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.