had for under 5000. Unfortunately, the parts for these cars are incredibly expensive (I would have been performing labor myself), so me and my dad eventually shifted our focus to C4 Corvettes (me and my dad reasoned that the Corvette was probably more “practical” than the Porsche 928. Seriously.) as they are fairly reliable. After talking to a mechanic I know, he recommended that I avoid the C4 as tuning the motor by myself (like I said, performing ym own labor) would be, quote, “A nightmare. A nightmare.” The other cars I was looking at, the Miata and the MR2, met with his approval, though he did warn me that working on an MR2 would be awkward due to the mid-engine configuration. So while looking at MR2s and Miatas for sale (and Corvettes, some things are woth it), I came across the Miata that I ended up purchasing, and am currently in the process of fixing up (non-mechanical issues). Just thought I’d share my experience, despite not purchasing (or even considering) any particarly practical or safe vehicles. As far as responsibility is concerned though, I think that my family does have a pretty reasonable agreement. I payed for my car in it’s entirety, though my parents will help with maintenance, and would have been willing to pay for a more expensive vehicle with the understanding that I pay them back for it. And if I get a speeding ticket, I’m gonna have to pay that along with any insurance hikes. Concerning new vehicles, in my opinion kids shouldn’t be getting brand new cars if they can’t pay at least half of it, and I mean real money not “working it off” for their parents. If they inherit an expensive car from their parents, then so be it. But few things cause me to feel more prejudice against a person than seeing them getting an expensive new vehicle that I know they didn’t earn. Once again, with cash not grades, and I say this as a student with an above 4 GPA. Just sharing my thought as someone on the receiving end of this advice.

  69. Auburn says:

    I’m looking for a second car, I found a 2007 Suzuki Forenza with 40,000 miles on it for only $6,600. I LOVE this car. I test drove a 2006 model and loved it. My concern is They seem to have low ratings. My current car is a 2000 dodge Stratus, and I am not happy with it. I will be paying for the car entirely (plus the insurance, and the gas) as I am currently doing with the Stratus. I’m 16 and have been driving on my own through a hardship license for 2 years now. What is your opinion on getting the Suzuki Forenza?

  70. Anthony says:

    I am 21, in the Navy and just used my bonus to buy one of the new $40k Mustang GTs, but it is my 4th car (first new car). My first car was a 2001 Dodge Intrepid given by my father when I graduated high school 4 years ago. It was large, bottom heavy, front wheel drive, but a v6, so it made me feel like it was cool without actually being that fast. I wrecked it twice (not totaled), and both times it held up wonderfully, not I nor any of my passengers were injured. I am a firm believer that no new driver, regardless of age, should drive a powerful/fast, or new car. They will be hard on it, and they need to learn how to drive properly and well, feeling the rules of the road more of as a second nature than rules to remember, before doing something stupid like driving a sports car (yes, I admit, I’m being a bit unintelligent myself, here).

    In one of the comments/responses, it was inferred that a drivers license does not mean someone can drive. For those who would dispute that, I have some hard evidence: I have been teaching a few of my military buddies to drive so they could get their own cars, and one of them already has a license, but asked me to teach him anyway, because he “doesn’t know how to drive”.

    Defensive driving is key, and I am thankful there are people out there like yourself who would go through the trouble of making guides like this. Now we can only hope that people read and take the advice!

  71. Jeff Durthaler says:

    What are your thoughts on a 2007 Saab 9-7x? While it is an suv, it has stability control, and is really just a GMC with saab label. It seems like repairs would be more in line with American cars and wheelbase is better than smaller cars. I struggle with your advice on no suvs. I have watched 3 car loads of kids die in honda accord/camera in last two years. Not sure small sedans are life savers in major crash. Part of me thinks, safety is more about the driver than the car. Bigger feels safer.

  72. My only gripe with the Saabs is that the cost of ownership will be higher than the GMC platform mate, due the cost of Saab-specific parts. As for safety, the IHS delivers poor and marginal ratings to two of the four tested crash aspects.http://www.iihs.org/iihs/ratings/vehicle/v/saab/9-7x-4-door-suv . As it is basically a midsize sedan-based vehicle, it doesn’t bring much beyond a typical midsizer, but it taller and heavier. Accords are not the best vehicles, nor are Camrys in terms of safety, especially when kids hit heavy or immovable things at high rates of speed. Adding weight adds force that needs to be dispersed — either through deforming the structure or absorbed by the passengers.

  73. Lisa Heinen says:

    I am looking at getting my daughter a 2008 VW Beetle – what would be your concerns with this vehichle? She will mostly be driving to and from school and activities all within town.

  74. Maureen O'Sullivan says:

    My 17 year old son was in an accident in his 2007 Mazda 6 a couple of weeks ago. Thankfully he was not hurt but his car was totaled. I am looking for a replacement vehicle for him and have vetoed his choices – a mustang or a jeep liberty. Are you still a big Subaru fan or what would be a good used car to consider that is safe today. I’d like to stay in the $7-9K range. Thanks for your suggestions.

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