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Car Shopping for Teen Drivers: Reliability and True Cost to Own

The Key Factors in Your Teen's First Car

(updated May 8th, 2014)

Parents are likely to be the ones paying for at least some of the upkeep and expenses associated with their teens' vehicles. So it's important for parents who are car shopping for their teen driver to understand the importance of vehicle reliability and true cost to own.

Both of these factors will determine how much effort and expense are required to keep a vehicle on the road. Understanding them can help parents avoid hassles and save money in the long run.

From a safety perspective, an automatic transmission is preferable to a manual one for teen drivers, since it's easier to use.

From a safety perspective, an automatic transmission is preferable to a manual one for teen drivers, since it's easier to use.

A Fresh Look at Reliability

In the past, if you were car shopping with reliability in mind, it meant opting for a vehicle that was new or perhaps two or three years old at most. These days, shoppers placing a premium on dependability can confidently cast a much wider net.

"With the average age of vehicles now at nearly 11 years old, it's clear that vehicles are being made to last well past their 5-year/50,000-mile warranties these days," says Kristin Brocoff, director of corporate communications for Corporation. "You can find a 10-year-old vehicle that is just as reliable as one that's a year old, provided you do your homework, and provided the vehicle has been well maintained by its past owners."

And Brocoff should know. Since 1996, her company, CarMD, has tracked vehicle reliability, compiling and maintaining the industry's largest and most comprehensive database of both repairs and issues that trigger the illumination of a "check engine" warning light. This data is sourced from the company's nationwide network of Automotive Service Excellence (ASE)-certified technicians. CarMD uses this data to produce its annual Vehicle Health Index, which lists the U.S. models with the best reliability.

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Older cars are less likely to offer crash avoidance technology like a blind-spot detection system.

Older cars are less likely to offer crash avoidance technology like a blind-spot detection system.

"The CarMD Vehicle Health Index looks at repair incidents combined with overall repair costs based on vehicle population," says Brocoff. "Even if a vehicle is new and under warranty, we calculate what the parts and labor costs are — even if they are paid for by the manufacturer. As vehicles age and drop out of the vehicle population, they are no longer calculated into the Index rankings. This enables CarMD to uniquely compare the reliability of vehicles, regardless of age. It is very different from the opinion surveys that are often used to rank vehicle reliability. Those surveys are not based on real-life repairs."

Over the years, some of the oldest vehicles in CarMD's top 100 have been the 14th-ranked 2001 Subaru Legacy, 33rd-ranked 2002 Subaru Legacy, 35th-ranked 2002 Volvo V70 and the 48th-ranked 2001 Ford Explorer.

"It is important to remember that even the 99th- or 100th-ranked vehicle on the top 100 list is a significant achievement, as this puts it in the top 10 percent of all vehicles on the road," says Brocoff. This data proves it's possible to find a healthy, well-maintained vehicle that's more than 10 years old.

Age vs. Mileage

As you evaluate used cars, keep in mind that a vehicle's mileage may be more telling than its age. The vehicle's overall condition also needs to be taken into account.

"Age of cars should be considered in terms of miles on the car, not the actual manufacturer date of the vehicle," says Dave Cavano, manager for the Automobile Club of Southern California's car-buying service. "A 10-year-old Hyundai Santa Fe that was meticulously maintained and only driven 65,000 miles may be a better buy for your teen driver than a seven-year-old Hyundai Santa Fe with 105,000 miles."

Older Models Can Be Just as Safe as New Ones

Parents with a focus on safety often choose to purchase new cars for their teens. But a vehicle's safety features matter more than the year in which it was made.

There are certain key safety features that are standard only on new or newer cars. If you're considering older models, you'll need to check and make sure these features are present.

This list of must-have safety amenities includes airbags, an antilock brake system (ABS) and electronic stability control. "Stability control and ABS can help a teen keep a car on the road if mistakes are made, and airbags protect occupants if a crash happens," says Michael Calkins, an auto repair manager with AAA. Daytime running lights are also recommended. And Calkins says an automatic transmission is preferable to a manual one for teen drivers, since it "reduces the number of skills that must be mastered during the learning period."

The drawback to buying an older used model for your teen driver is that it's less likely to offer the latest crash-avoidance safety features. Technology such as lane departure warning and blind zone detection is more common on new or newer models.

However, if your budget precludes a new-car purchase, keep in mind that these features are available on some older luxury models. Luxury brands were the first to offer this technology. Volvo introduced its blind-spot vehicle detection technology to the U.S. market in model-year 2005. Over the next couple of years, brands like Audi, Buick and Cadillac rolled out their own crash-avoidance safety features.

Shopping Within the Manufacturer Warranty Period

It's clear that older used cars can be acceptably safe and are more reliable than ever. Still, there's one good reason for choosing a newer used model for your teen driver, and this is because a used model that is still within the manufacturer's warranty term can save you money in repair costs.

Brocoff offers an anecdote that illustrates this fact. "Just a couple months ago, my vehicle's 'check engine' light came on for an ignition coil- and spark plug-related problem," she says. "Since these repairs can run upward of $300 or $400, I was happy to know it was covered under warranty with a $100 deductible. Everyone — especially teen drivers and parents of teen drivers — can appreciate saving money."

True Cost to Own

Speaking of saving money, it's important to consider all the costs associated with purchase and ownership when deciding which car to purchase for your teen. The car that's least expensive to buy may not be the one that's ultimately the least expensive to own. offers a tool called True Cost to Own (TCO®) that provides an estimate of all the expenses related to buying, owning and operating a model over a five-year period.

TCO figures are determined by analyzing eight components: depreciation, interest on financing, taxes and fees, insurance premiums, fuel, maintenance, repairs and any federal tax credit that may be available. Edmunds' data team researches these costs and plugs them into a series of proprietary algorithms. The end result is a figure that represents estimated total ownership costs for a five-year period.

For safety reasons, many experts recommend that parents choose midsize sedans for their teen drivers. The list of models in this segment with low TCO includes the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu2014 Honda Accord2014 Hyundai Sonata and 2014 Toyota Camry.

With TCO, parents can accurately compare ownership costs for all the models they're considering. This data can be used to help them make the most financially sound decision when car shopping for their teen drivers.

For more on choosing the right car for teen drivers, please read:

The Best Cars for Teen Drivers

Choosing a Safe Car for Your Teen Driver

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