What Is A Good First Car For A Teen Driver?

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

The best car for a first-time teen driver is the one that will decrease the odds of that first-time accident happening — and minimize the potential for harm if it does.

The object is to shield your teen as much as possible from the almost inevitable consequences of youth and inexperience. Even if your kid is mature and responsible, he or she is still inexperienced behind the wheel. It takes a lot of seat time to become familiar with how a car behaves in various situations — for example, in ice and snow, at night, under unexpected conditions — and also to get a feel for how others behave in their cars.

Those first 12-24 months are the “danger zone” when accidents due to errors of judgment, lack of experience — or just plain old being in the wrong place at the wrong time — are most likely to happen. It’s also why it costs so much to insure a 16 or 17-year-old driver.

Here are some general car-buying guidelines that will help keep your teen driver out of trouble:

* Choose a car.

SUVs and pick-ups are poor choices for first-time drivers — especially SUVs and trucks without 4WD. They tend to be light in the rear (because the weight of the engine/driveline is concentrated up front) and so have a tendency to fishtail during panic stops or when the road is slick. You can crutch this somewhat by loading up the bed (or cargo area) with a few hundred pounds of dead weight — or by springing for an SUV or pick-up that has 4WD. But even with 4WD, pick-ups and SUVs are inherently less stable, more tipsy, take longer to stop — and are thus more dangerous for a just-minted teenaged driver. It’s better to learn the essentials in a car before moving to a specialty vehicle of any type — whether it’s a pick-up, SUV or sports car.

* Choose a larger car.

Bigger and heavier is inherently safer — especially in the event of a crash into a fixed object (such as a tree) or with a larger vehicle (such as an SUV). Larger cars offer more built-in occupant protection because they’re able to absorb more force than smaller, lighter cars. Vehicles in the full and mid-sized category tend to score much better in crash testing than cars in the compact and smaller categories. Avoid subcompact-sized cars — even if they do get better gas mileage. A very small car like a Toyota Yaris or Honda Civic coupe stands little chance when T-boned by a Suburban.

* Choose a car that’s in good overall shape.

Basic reliability can be as important as basic safety. You don’t want your kid learning the hard way about bald tires, bad brakes, shot shocks and a worn out suspension. Whatever car you end up buying, take the time to make certain it is mechanically sound and completely roadworthy. Have a reputable shop or mechanic give it a thorough once over — and fix anything that needs fixing. Leave the broken down el-cheapo special “beater” for your son or daughter’s next car.

* Choose a car without a wing, hood scoop, loud exhaust or powerful engine.

Teens being teens, few have the judgment to resist being egged-on by other teens to “see what it’ll do.” If it looks fast or sounds fast you can bet they’ll want to see just how fast it really is. And the end result is often tragic. Just as new pilots don’t start out in F-18s, new drivers should be kept away from cars with capabilities beyond their limited experience. V-8s and powerful V-6s should be off the menu, period — but be careful about four-cylinder powered cars, too. Some modern four-cylinder engines have turbochargers and other power-adders that make them as or even more powerful than the V-8 muscle cars of the ’60s and ’70s.

Also keep in mind that you/you teen will pay much less to insure a basic sedan or wagon vs. anything “sporty” or powerful.

* If you do choose a small car, be sure it has multiple air bags.

Air bags protect against impact forces in a crash — and are particularly valuable in smaller vehicles as they compensate to some extent for smaller size and weight. If you must buy a smaller car, try and find one with both frontal and side-impact/curtain air bags as they will dramatically improve the survivability/crashworthiness of a smaller car, especially if it’s hit from the side by a larger vehicle.

* Choose a car with a manual transmission.

In some European countries, a license applicant must take his or her driver’s test in a car with a manual transmission. The reasoning is that a person who has mastered starting a car on a hill without stalling or rolling backward, who knows how to smoothly engage the right gear at the right time to safely merge into traffic and so on — has probably mastered the basic skills necessary to be a safe driver.

Modern cars are deceptively easy to “drive” in the sense of getting them going — and going very fast, too. Almost any 10-year-old could physically put the key in the ignition, move the handle from “Park” to “Drive” — and floor it right through the closed garage door and straight into your kitchen. Operating a manual transmission, on the other hand, is a skill that takes time to develop and which imparts respect for the skill it takes to do so competently. Learning to drive on a stickshift car is a great training tool that will help your teen become a better — and therefore safer — driver.

