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Choosing the Best Cars for Teens: What to Know

The day your teen gets a driver’s license is exciting. No more dropping them off for school, sports practices or outings with friends.

But it’s also scary. The crash rate for 16- to 19-year-olds is almost three times higher than for drivers of all ages. Fortunately, the risk of a crash declines quickly as young drivers gain experience behind the wheel.

While no car can completely protect your teen from harm, there are plenty of safe and affordable options if your teen is going to have his or her own wheels. Here are the most important considerations when shopping for the best cars for teens.

What to look for in your teen’s first car

SAFETY

Consider models on the Top Safety Picks list from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or check a car’s safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Look for features like side curtain airbags and electronic stability control, which helps the driver keep control of the car on slippery roads. Another popular feature is blind spot monitoring, which alerts drivers when a car is in their blind spot.

Michael Harley, managing editor for car sites Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader, notes that newer cars will have the latest safety technology. But new cars are expensive. If your teen is getting an older, hand-me-down car, you can still install new-car safety features without breaking the bank.

“There are plenty of companies that offer very simple, over-the-counter technology that’s very easy to wire,” says Harley, adding that you can often buy such features for less than $250. Consider a backup camera or parking sensors, which beep when you’re too close to an obstacle. The IIHS also compiles a list of the best used cars for teens.

SIZE

For teenage drivers, the IIHS recommends bigger, heavier vehicles, which best protect drivers in a crash. But large vehicles, like full-sized SUVs and pickup trucks, can be expensive and hard to maneuver. Small cars can be more affordable and easier to drive and park, but they don’t score as well on crash tests.

Compact or midsized SUVs fall in the middle on both size and price. They’re heavy, so they sustain less damage in crashes, but they’re small enough to drive easily, and they offer good visibility. Such models are priced similarly to midsized sedans and offer similar fuel economy, says Colin Thomas, senior analyst at Jumpstart Automotive Media, a digital marketing firm. “And the advantage of sitting up higher may make parents feel safer,” he says.

However, some score poorly on headlight effectiveness, according to the IIHS. If you’re thinking of buying one, test drive it at night to check this feature and consider a trim level with upgraded headlights. If you choose a large vehicle, make sure your teen is comfortable driving it. If you go with a smaller car, consider those with higher crash-test ratings and front-crash prevention upgrades such as automatic braking.

RELIABILITY

All cars will need routine maintenance, but if your teen’s car requires frequent repairs, it could be a safety concern and a major inconvenience — one they may not be able to afford. Ron Montoya, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com, recommends checking car reliability ratings from Consumer Reports. The publication predicts reliability ratings for new cars based on trends and data from surveys of car owners.

If you buy an older vehicle from a private seller, make sure it’s in good condition. Start by having a vehicle history report pulled. Websites CarFax and AutoCheck can provide these for one or multiple cars, for $30 to $50. Also, ask for the owner’s maintenance records and have a mechanic you trust inspect it before you buy. Montoya urges buyers to find out as much as possible from the current owner. “Ask why they’re [selling] the car, how they liked it, what kind of problems it gave them,” he says.

Certified pre-owned cars purchased from a dealership are typically more expensive, and the price is harder to negotiate, but these cars won’t need an inspection. Repair costs are covered under the included factory warranty, generally three years and 36,000 miles, or longer if you buy an extended warranty.

AFFORDABILITY

Whenever you buy a car, you must determine how much you can afford to spend. When buying for — or with — your teen, here are a few questions to think through:

  • Do you have the money to buy a new car or would a used car better fit your budget?
  • Will you be financing the purchase with a car loan?
  • Can your teen afford to pay for part or all of the car?
  • Will your teen help pay for gas, insurance or monthly car payments?
  • Is there a family car available for your teen to share or take over?

Also consider ongoing car ownership costs, especially how much your teen will have to pay to fill the gas tank. Harley recommends choosing a car that gets around 25 mpg. “Remember, teens have limited budgets,” Harley says. “If you get them a huge pickup truck at 10 to 15 mpg, they’ll be asking to open your wallet every other day.”

Car insurance for teen drivers

Once you’ve chosen a car for your teen, you’ll need car insurance. Teens can get their own policy, or you can add them to your current policy, which may be more cost effective. NerdWallet research showed that teens and their families could save around $3,000 a year by getting coverage under a single policy.

While insurance for younger drivers is more expensive than coverage for experienced drivers, many insurers offer discounts. For instance, State Farm, AARP/The Hartford, Esurance, Allstate and Liberty Mutual offer discounts for students with good academic records. Some insurers reward teens who complete approved safe-driving courses.

Discounts will depend on your driving record, where you live and other factors, so confirm your quote with an agent. Read more about cheap car insurance for teens.

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Include your teen

It can be tempting to handle the whole car-buying process yourself — but why not turn it into a learning experience?

“Use it as an educational process,” Harley says. “It’s not just transportation; it’s the biggest purchase the teenager is going to be involved in making. It’s teaching them a lot about financing and taking care of things and responsibility.”

John Kuo contributed to this report.

Updated Aug. 23, 2017.

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