One of the scariest things you'll ever do is hand over a set of car keys to your teenager.
Teenagers have the worst driving records on the road, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. About a hundred teenagers die every week in car accidents: two out of three of them are males. Teens make up 7% of the drivers but are involved in 14% of car accidents. Sixteen-year-old drivers, the youngest and most inexperienced, have the most accidents of any age group.
Naturally, you want to do everything you can to make your teen's driving experience as safe as possible. Your instinct may be to protect her by getting the biggest heaviest meanest car on the road. However, research indicates a better choice might be a low profile, four-door passenger car of medium size with great reliability ratings, up-to-date safety features and good performance on crash tests.
Performance. There is a saying that a middle-aged man should never buy his teen the sports car he always wanted himself. Buy the hot car for yourself and buy the sedate, middle-aged person's car for your teen.
Teens speed more than other drivers do - they are 22 times more likely to get speeding tickets than people over 35 years. You don't want to encourage this kind of driving with a car that accelerates too fast or is equipped with turbo charging. If you buy your teen an expensive sports car, you will probably pay at least $5000 a year for insurance.
In general, you want a car with good acceleration: nothing less than 0 to 60 in 11 seconds, but nothing more than 0 to 60 in 8 seconds.
Crash Safety. Many parents buy their teenagers the heaviest vehicles on the road, because they believe the extra weight will save them in a crash. It is true that heavy vehicles perform better during crash tests and have better traction. However, your child will have a harder time learning to drive that kind of vehicle and a harder time maneuvering it in emergencies. If your teen overcorrects during an emergency or steers too abruptly to avoid hitting something, her SUV will tip over. The smaller SUVs are the most likely to roll over. You want something with a low center of gravity that handles easily.
Many of the cars made in the last decade are built to crumble around a frame during crashes - the cars total, but the driver and passengers survive. This feature allows a mid-size car to perform just as well on crash tests as the bigger vehicles. You also want a vehicle with air bags, and if possible, the latest technology such as those with side and head protection and multi-stage advanced front airbags. A smaller vehicle with airbags and good crash test performance can actually be safer than a heavy SUV.
Before you buy any car, check out its performance in crash tests at the federal government's website http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/testing/ncap/. This website rates all vehicles with a star system.
Reliability. Your teen does not have the experience to deal with emergencies such as overheating radiators, broken drive belts, and brakes that suddenly give out. He needs to drive the most reliable car you can afford. If you cannot afford a new car, you want a used car model with a proven record of reliability. One way to check this out is to buy a subscription to Consumer Reports online (it will cost you $5.00 a month, but you can subscribe month to month and cancel anytime). The Consumer Reports/automobiles website at http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/cars/ allows you to search for a used car within your price range, and then check out the various models' reliability based on reports from millions of people who owned them.
Once you make a list of models in your price range, you can search for ones available in your area at cars.com, http://www.cars.com/go/index.jsp. Then buy reports of the cars' histories before you look at them. For $25, you can buy as many car history reports as you want. You can find out if any car was in a major accident or if it was owned by a variety of people - factors that might indicate the car is not reliable. If the previous owner was a car leasing service, the service probably maintained it properly. One site for car history reports is http://www.autocheck.com/?siteID=1311.
Safety Features. Your teen should have a cell phone in his car.
Besides air bags, you want your teen's car to have anti-lock brakes, which keep the car from skidding on slippery surfaces. An average driver can actually stop more quickly and safely with an anti-lock brake system than a professional driver can without it.
Electronic stability control helps prevent skids, spins and rollovers. A Japanese study found that this feature reduces head-on crashes by 30 percent. This system has sensors that predict when the car is going out of control, so that automatic microprocessors can reduce engine speed and/or apply brakes to individual wheels.
Global Positioning Systems like On-Star can get help to your teen, especially in rural areas, by providing your teen's exact location to emergency personnel. Help will get there faster than if she called 9-1-1 herself on her cell phone. If you can't get such a service, buy a roadside assistance plan from an agency like the American Automobile Association.
For under $100 you can equip your teen's car with an automatic jump start system that can get a dead battery going without needing help from strangers.
Recommended cars for teens. Timothy C. Smith's book, Crashproof Your Kids (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006) offers many tips for buying teenagers a car. See his website: http://www.crashproofyourkids.com/ and Consumer Reports' recommendations for specific makes and models for teens.
Some affordable used cars for teens that keep coming up on everyone's lists are: Acura Integra, Toyota Corolla (1999 or later), Honda Civic EX and Honda Accord EX (1998 or later), Infiniti G20, Ford Focus (2002 or later), Subaru Forester 2.5X, Toyota Camry XLE (V6) and LE (4 cylinder), Mazda 3, Mazda Protégé (1999-2003), Nissan Altima 2.55 (4 cylinder, 2003 or later).