Bonus: a car with a manual transmission is usually capable of better fuel economy and is typically cheaper to buy, too.

* Choose FWD or AWD over RWD.

Front-drive cars (FWD) and all-wheel-drive cars (AWD) have better traction in rain and snow and so are more controllable than a rear-drive (RWD) car. Rear-drive cars also have a tendency to oversteer (tail out) when they begin to slide out of control — while front-drive cars tend to understeer (the front of the car “plows”), which is easier for the novice driver to deal with. If you must go with a rear-drive car, try and pick one that comes with some form of electronic traction control to limit wheelspin on slippery surfaces and ideally, an electronic stability control system — which uses the anti-lock brakes to keep the vehicle on course when it would otherwise begin to slip out of control.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly — do all you can teach your teen driver to drive with respect for others and to obey common sense as much as the letter of the law.

For example, “speeding” is considered by some to be the Primal Sin of driving; but tailgating can be more dangerous and likely to result in a wreck — even though cops don’t pay nearly as much attention to it as they do to drivers doing a a few MPH over the posted limit.

If you can afford it, consider enrolling your teen in a car control/vehicle dynamics/accident avoidance course such as those offered by Bob Bondurant, Skip Barber or other professional driving schools. These courses explain what happens during emergency situations — such as panic stopping or an abrupt swerve to avoid and obstacle on the road — and how to handle them — in a safe, controlled environment.

Though the cost can be high, it’s a lot cheaper than a totaled car — or a lost life.


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3 Responses to “What Is A Good First Car For A Teen Driver?”

  1. schwinn8 says:

    If you're going to suggest that a new driver learns to drive a manual, then I would suggest its equally important for them to learn how to drive a RWD. After all, there are probably more RWD vehicles out there than there are manuals.

    Secondly, AWD doesn't fix the common problem of tail-spins. I know of many people who react poorly in an AWD vehicle and put it into a spin, by letting OFF the gas when the rear starts to fishtail. In fact, I'd say AWD is MORE dangerous than FWD or RWD because of this (and because you can get yourself in more trouble with AWD when accelerating and going straight, since the system can do its job… letting off the gas means the system CAN'T do it's job (not counting stability control type stuff).

    Overall, the key is education. The pathetic drivers test we have in the US is no excuse for a parent not to teach proper driving skills. It's not the responsibility of the government to teach your child how to drive. If you don't have the time/ability to teach them how to drive, there are plenty of classes out there.

    Teach them (and yourself!) how to handle skids in YOUR/THEIR car. Go to an empty slippery (snow or wet) parking lot and put it into and out of a skid… a lot can be learned at slow speeds like this.

    The most important thing is to know that passing the US's test doesn't mean that the person can drive skillfully, if at all.

  2. dparm says:

    I must say I strongly disagree with the point that "larger is better". This is the old way of thinking when cars did not have crumple zones, airbags, and the myriad of other safety features we take for granted. In fact, many of the new small cars are quite safe. It is often the larger trucks that are horribly dangerous due to their classification as trucks (federal safety standards are looser for trucks).

    There is still some credibility to the "more mass is better" argument, but large vehicles are far more difficult to control and park. Teens need vehicles they feel safe in, yes, but they shouldn't be driving barges that become dangerous in emergency maneuvers or that have enormous blindspots.

    Compact and midsize cars tend to be the best middle-of-the-road, such as the Mazda 3, Volkswagen Jetta, Honda Accord, etc.

    I must also disagree with the manual transmission recommendation. Teens need to focus on learning good driving habits, not worrying about letting out the clutch or understanding how to downshift. There are way too many accidents for 16-18 year olds driving automatics, let alone throwing manuals into the mix. It's a nice skill to have but it should come later after the teen has proven him/herself.

  3. bajajoes says:

    I am a proponet of manual transmissions because you are forced to concetrate on driving a car versus steering it with an automatic. If the beginning driver is in a classroom setting such as
    Drivers Ed they will be in a protective enviornment and able to fully learn the required skills.
    If the beginning driver is not in that setting then perhaps an automatic is preferrable but I feel that you can't be a complete driver without learning how to operate a manual transmission.