By Carol Traeger
Back in 1973, my parents bought my teen sister and me our first share car - a beige '68 Toyota Corona. They chose the Corona because it was cheap, reliable and not sporty enough to encourage speeding.
The car suited its purpose, trundling us to and from school and work on weekdays, and to friends' houses and parties on weekends. It also served as a sanctuary - a place we could go to be alone, listen to our favorite music, or just sit and talk with friends. The Corona even proved relatively safe, as I learned by rolling it on its side just one month after getting my license - and walking away unscathed.
Today, parents like me fret over our what to do when it's time for our kids to start driving to work or school. Should we just toss them the keys to the family's old clunker or start shopping for a "cool" car of their own? Before you decide, consider the following factors:
The best car for a teen (or anyone, for that matter) is a safe car. It's especially important for teen drivers, since their lack of experience and judgment makes their first year behind the wheel the most dangerous.
Crash-worthiness: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) perform crash tests on many new vehicles to determine how well they will protect occupants in the event of a real-life crash. Crash-test scores give the best picture of a vehicle's structural integrity and ability to withstand a front or side impact. For information on crash test results and rollover ratings, visit the NHTSA at www.nhtsa.dot.gov and the IIHS at www.highwaysafety.org.
Size: Is a bigger car necessarily a safer car? It depends on whom you ask. While some argue that a large car is safer because it has more sheet metal to crumple in a crash, others say that since small cars are more maneuverable, they're easier to steer out of harm's way.
The IIHS recommends that teens drive only midsize to larger cars.
"Size and weight can help protect occupants in a crash," says Russ Rader, spokesman for the IIHS, noting that "larger vehicles have longer front ends that help keep the force of the crash away from the passenger compartment."
That doesn't mean teens need to drive around in Army tanks to stay safe, he says. "A midsize or larger car with good crash-test ratings is a good choice."
But this doesn't mean small cars are unsafe, says Tim Hurd, spokesman for the NHTSA, which like the IIHS, conducts crash tests on all sizes of cars and trucks.
"Some small cars get our highest rating of five stars, and some large cars get less," Hurd says. "A small car can be designed to handle crash forces and minimize the effect on the occupant. However, in a crash between a large vehicle and a small vehicle, the occupants of the smaller vehicle are more likely to be injured."
The IIHS and the NHTSA warn that trucks and sport utility vehicles, with their higher centers of gravity, pose a greater rollover risk than cars. If an SUV is a must, look for smaller, car-based SUVs like the Toyota RAV4 or Subaru Forester.
Safety equipment: Look for a vehicle with good tires and antilock brakes to help your teen avoid a collision, and airbags to protect them in the event of a crash.
Performance image: As much as your teen may want a Chevy Camaro or Mustang Mach I, sports and muscle cars are a poor choice for teen drivers. Not only are these cars outrageously expensive to insure, they practically beg to be driven fast. If driving fun is important, consider an agile and sporty (but not over-horsepowered) car, such as a mid-1990s Mazda Miata, Honda Civic or Acura Integra.
New or used?
A used car is usually the best bet for a teen's first vehicle. It costs less to buy and insure and depreciates more slowly than a new car.
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, citing sticker price as the reason. Nearly 80 percent of teens and parents said they planned to spend less than $10,000 on a used vehicle.
By its very nature, buying a used vehicle is riskier than buying a new one. Who knows where the car's been, how many (if any) accidents it has been in and what kind of problems may lurk within?
My first car was a used Volkswagen Squareback, whose seller assured me the sunroof did not leak. Three weeks later it rained, and I learned otherwise. If you buy from a private party, have the vehicle checked out by a licensed mechanic before shelling out any dough. Also, check the vehicle's reliability ratings in Consumer Reports' Car Buying Guide.
You also might want to investigate automakers' certified preowned vehicle (CPO) programs. CPOs 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 sell it.
For a complete list of used-car values, check out Kelley Blue Book's Web site at www.kbb.com. To get a vehicle's title history, go to www.Carfax.com or www.consumerguide.com.
Insurance and fuel economy
A teen driver will pack a wallop to your family's insurance bill. That's because insurers base their rates on a driver's likelihood of getting into a crash, and that likelihood is highest during the first year. Fair or not, gender counts. You'll pay higher rates for your son than you will for your daughter. And don't fool yourself: The kids will be coming to you for gas money, so look for a fuel-efficient automobile.