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Published September 18, 2010, 12:00 AM

New, used, big, small: Narrow choices for teen's first car

School's back in session. And for many parents, it's decision time: Do you continue driving your teenager or college student wherever they need to go or provide some wheels of their own?

By: Steven Cole Smith, INFORUM

School's back in session. And for many parents, it's decision time: Do you continue driving your teenager or college student wherever they need to go or provide some wheels of their own?

Bottom line: If you, and they, are in the market for a first car, there are plenty of decisions to make: New or used? Big or small? Here are some talking points to help you along.

THE FAMILY CAR: You may already have the best first car. It's a tradition, and often a good one, for a teen to inherit the family car. It's a known quantity — you are familiar with its repair history — and there's a good chance your teen is familiar with it, because it may be the car in which he or she learned how to drive. The car is also known to your insurance agent and carrier.

In fact, before you make any decision on a first car for a teen, check insurance prices. It could be far cheaper to assign a current car to your teen than to bring a new vehicle into the fold. And while the family car may not be the first choice for your teen, few will squawk when given the choice of a family car, or a big yellow bus.

NEW OR USED? If the family car option is off the table, a used vehicle could be a good option. When word gets out you are looking, friends or family members may offer up a suitable vehicle, which gives you a reliable source to explain the car's history.

If you opt for buying a used vehicle from a dealer or a private party, have a trusted mechanic look it over, and be sure the mechanic knows it would be a first car for a teen. Mechanics see a lot of vehicles, and their opinion regarding the suitability of a vehicle is valuable. Is it safe? Is it generally dependable? Are parts inexpensive? What are the weak links? Your last, and most important question for the mechanic: Is this a car you'd be willing to let your child drive?

There are also advantages to buying a new vehicle. You get a warranty, you know there are no skeletons in the car's closet — or trunk — and, perhaps most importantly, you'd likely be getting all the latest safety features, including side airbags, antilock brakes and electronic stability control. And you'd probably be getting some convenience features that have an impact on safety, such as Bluetooth, which helps allow for hands-free phone conversations.

With some brands, you'd have the option of features that target teen drivers, such as Ford's MyKey, which can limit the vehicle's top speed and car-audio volume, sound a "speed alert" chime at 45, 55 and 65 mph, and can mute the audio system until seat belts are fastened.

BIG OR SMALL? Fuel economy tends to favor a smaller car, but some larger vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Impala, get surprisingly good mileage. If you are opting for an older used car, a larger vehicle may have a safety advantage. Small, inexpensive cars were typically the last to get the latest safety innovations. In addition, the amount of metal you surround your child with, while no guarantee of safety, will help provide you some peace of mind. If you are considering a newer used car — less than, say, 4 years old — there's a good chance you can find one with the newer safety features.

ONLINE COMPARISONS: You'll find plenty of help online regarding a first car, including specific recommendations. Edmunds.com and Cars.com have features on teen-suitable vehicles, and Kelly Blue Book (kbb.com) recently released its list of top 10 back-to-school cars, a mix of new and used vehicles. In order, Kelly recommends: 2006 Honda Civic, 2011 Ford Fiesta, 2010 Mazda3, 2008 Pontiac Vibe, 2010 Honda Fit, 2005 Saab 9-2X, 2010 Kia Soul, 2006 Ford Crown Victoria, 2008 Suzuki SX4 hatchback and 2011 Chevrolet Cruze.

Consumer Reports likes the 2008-2010 Hyundai Elantra SE, the 2007 and newer Mazda3, the 2008 and newer Scion xB, the 2004 and newer Acura TSX, the 2008 and newer Honda Accord, the 2007 and newer Kia Optima, the 2005 and newer Honda CR-V, and the 2008 and newer Nissan Rogue.

I'd favor a recent Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla for a used vehicle. I like those vehicles new, too, along with the Ford Fiesta, the Chevy Cruze, the Mazda3 and the Kia Soul. I asked a few colleagues for recommendations, as well — Mac Morrison, an editor at AutoWeek magazine, likes the Fiesta and the new Mazda2. "The engines aren't very powerful," he says, "but that's probably a plus for a new driver."

John Pearley Huffman, a contributing editor for Car and Driver and a correspondent for the New York Times, has another take: "I'd go with a used Ford Crown Victoria. The kid can also use it as a taxi cab (for friends), which may be the only employment available in this economy."


Steven Cole Smith is the automotive editor at the Orlando Sentinel in Florida. Send questions to scsmith@orlandosentinel.com.


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