10 Tips for Choosing Your Kid's First Car

Choosing your kid's first car can be a difficult decision. A 1951 Buick is not a great choice, by the way. (Creative Commons/Flickr/Hugo90)

Parents are finding themselves in a weird position these days: convincing their kid that he or she should have a car of their own. The freedom that generations of young adults have craved in the form of a car -- preferably a fast, cool car -- can now be found on a touch screen. The crap cars we ended up with as teenagers (we never did get the fast, cool cars we deserved at that age) got us to the next town over, and that was thrilling. Maybe even forbidden.

But that ain't nothin' to a kid with smartphone. She's got Middle Eastern political uprisings and Candy Crush at her fingertips. He's got the entire works of H.G. Wells downloaded for free and his best friend on Skype. Leaping across time and space can't happen in a car, but it happens every few minutes for people with an Internet connection.

But if you're a parent that lives in a rural area without public transportation, or if you'd just like someone else to drive the family taxi, you probably want to buy your kid a car. Here are a few tips for making that process as painless as possible -- hopefully, for both of you.

Don't Go Small
New drivers make mistakes -- it's almost guaranteed. Don't buy a car that's too small. Be sure to get some sheet metal around your kid. (Creative Commons/Flickr/Bernt Rostad)

This advice may seem old-fashioned now that we have cheap little cars with lots of safety features and tiny footprints. But the experts agree: get some sheet metal around your kid. He's going to make a mistake in the first couple of years he has this car, that's almost guaranteed, and knowing your kid, it's probably going to be a big, dumb one. So you're going to want to put him in a big dumb car that can absorb some of the impact of whatever doofus move he pulls. Little cars have plenty of safety features for practiced drivers; but for the newbie, nothing beats mass when you do the accident math. A low center of mass helps, too, so no SUVs. Something with the general weight and stature of a tank would be great.

But Don't Guzzle Gas
Sure, it's big and looks cool -- but will it get at least 20 miles per gallon? (Creative Commons/Flickr/Gangster Car Driver)

Your kid is likely broke, unless you've somehow reared a computer genius who has already made a million dollars selling an app she built in her bedroom. But if your kid is more likely to be lounging on her bed merely using apps while she screams at her little brother to get out of her room, she's probably broke. And since you have kids, you probably are too. That's why you want to look for a car that gets at least 20 miles per gallon (8.5 kilometers per liter), which isn't too hard to do in the 21st century, even if you're buying a big, safe car. Oh, and besides the money thing, there's also that bit about there being a habitable Earth for your kid to live on when she grows up. The better the fuel economy of this car, the more likely that is to happen.

Be Safe Out There
Newer cars go through stringent crash tests. (Creative Commons/Flickr/mariordo59)

There are a couple of agencies who really, truly do put crash test dummies into brand-new cars and smash the living bejeezus out of them. Several times. From every angle. Hard. Actually, it sounds like a super-cool job. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, better known as IIHS, has a Safety Picks list that gives a rather stingy "good" as its highest rating in five tests. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has a 5-Star Safety Ratings program which measures (tests) the three most likely scenarios that cause deaths and serious injuries and rates the vehicles from one to five stars based on how they perform. More is (as always) better. As manufacturers improve their safety technology and design, the IIHS and NHTSA up their game to take those systems into account. Newer cars go through more stringent tests than older cars.

Think Long-term
Remember, this may be the car that sees your kid through to adulthood. Buy a car that you expect will last that long. (Creative Commons/Flickr/Foot Slogger)

Let's be honest. There's really only one reason you want to buy your kid a car: to get him out of your dang house. Sure, at first it's just to send him to pick up his siblings from ballet and basketball, but then it's to get him to his after school job. And then to college, and then (fingers crossed!) on to a high-paying job that doesn't require that he moves back into his childhood bedroom -- the one you've already made into a sewing room. Whether you're buying new or recently used, remember that this may be the car that sees him through to adulthood. Buy a car that you expect will last that long, one that won't require too many repairs, and the next car he needs will be totally on him.

Go Automatic
Make it easy on yourself (and your teen) and just go automatic with the first car you choose for your kid. (Creative Commons/Flickr/brownpau)

When you were a kid, you probably had to learn to drive a stick before your parents would let you have your own car. You also had to learn to tell time on a proper clock before they'd buy you a cool Casio digital watch will all the buttons, didn't you? Well, welcome to the future, parents. No one in America drives a stick anymore. In fact, fewer than 10 percent of all cars sold in the last few years have had a manual transmission. Yes, they're a tad cheaper -- often about a thousand bucks less than the automatic version. But check the fuel economy. You'll see that the manuals don't deliver the gas savings they used to when compared to the newer automatic transmissions. Make it easy on yourself and just go automatic with the first car you choose for your kid. It only adds complexity for someone who still has to think about which pedal is the brake.

