Thursday, October 21, 2010

Playing it safe: What’s the best set of wheels for your teen driver?

Time for true confessions. My first car was a pea-green 6-year-old 1971 Ford Pinto, purchased from my uncle for $600. Legend has it that the Pinto was considered “sporty’ for a few minutes back in the early seventies. 

What could make a better first car for your teenager than a 1971 Pinto?  Well, everything!As a 16-year old with a new toy, I used to rev it up in neutral and drop the automatic transmission into “Drive” to experience the thrill of squealing tires and a brief sensation of speed. Problem was, this feeling of speed was mostly in my mind. Stomp on the gas and the engine seemed to say, in a sleepy voice, “let’s do this later, when I’m better rested”. This Pinto never galloped, preferring a polite trot along the San Diego freeways.

This car did serve a noble purpose, however. Because it would never deliver on my need for a little speed and excitement, it probably saved me from a big-time crash. And although the alleged exploding gas tank did offer the possibility of some excitement, it was the wrong kind, so was of little comfort to me.

This situation was soon remedied. After saving up enough money to buy the coolest, bluest 1967 Barracuda, I gleefully put my Pinto out to pasture.   After a few months, I promptly totaled my Barracuda by taking a turn too fast. Lessons were learned.

With that as my backdrop, I’d like to help you, my fellow parents, in choosing an appropriate vehicle for your teen (or teens – God bless you!). Whether new or used, we all want our kid’s car or truck to be a great combination of safety, reliability, and fuel economy, with a look that won’t totally embarrass them each day as they cruise into the high school parking lot.

I’ve been doing some digging around, and want to share the brands and models that are most recommended for teens and are considered “safer” than others. I’ll use the same approach in a couple of years, when my oldest daughter gets her license.

My previous thinking was that a large, slow, older car was best bet for a teen driver. These vehicles may be great for providing a huge barrier around the occupants, but they don’t have the safety features that may help a teen avoid an accident in the first place. David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports magazine’s automotive test center, say that the ideal teen car is reasonably sized, good crash-test results, has a 4-cylinder engine without too much power, and safety features including electronic stability control and curtain air bags.

With these parameters in mind, he recommends:

Small sedans:

Hyundai Elantra SE (2008-2010), Mazda3 (2007 - ), Scion xB (2008 – )

Mid-sized sedans:

Acura TSX (2004-), Honda Accord (2008 - ), Kia Optima (2007 – )

Small SUVs:

Honda CR-V (2005 - ), Nissan Rogue (2008 – )


When budget is a larger part of the equation, here are more affordable options that show up on other experts’ lists: Acura Integra, Toyota Corolla (1999+), Honda Civic EX (1998+), Honda Accord EX (1998+), Infiniti G20, Ford Focus (2002+), Subaru Forester 2.5X, Toyota Camry XLE (6 cylinder), Toyota Camry LE (4 cylinder), Mazda 3, Mazda Protégé ((1999-2003), Nissan Altima 2.55 (4 cylinder, 2003+)

For more ideas, the following are vehicles that received the 2006 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick Award. Now four years old, these used cars might offer the best combination of safety and affordability for your teen driver:

Large Cars

Ford Five Hundred (with optional side airbags)

Mercury Montego (with optional side airbags)

Audi A6


Hyundai Entourage (2007)

Kia Sedona

Midsize cars

Saab 9-3

Subaru Legacy

Audi A3

Audi A4

BMW 3 series (4-door models)

Chevrolet Malibu (with optional side airbags)

Lexus IS

Volkswagen Jetta

Volkswagen Rabbit (4-door models)

Volkswagen Passat

Small cars

Honda Civic (4-door models)

Saab 9-2X

Subaru Impreza (except WRX models)


Click here for a current list of the 2010 top picks by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.


I hope these suggestions are helpful to you in your quest to keep your teen driver as safe as possible. If you’re ever interested in what it might cost to insure one of these vehicles, just give me a shout.



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