By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
What type of car is a good choice for a teenaged driver?
Notice type — not “make” or “model.”
Certainly, some makes are better than others in terms of things like resale value/depreciation rates and consumer satisfaction scores. And some models are of course considered more desirable as far as looks, status and so on.
But these considerations are secondary to type — the kind of car that will help lower the chances your teenager will get into trouble in the first place — and reduce the potential for injury if he or she does get into trouble anyhow.
Here are some points you might want to consider:
* Sporty cars are a bad choice, but not for the obvious reason –
The obvious reason is that a sporty car may tempt a teen driver to show off, to “see what it can do” — but that’s only one problem with such cars. The more subtle — and so, serious — problem is that sporty cars tend to feel deceptively safer at higher speeds and when driven more aggressively than economy or family-type cars. Chiefly because they have suspension systems and tires specifically designed to push the envelope. To be able to corner without the tires screeching at very high speeds — to feel deceptively relaxed at very high speeds.
A sporty car’s higher threshold of cornering grip can impart a false sense of security that encourages a teen to drive faster and above his limits as a driver than he otherwise might. And because of the higher speeds involved, if the teen loses control, the consequences will be more serious than they would have been in a lower-speed accident.
And of course, sporty cars usually cost more to buy, maintain and insure.
Helpful: If your teen is determined to get a sporty car anyhow, you can insist that he pay for the insurance — which will almost certainly be unaffordable. This is an end run you can use to nix the sporty car without actually telling them no — until your son or daughter has logged some miles and gained some experience (and judgment).
* Small cars are bad news –
Axiom of physics: All else being equal, a smaller, lighter car is less crashworthy than a larger, heavier car.
Avoid subcompact and even compact-sized models, irrespective of their crash test scores. Remember: Crash test scores only reflect the performance of a vehicle relative to others in the same class. A subcompact that receives a “5 Star” rating is absolutely not comparable to a mid-sized or full-size car with the same (or less) rating.
Full and mid-sized cars usually have thicker and heavier doors to protect against side impacts — the most common and often fatal form of accident — and their generally heftier bulk makes them much safer than compact/subcompact models.
* Avoid underpowered cars –
This may seem counterintuitive — at first. If fast cars are not a good choice for teenagers, then surely slow cars are a good choice — right?
Underpowered cars should be avoided because they lack the ability to merge safely with freeway traffic. Most cars built during the past 10 years have adequate power — but watch out for econoboxes built prior to the early ’90s.
Tip: Any car that takes more than 12 seconds to reach 60 mph should be crossed off the list. 0-60 times for virtually any make/model of car are easy to find by Googling the year/make/model of car and “0-60.”
* Stick with a stickshift –
A car with a manual transmission is a great idea for a teen’s first car.
By learning how to smoothly coordinate hands and feet one almost necessarily becomes a more attentive, higher-skilled (and so, safer) driver.
By encouraging your child to learn to drive stick, you’ll also open up new possibilities for them down the road. They’ll be able to buy the usually more affordable manual-equipped version of a new car, for example.
Plus, it will give them a sense of accomplishment.
* Avoid run-down cars –
Beaters — cheap, high-miles older cars — can be problematic.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of giving a teen a well-used car; just be sure it’s in sound mechanical order — particularly if the car is for your daughter. Political correctness be damned. It’s just an ugly fact of modern life that a teenaged boy faces less danger if the car he’s driving breaks down in a seedy part of town than a teenage girl would face.
Rusty, dented fenders are no big deal. Defective brakes (and balding tires) are. To be safe, have the car completely checked out by yourself (if you’re competent to do so) or a competent mechanic (if you’re not) and have any problems with the suspension/brakes/exhaust that could compromise safety dealt with before turning the jalopy over to your teen driver.
Additional features that can help keep a teen driver out of trouble.
A final piece of advice:
Consider enrolling your teenager in a privately run driver’s school that teaches accident avoidance/emergency maneuvering and vehicle dynamics, such as Bondurant (www.bondurant.com) or Skip Barber (http://skipbarber.com). These courses are not inexpensive (a few hundred dollars for a one-day program to $1,000 or more for a two-day program) but if the skills learned keep your kid from totaling his or her car — or themselves — it may be one of the smartest investments you ever make.