All revved up: a teen's first set of wheels

Big or small? Used or new? Who pays for gas? So many decisions to make about teens' cars.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    He's got wheels: A student heads home with a friend.
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As the mother of a 16-year-old son, Nancy Sayles Kaneshiro remembers the family's conversations when he wanted to buy a car.

"First he wanted a truck, then a Lincoln Town Car, then a reconditioned police car," says Mrs. Kaneshiro of Woodland Hills, Calif. "We said no. We wanted him to have a fuel-efficient car, a safe car, and one we could afford."

Their search, conducted primarily online, took weeks. Finally they settled on a 1989 Honda that had been serviced by the same mechanic Kaneshiro used. After a few improvements – a coat of midnight-blue paint, a spoiler from a salvage yard, and a sound system – the gleaming car was ready to transport Ian to school, baseball practice, and social activities.

Recommended: Got your driver's permit? Top 5 things to know about your car.

"It's cool," his friends say.

As a new school year begins, automobile showrooms and used-car lots are sprinkled with families undergoing a rite of passage: choosing a first car for a teenage daughter or son. Questions about safety, reliability, and affordability loom large for parents, who must balance their offspring's desire for something sporty or "cool" with their own preference for a more modest and safer sedan – or maybe a Sherman tank.

"It's the parents' responsibility to help their kids through this process and not just be bullied by their kids that they must have a new Mustang," Kaneshiro says.

Brandon Bogart, a professional race car driver and founder of In Control Advanced Driver Training in Massachusetts, has trained more than 10,000 teen drivers. He says, "If a teen is brought into the process of choosing the new vehicle, they'll inevitably be a more responsible and hopefully safer driver."

But what vehicle to choose?

In a survey last year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that few parents consider size when providing a vehicle for a teen, even though size and weight are crucial aspects of crash protection.

"It may be a hard nut to swallow for parents concerned about fuel prices, but small cars are a bad choice for young drivers," says institute spokesman Russ Rader. "Parents should start with midsize cars that have top crash test ratings and the latest safety gear and stay away from the smallest cars."

Mr. Bogart advises parents to beware of SUVs and trucks for new drivers. "They're difficult to control," he says. He emphasizes that the most important safety feature is not how many air bags a car has, but whether it has an antilock braking system – ABS. "Air bags help you in a crash, but ABS helps you avoid a crash."

Bogart thinks the "absolute safest" vehicles on the road are mid-size four-door sedans, such as the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, and Ford Taurus. "There's a difference between sporty and powerful," he adds. "The Honda Civic, Volkswagen GTI, Scion tC – they're all safe, reliable, sporty cars. They have excellent crash-avoidance capabilities."

Last month Margaret Ritsch of Fort Worth, Texas, bought her 16-year-old daughter a Mitsubishi Lancer with 116,000 miles on it. That met her goal of finding a one-owner Japanese-made car with a clean record on CARFAX and a price tag under $5,000 so they could pay cash.

"I didn't feel at all guilty about getting her a not-so-sexy car," Mrs. Ritsch says. "My first car, which I named 'Miss Agnes,' was a whale-sized Chevrolet my grandmom handed down to me when I was in my early 20s."

Carol Meerschaert of Paoli, Pa., also intended to buy her 16-year-old daughter a used car – until her daughter's friend got stranded in a car that would not start. "The thought of my daughter stuck on a road at night squashed that idea," she says. They chose a new car.

The wry joke in some high schools is that vehicles in the students' parking lot outclass those in the teachers' parking lot.

"We live in a neighborhood where fathers buy their kids a new Lexus or lease them brand-new cars – all of which get trashed within the first few months," says Rob Frankel of Encino, Calif. He took a different approach with his teenage son.

"I offered him $5,000 toward any car he wished," Mr. Frankel says. "If he wanted something more expensive, he could use his savings, within reason. This taught him how important shopping around can be."

His son eventually found the car of his dreams: a 2003 red Mustang convertible. "He made sure it was in great shape, and together we made sure we got a good value," Frankel says, adding, "When I was that age, I only could wish for a 'chick magnet' car like that."

Beyond decisions about the car itself, families must resolve other issues, such as who will pay for gas and insurance.

Frankel buys one tank of gas a month for his son in exchange for driving two siblings to and from school. This relieves the parents of carpool duty.

Frankel also pays for basic insurance on the car, with a proviso: If his son does anything to cause the rates to rise, he must foot the bill for the increase.

In other families, students must pay for all car-related expenses.

Aaron Cooper, an educator with the Family Institute at Northwestern University in Illinois, encourages parents to listen to teenagers' wish lists for cars – the color and styling they prefer, the options they'd like, and whether it has manual or automatic transmission. "But don't be afraid to force a compromise," he says. "The final decision rests with those who pay the bills."

Rather than indulging students' pursuit of status and identity, he suggests saying no to the fancier model they prefer. "Your 'no' gives them practice delaying gratification and discovering a sense of gratitude for what they have. A big, fancy bow atop the hood is the only bling a teen's car needs when it comes home from the lot."

Safety specialists urge parents to use the arrival of a first car as a teachable moment, an opportunity to talk about safe driving. Many families also insist that driving and car ownership are privileges contingent on certain conditions. The Kaneshiros' mantra is, "No B's, no keys." In California, teens who maintain a B average qualify for lower insurance rates.

Reflecting on the process of buying a first car, Kaneshiro says, "It teaches responsibility if it's handled properly. I think Ian got more out of this experience than kids who are handed a brand-new car. He has an appreciation for what it takes to run a car, and the expense."

Ian is not the only one benefiting from his Honda. Describing the "tremendous amount" of driving parents do in ferrying offspring to school and activities, his mother says cheerfully, "I got my life back when he got this car."

[Editor's note: The original photo caption for this story should have noted that the file photo was taken before California passed a law making it illegal for a 16-year-old driver to transport passengers under age 20 without the accompaniment of a licensed driver who is 25 or older. ]

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