Win Parent of the Year
Teen drivers love new technology. A way to plug in any kind of phone or auxiliary music player is always a plus -- but a voice-command system is even better. (Creative Commons/Flickr/Ubi Desperare Nescio)

A little technology goes a long way with a kid who wanted a new iPhone, and all you bought her was this stupid car. An iPod/iPhone connection is crucial. Why? Because music on the radio sucks. Just ask her. Some way to hook in any kind of phone or music player is great, and most cars made in the last few have a USB port as standard equipment. Newer cars respond to voice commands, which can keep distracted teenage paws off the touch screen in the center console -- or worse, the mobile device they've propped up in the cup holder. Yes, talking to the stereo is still a bit distracting, but at least she'll keep her eyes on the road, her hands upon the wheel.

No Cool Old Cars
Remember, this car is for your kid -- not you -- so make a wise decision. (Creative Commons/Flickr/dok1)

You've probably always dreamed of buying your little girl an adorable vintage convertible Volkswagen Beetle, maybe even in pink. Or of restoring an old Camaro in the garage while you and your son bond over Bondo. Snap out of it, because this is not "Better Off Dead," and your kid is not a young John Cusack -- nor will he even get that movie reference. These cars are completely unsafe -- some only have lap belts, no shoulder belts, and definitely no pre-tensioning system. Anti-lock braking systems (ABS), stability control, tire-pressure monitoring -- these were the stuff of science fiction until quite recently. And if you're still tempted, just remember that the insurance rate for a new driver in an old car will be through the roof.

There's No Shame in Used
Your kid may resist the idea of driving around town in a midsized sedan, but most parents understand that they're a safe option. (Creative Commons/Flickr/Max Wolfe)

A vintage car is a terrible idea, but a used car is a pretty good idea -- as long as it's not too old. ABS and airbags have been around for a while now, so most of the vehicles on the used car lot should have them. They'll probably even have a few of those tech bells and whistles that your kid loves -- the ones that drive you up a tree to live with the squirrels. The downside is that the safest, most reliable used cars hold their value pretty well. They'll still be cheaper than a new car, but they won't be the $500 beater you drove in college. You'll also find that many of these used cars are midsized sedans! Aw yeah, am I right? Nothing says cool to your kid like a four-door sedan that's probably been driven by the mother of two toddlers who threw Cheerios all over the back seat! All kidding aside, midsized sedans are (typically) really safe.

Buy Boring
Don't even think about it. (Creative Commons/Flickr/InSapphoWeTrust)

This is ancient advice, passed down from the first parent to ever buy their kid a car: buy boring. Do not buy a car with anything even resembling power. Make sure the speedometer -- which is always optimistic -- tops out at 100 miles per hour (160.9 kilometers per hour). It's a safe bet that that car will never reach triple digits, no matter how hard your kid tries. Also, do not buy turbocharged anything. Do not buy anything that even looks fast. Cars that look fast make kids think their cars -- and they themselves -- can do things they cannot. Instead, buy a car that your kid is maybe just a little bit ashamed to be seen in. That way he's less likely to pull any moves that might draw attention. Once again ... midsized sedans! What what!

And Lose Parent of the Year
Ford's MyKey system can limit the car's top speed (and the stereo volume), enforces seatbelt use and more. (Creative Commons/Flickr/HighTechDad)

You know how your kid wanted all of the technology in his car to make up for the fact that you're making him deal with an old iPhone 4? Well, if you're buying new, you're going to give to him. Big time. In fact, you can monitor his every move. Ford's MyKey system limits the car's top speed and the stereo volume, enforces seatbelt use and even gives earlier low-fuel warnings so your kid can't leave you stranded in the driveway before work the next morning. Hyundai's BlueLink system sends you a message on your phone if the car is going over a speed limit you've set, or if the car is out past its curfew. It's a techno tattletale.


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Author's Note: 10 Tips for Choosing Your Kid's First Car

My parents bought my first car for me when I was 17. I absolutely, positively did not want it, despite this being the dark ages before cell phones or any other tech wizardry. I had nothing to do with the purchase, and that's how I ended up with the most horrid, faded red, musty smelling Chevy Chevette the world has ever seen. We bought it used, and my parents test drove it while I sulked in the cramped, tan vinyl back seat. It was so cheap they wrote a check for it. I avoided driving it, coming up with any excuse to catch a ride with my mom or have a friend pick me up or just stay home. When I did drive it, I had to lift my foot off the throttle, wait for the automatic transmission to shift down, and then mash the throttle if I wanted to make it over the hill to my house. In my passive-aggressive hatred, I blew up the engine by not putting fluids in the car. I had to pay to replace the engine and keep driving the Chevette. And worst of all, when I got in a minor accident and was hit on the rear quarter panel, my parents allowed the mechanic to slap a two-foot (61-centimeter) bandage sticker on the "wound." I had to drive the car that way until I went to college a thousand miles (1,609 kilometers) away -- too far for that Chevette to follow me.

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