How To Decide On The Right Car For Your Teen

Last updated: 08-23-2020

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How To Decide On The Right Car For Your Teen

When a teen obtains a driver’s license, it is a rite of passage for both parent and child. Suddenly the days of carpooling are over and their transportation independence begins. Most often it starts with the child borrowing one of the parent’s cars, but that arrangement quickly becomes impractical for both parent and child. Sharing a car can be stressful, and the convenience to come and go at will is gone, leading many parents of teens to search for the right car for their daughter or son. As the father of three daughters, all of whom now have their driver’s licenses and two of whom have their own cars, I’ve been there and done that.

Obtaining a vehicle for a teenager can be taxing, troubling and filled with second guesses. But getting the right vehicle isn’t impossible. It simply takes a disciplined approach. Zipping down to the local European luxury-car dealership and plunking down the cash for a brand-new sports car with every conceivable option is one route, but for most of us it is not the best — or even a realistic — option. Nor is bowing to the teenager’s pleas for a tricked-out off-roader or a slick convertible. Instead, you should catalog the needs and desires your teen has for transportation and use that catalog as your roadmap for what you eventually acquire.

You Have the Right to Decide

One thing to keep in mind here is that if you as the parent are financing the purchase, you certainly have every right to decide on the vehicle, the equipment it has and, critically, how and when it is used. You should set the rules and establish that vehicle usage is a privilege, not a right.

Vehicle choice can certainly impact the safety of your child, something that should be paramount in all our lives. Like most big decisions it has consequences, but you should understand that there is no perfect vehicle. While the car your child drives is one aspect of overall vehicular safety, even the safest vehicles are sometimes involved in collisions that can have tragic results. It is important to recognize your son’s or daughter’s behavior when behind the wheel is a strong determinant of their overall safety — typically a stronger determinant than the vehicle they drive — and that is something you can influence both overtly with parental rules and more subtly by modeling good driving behavior yourself. Study after study has shown that teens mimic their parents’ driving habits, so if you want your child to be a safe driver — a pretty logical desire — your behavior is more influential than you might think.

What we are saying here is, don’t simply look for a “safe car.” Instead, go out of your way to train a “safe driver.”

With unlimited cash, a parent could research the vehicles with the absolute best ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), choose one and buy it, making certain it is equipped with every piece of passive and active safety equipment available.

Most of us don’t have that luxury. We must balance the vehicle and its safety equipment against cost with the idea of striking a balance that gives our daughter or son personal mobility while meeting our family budget requirements. In other words, you’re not a bad parent if you can’t afford to buy your child the newest, greatest, safest vehicle on the planet. The fact is it is very hard to even determine what that vehicle might be. Seek a good combination of safety, practicality, reliability and cost — that should be at the heart of the search for the appropriate vehicle for your teen.

New or Used

Before considering the individual vehicle, we should consider the question of whether you should buy a new or used car. Obviously, this is an area in which economics plays a heavy role. In a national phone survey conducted for IIHS, 83 percent of parents of teen drivers who bought a vehicle for their teenagers said they bought it used. The survey results reinforce the notion that buying a car for your teen involves a compromise between desirability and cost.

The arguments for buying (or leasing) a new car for your teen are compelling. New cars can typically be equipped with the latest, most sophisticated safety technology. And more and more carmakers are including robust suites of safety equipment as standard in their most recent offerings, among them Toyota and Honda.

Buying a new rather than used car for your teen offers other advantages as well. A brand-new car will typically be very reliable, and it will be covered by lengthy warranty coverage. In addition, some new cars come with manufacturers’ incentives in the form of cash rebates or special lease rates. If purchasing a new vehicle is difficult from a cost standpoint, leasing the vehicle might be an alternative that will enable you to get the latest safety equipment.

On the other hand, most parents will choose a used vehicle for their teens. Deciding on the specific used vehicle is thus a very critical decision. These days many one-, two- and three-year-old vehicles are equipped with very robust arrays of active and passive safety equipment. Since each used car is unique in terms of its features and maintenance, it is important to determine the safety items that are on the car you will purchase for your teen. At the same time you must make certain the car is in good repair and that all the safety systems are functioning properly.

Just as leasing is a possibility to lower the monthly cost of a new car, it might also lower the monthly outlay on a used car, enabling you to obtain a newer and/or more safety-feature-filled vehicle. A one- or two-year-old certified pre-owned car with the proper safety equipment could be a more cost-effective alternative to a new car as well.

When considering a used car, condition is very important. No two used cars have been driven and maintained in the same way, so you must be diligent in inspecting the car… or hire a certified mechanic to do the inspection for you. When it comes to safe driving the condition of tires and brakes are among the most important factors, although purchasing new tires or getting the car a brake job is not a life-altering expense.

In automotive terms, safety has two aspects — passive and active. Passive safety items are things like seat belts, airbags, and vehicle crush zones. In short, they are pieces of equipment and/or design attributes that help occupants of a vehicle survive a crash. Both NHTSA 5-Star Safety Ratings and IIHS Top Safety Picks and Top Safety Picks+ revolve primarily around passive safety items, although both organizations are now incorporating the availability of electronic safety aids into their overall safety ratings formulas. Active safety items are things like antilock brakes, electronic stability control and blind spot alert that can help prevent a crash. Not having a crash, of course, is preferable to simply surviving one. As car systems rely more and more on computer technology and as that technology grows more sophisticated, electronic driving aids are becoming more prevalent, so cars will continue to offer more capabilities for crash avoidance.

Currently, it is impossible to find a new car or a late-model used car that doesn’t have antilock brakes and electronic stability control. Back-up camera systems became required equipment on all vehicles sold in or after May 2018. Such systems were made mandatory for SUVs earlier in the decade. Electronic stability control (sometimes referred to as ESC) became mandatory for 2012 model-year and later vehicles. In general, the more recent the vehicle the more likely it is to be equipped with electronic driver safety aids. Currently forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking, two systems that rely on similar sensors, are not required, but both technologies are valuable for teen drivers. If you can afford a vehicle that offers them, strongly consider it.

Beyond safety, cost is an important consideration when you buy a vehicle for your teen. One important cost factor for young drivers is insurance, because the choice of vehicle can affect insurance rates significantly. Insurers want the same thing for your child that you do — safety. Because of that they typically advise parents to purchase vehicles that offer the latest safety technology, have moderate power and are inexpensive to repair.

"Young drivers would benefit most from driving a vehicle that performs well in crash tests and is equipped with driver-assist technology to help avoid or mitigate the damage from a collision,” said Chong Gao, senior product manager, R&D, for Mercury Insurance. “Vehicles like the 2016 Hyundai Santa Fe or 2015 Kia Soul, which have received some of the highest safety ratings in crash tests by the IIHS and NHTSA are also two of the most affordable vehicles to insure with Mercury.” 

While in the interest of saving money it is obvious to seek the lowest purchase price possible, but it is also advisable to choose a vehicle with a low cost-to-own record. Sites like JDPower.com and Autobytel.com can point you in the right direction. Similarly, those sites are good sources of information about vehicle reliability and dependability. Also important are comfort and convenience features, including systems that can enable parents to have visibility on their children’s driving habits. You can learn more about teaching your teen to be a safe driver by clicking here and here.

Yes, choosing a car for your teen driver can be an intimidating prospect, but if you approach the task thoughtfully using these guidelines you’ll arrive at a vehicle choice in which you have confidence.


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