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Buying a Car for Your Teen

Reliability, economy, style and, above all, safety: There's a lot for parents to consider when putting their teen behind the wheel. Our guide will help you navigate the choices.

By Richard Laliberte

What to Consider Before Buying

Our 17-year-old son, Jordan, had a simple plan for when he got his driver's license: He'd get a job and buy a cheap, sporty little car. My wife and I had a simpler plan: He'd get a job and we'd let him drive our even cheaper, dismally dull 11-year-old Dodge Caravan, which we would replace with a new Toyota Sienna for our personal and family use. Jordan's savings would go toward college. So far the adults have prevailed, but there's no denying Jordan's groaning disappointment. And truth be told, we've had doubts of our own: Is a rusting relic from the Clinton Administration with 125,000 miles on it really the safest choice for a young driver?

It's a dilemma facing every family with a child eager to get behind the wheel. Parents already own three-quarters of the vehicles they designate for kids, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). But a lot of these autos may not be appropriate for teens: A third of the vehicles that kids drive are more than 10 years old; a quarter are sports cars or other small, zippy models; another quarter are gas-guzzling SUVs or pickups. (About half are family cars like midsize sedans and minivans.) "When parents think about cars for teens, they rightly emphasize things like fuel economy and reliability," says Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the IIHS. "But they need to give top priority to the vehicle's safety." Only about 20 percent of parents in one Institute survey said safety was the most important factor when selecting a vehicle for a teen.

Teens crash cars four times more often than people 20 and over. That's partly why we give our kids junkers, so they can bend fenders that have relatively little value. By going the cheap route, though, you could miss out on recent advances. "Cars today are the safest we've ever seen," says Nicole Nason, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Between 1996 and 2005, accidents among 16-year-olds (the highest-risk drivers) fell 40 percent, due mostly to better vehicle design and safety features. Whether you're considering a vehicle at a dealership or one already parked in your driveway, here's help weighing the options in the quest for a safe car that satisfies you and your teen.

Big or Small?

Hip ads for cute cars like the Honda FIT make small models seem perfect for young drivers: They're inexpensive and burn relatively little fuel, making them both economical and eco-friendly. But on average, small cars fare worse in crashes than larger vehicles. "It's the laws of physics," says McCartt. "Small, light vehicles provide less structure to absorb crash energy than larger, heavier ones." In a collision an SUV outweighs a tiny compact by 60  or more -- one reason why 11 of 16 cars with the highest death rates in a recent IIHS study were small models like the Kia Rio or Dodge Neon. But handing over keys of a mammoth SUV or pickup won't make a teen much safer: "The high center of gravity of those vehicles makes them more difficult to handle and more prone to fatal rollovers than other cars, especially for inexperienced drivers," says McCartt.

Give preference to midsize cars, which have enough heft to protect teens in a crash but don't ride so high that they're difficult to control. Avoid vehicles that weigh more than 4,500 pounds, but size isn't everything: Design and safety features also play a role in crash-worthiness, and some small models score well on front, side and rear crash tests. To check safety ratings for individual vehicles, go to iihs.org/ratings.

Basic or Loaded?

While a kid needs bare-bones transportation, not luxuries, it's worth considering models or option packages that include the latest safety technologies. One key breakthrough is electronic stability control (ESC), which senses when the car isn't going where the driver is steering and selectively applies antilock brakes or reduces engine power to individual wheels to prevent skids. "ESC is stunningly effective at controlling conditions that can lead to a rollover," says Joe Wiesenfelder, senior editor at cars.com. "It's the most significant safety feature to come along in recent years because it actively prevents accidents from happening in the first place." According to the IIHS, ESC lowers the risk of a single-vehicle crash by about half and the risk of a fatal rollover by up to 80 percent. Side curtain air bags that protect the head during a side impact add yet another important layer of protection that may not be available in older models or lower-priced trim lines.

"I wouldn't buy a car for a teen, especially a small car, unless it has at least both front and side curtain air bags," says Wiesenfelder. If you're considering an SUV, budget about $600 extra to get one with ESC. (Neither air bags nor ESC can be retrofitted into older vehicles that don't already have them.) "ESC isn't cheap, but if it saves your child from just one crash, it's worth it," says Wiesenfelder. For a list of vehicles that offer ESC as standard or optional equipment, go to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at safercar.gov.

New or Used?

The newer the car, the more likely you are to find advanced safety features. For instance, in some newer vehicles "pretensioners" rapidly take slack out of the seat belt and hold the body tighter in a crash, after which "force limiters" play the belt out slightly as you press into it to avoid pressure injuries. Most cars older than five years don't have these features. In general older cars are also less reliable. "That's a safety issue too," says Jennifer Stockburger, program manager for vehicle and child safety at Consumer Reports' Auto Test Center, in East Haddam, Connecticut. "You don't want a teen stranded on the side of the road." Yet buying new is the ultimate in poor economy. "The biggest cost of ownership is depreciation," says Stockburger. As soon as you drive a new car off the lot, the vehicle's price -- what the dealer would pay to buy it back -- drops from retail to wholesale. On top of that, cars lose about 20 percent of their value every year.

Look for used cars that are exceptionally reliable -- and therefore hold their value longer. Japanese brands stand out: Seven-year-old Toyota and Honda cars are on par with three-year-old vehicles from most other makers in terms of mechanical problems, according to Consumer Reports. When trolling used-car lots, identify cars with ESC (those made within the last decade) by checking window stickers for system brand names that play on the words "stability," "track" or "control," such as StabiliTrak (General Motors), Dynamic Stability Control (Mazda), or Vehicle Dynamics Control (Subaru). Look on the steering column to make sure a used car is actually equipped with the front air bags the dealer says it has. For side curtain air bags, check the top of the pillars framing the side windows for the word "air bag" or the letters SRS (supplemental restraint system). Give preference to certified vehicles with a dealer warranty (manufacturer warranties don't always transfer to second owners), and get an inspection from an independent mechanic before sealing the deal.

Dull or Dream?

Safety experts insist the best cars for teens are "big and boring." "If your child's friends don't think the car is cool, that's the one you want," says Nason. But automotive aficionados like Wiesenfelder say it's possible to find safe cars that are also fun. What's more, some dull vehicles may be more exciting to teens than you might expect. "Minivans, for instance, can carry up to six passengers, which makes them too much of a party car," says Stockburger. "Distractions from passengers are a major contributor to teen crashes."

To strike a balance between safe and outright embarrassing, look first for reliable cars with good crash ratings from the IIHS or NHTSA. Then check edmunds.com and Kelley Blue Book (kbb.com) to search for cars by price, model, or year; read reviews and find local dealers with vehicles you like. "Style is your last consideration, but you'll find plenty of options for under $20,000," says Wiesenfelder. Consider a midsize coupe with two doors: The right size and weight, it will look sportier than a four-door yet will discourage teens from piling in. Look up online reviews for cars that take 8 to 11 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph. "You want the car to have power but not move too fast," says Stockburger. Whatever you choose (even if your teen groans), your child should appreciate it.

Originally published in the October 17, 2008, issue of Family Circle magazine.

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