Parents who are car shopping for teen drivers know that deciding which factors to prioritize can be difficult. If your goal is to make the most sensible choice, you'll need to consider three factors above all others: safety, reliability and true cost to own.
Driving behavior is the most crucial factor affecting your teen driver's safety behind the wheel. Still, it's clear that a safe vehicle fosters a safer driving experience. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conduct independent crash testing that gauges a vehicle's ability to withstand various types of collisions. These vehicles are then assigned ratings to reflect their crashworthiness. "Research the best crash test ratings from IIHS and NHTSA," says Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at IIHS.
With IIHS ratings, this means choosing models with a "Good" rating (the top score offered) in all or most of the institute's four crash tests. IIHS's annual "Top Safety Picks" list reflects its most recommended choices, and to qualify, models must receive a "Good" rating in all crash tests. With NHTSA ratings, parents should select vehicles with five-star (or mostly five-star) crash test scores.
Does Size Matter?
The size of your teen's vehicle plays a significant role in its overall safety. Parents should avoid the smallest cars, since even a subcompact with the best crash test scores won't provide as much collision protection as a larger vehicle. Parents should avoid the largest vehicles as well, since these can be difficult to maneuver and intimidating for new drivers.
Midsize vehicles are best because of their ideal mix of crash protection and maneuverability. "Big cars are too hard to handle, and small are too vulnerable, so we prefer midsize," says Automobile Club of Southern California research manager Steve Mazor.
When it comes to SUVs, opinion is divided. IIHS has revised its policy to recommend SUVs for teen drivers, but only newer models equipped with stability controls. McCartt says that the current crop of crossover SUVs have a lower center of gravity than their truck-based predecessors, which makes them less susceptible to rollovers. And their bulk presents an advantage. "The more metal around [teen drivers], the better," she says.
AAA recommends that parents avoid SUVs when shopping for teen drivers, saying that the vehicles are "more prone to roll over in extreme driving conditions." Still, the organization concedes that newer models are safer than older ones, because they offer stability control. If you think you need the roominess of an SUV, AAA recommends that parents purchase a newer model.
Just Enough Power
V6 engines are popular with shoppers, but they offer more power than a teen driver needs or should have. A better choice would be a more modestly endowed inline-4.
Four-cylinder engines offer adequate power, but not so much that they're likely to tempt teen drivers into engaging in risky behavior. "Teens overestimate their skills and underestimate the risks of driving, so choose a vehicle accordingly," says IIHS's McCartt.
Key Safety Features
If safety is the goal, features such as electronic stability control (ESC), airbags and antilock braking systems (ABS) are essential. Dual front airbags have been mandatory since 1998, and ESC and ABS have been mandatory since 2012.
"The most important safety features are now standard on all new vehicles thanks to federal regulations, including front and side airbags, and electronic stability control," says McCartt.
These features serve important functions. "Stability control and ABS can help teens keep their cars on the road if they make mistakes," says AAA auto repair manager Michael Calkins. Airbags protect your teen driver and other passengers in the event of a collision.
Crash avoidance technology can also be useful. These features are most commonly found in new and newer models.
"If buying a new car, parents may want to consider some of the advanced crash avoidance features that are available on some models, such as forward collision warning with automatic braking, lane departure warning and blind zone detection," says McCartt. "We don't know yet if these features will be effective in preventing crashes, but until the research is in, buying them can't hurt."
Keep in mind, though, that this technology can be expensive. Adding these features can increase the cost of your teen's vehicle by thousands of dollars.
Monitor Your Teen's Car
Certain manufacturers offer technology specifically geared toward facilitating safe teen driving. Ford's MyKey and Hyundai's Blue Link offer features that allow parents to monitor teen drivers.
With MyKey, parents can program a key to limit the top speed of their teen's vehicle and set earlier low-fuel warnings. This technology prevents teens from deactivating certain safety features, and allows parents to set speed-alert chimes that go off at 45, 55 and 65 mph. MyKey is offered free of cost on nearly all 2012 Ford models.
Hyundai's Blue Link can be used to help parents track the location of their teen's vehicle, and enables them to set speed alerts that notify them if the car is driven over a certain speed. Blue Link can also be used to uphold curfews. It can be programmed to send parents text or phone message alerts if a teen's vehicle is used outside of a predetermined time interval. This technology is available on Hyundai's teen-friendly 2014 Sonata and 2014 Sonata Hybrid.
Age Is Just a Number
When it comes to safety, a vehicle's age is less important than the features it offers. "Don't worry about age — focus on safety features," says Calkins.
Age also has less of an impact on reliability than you might think. "With the average age of vehicles now at nearly 11 years old, it's clear that vehicles are really being made to last well past their 5-year/50,000-mile warranties these days," says Kristin Brocoff, director of corporate communications for CarMD.com Corporation.
CarMD compiles and maintains the nation's largest database of car repairs and "check engine" light problems. This information is used to generate a yearly Vehicle Health Index, which ranks the nation's 100 most reliable models.
Brocoff notes that the data gathered allows the company to directly compare the dependability of new and used models. Both vehicle types are reflected on the most recent index, and there are several models on the list that are between 7 and 11 years old. This proves it's possible to find used-car choices that are exceptionally reliable.
Consider All Costs
The expenses associated with your teen's vehicle don't end with its price tag. Edmunds.com offers a tool called True Cost to Own (TCO®) that estimates a model's buying, ownership and operating costs over a five-year period.
TCO factors in 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 expenses and plugs them into proprietary algorithms that forecast five years of total ownership cost.
Ten Best Cars for Teens
Midsize sedans earn the highest recommendation for parents seeking the safest transportation for their teen drivers.
The 2009-'14 models listed below all offer top crash test scores and low TCO. And all used models appear on CarMD's Vehicle Health Index, which means they rank among the top 10 percent of all vehicles on the road when it comes to dependability.
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