By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
What type of car is a good choice for a teenaged driver?
I get asked this a lot. Everyone’s got an opinion. Here’s mine:
* Avoid giving your teen an underpowered car.
This may seem counterintuitive — and it’s probably the polar opposite of everything you’ve heard from “safety” experts. If fast cars are a bad choice for teenagers, then surely slow cars are a good choice . . . right?
For example, an underpowered car lacks the guts to pull into traffic efficiently — that is, safely — forcing other drivers to slam on the brakes or swerve to avoid rear-ending the slow-mover. And a car that has trouble keeping up with highway traffic — which today means being able to maintain at least 70 MPH without struggling — winds up being tailgated and bullied by other cars.
That’s not safe, either.
An underpowered is worse than merely unpleasant — or even scary — to drive because it can encourage timidity behind the wheel — which can be just as bad as reckless aggressiveness. Many people develop lifetime driving habits during their first few years of driving. You don’t want to encourage Cloverism by making your son or daughter afraid to drive. A gutless car can do exactly that to them.
Most cars built during the past 10 or so years have adequate power — but watch out for econoboxes built prior to the early 2000s. For instance, Geo Metros — and so on. Also, many otherwise-adequately powerful economy cars with a manual transmission are absolute dogs — and thus, arguably dangerous — when equipped with automatics (more on that in a moment).
A good rule of thumb is as follows: If the car is capable of getting to 60 in 11 seconds or less (about what a current Prius hybrid can do) it is adequately powerful for A to B driving. Anything quicker than about 7 seconds to do so is probably too quick for a first-time/teenaged driver.
Be sure to spend as much time researching a prospective car’s 0-60 time as you do its Consumer Reports reliability score.
* Stick with a stickshift.
A car with a manual transmission is a great idea for a teen’s first car.
One, it will be cheaper to buy (usually). Two, it will probably use less gas. Three, learning how to smoothly coordinate hands and feet requires more concentration and that ultimately results in a higher-skilled driver. By encouraging your child to learn to drive stick, you’ll also open up new possibilities for him or her down the road. They’ll be able to buy the usually more affordable manual-equipped version of a given car, for example. Plus, it will give them a sense of accomplishment.
Also, a manual car — especially when it comes to economy cars — is usually a lot more peppy than the automatic-equipped version of that car. In some cases, a manual-equipped version of a given car is 2 seconds or more quicker to 60 MPH. This isn’t about drag racing. It’s about safety margin. If the manual version of a given car can get to 60 in 9 seconds — but the same car with an automatic takes 11-12 — the manual car has enough of a margin to deal with pulling — safely — into traffic.
The automatic version does not.
* Small cars are not a good idea.
All else being equal, a smaller, lighter car is inherently less crashworthy than a larger, heavier car. Fuel economy is important. But your kid’s life is even more important.
Be especially leery of short wheelbase/tall profile small cars — the best example being the SmartCar. These design characteristics result in compromised stability, especially at highway speeds. Such cars are “darty” — small steering inputs result in more-than-you’d expect directional changes — and the car often has difficulty maintaining its position in its lane without the driver constantly making small corrections. It’s rather easy for an inexperienced driver to lose control of a car like this, especially when startled — as by a dog (or a kid) running into the road. High winds — the slipstream of a passing semi — sometimes try to push these cars into the next lane (or a tree) before the driver has time to react.
For these reasons, I recommend crossing any car off your list that has a wheelbase shorter than about 100 inches (in make/model terms, anything with significantly less wheelbase than a current Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic sedan), especially if it’s a short wheelbase/tall-roof design like the SmartCar. Such cars — like big SUVs and high-performance sports cars — are compromised designs. They’re made to do some things much better than most cars. But the price you pay for this is greater limitations in other areas.
Such cars are never a good choice for a new/teenaged driver.
Also, a word about crash test scores: Be aware that a small car with a “5 Star” rating does not mean it is as a safe as Mercedes S Class or other large car. Crash test scores only reflect the performance of a given model relative to others in the same class of vehicle. This is very misleading. A subcompact that receives a “5 Star” rating is absolutely not comparable to a full-size car (or even a mid-sized car) with the same rating — and may actually be inferior to it, even if the larger car’s number of “stars” is lower.
*Insist they pay for their own insurance . . even better, for the car.
Moral hazard. Skin in the game. You want your teenager to personally understand these concepts. Ben Franklin said something along the lines of that which we obtain too cheaply we esteem too little — and of course, the reverse. If your teen has to come up with the money to pay the insurance bill, it’s a strong inducement to keep the bills low. Which is an incentive to avoid wrecking. Which means, paying attention. Being careful behind the wheel. This money motive, arguably, is a helluva lot more effective than oceans of anti-texting, anti cell phone PSAs — and a tsunami of laws forbidding texting-while-driving.
* Avoid The Hooptie.
Some teens inherit the family car when it becomes too old/unsightly for the adults/respectable people to drive. 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. Politically correct crap aside, it’s a fact of 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.
Non-structural rust, faded paint and dented fenders are no big deal. But sketchy brakes and balding tires are. Mechanically hip fathers will know all about this and check the car out before handing it over to their kid. But many people have little, if any mechanical knowledge and if that’s you, have the prospective car completely checked out by a mechanic and any functional problems fixed.
* School them.
This one’s related to the Hooptie issue. Cars — especially older cars — sometimes break down. Even new cars sometimes have problems — a flat tire, for instance. Or a dead battery.
It used to be a common ritual for fathers to teach their sons — and their daughters — basic things about cars and how to fix them. But nowadays, many adults know as little about the workings of cars as their kids. If that’s you, consider enlisting the assistance of a knowledgeable friend — or, even better, look into basic automotive systems and repair classes, which are frequently held at local community colleges. The more your son or daughter knows about how cars work, the less helpless they’ll be when something goes wrong with their car.
And not being helpless is another — arguably, better — way of staying safe.