The general strategy most people have when buying a first car for a teenager is to find something old, inexpensive, fuel efficient, slow, inexpensive to insure, and preferably too small for more than a friend or two to ride in. It’s a tried and true method that’s worked for years. As an auto enthusiast, I look at that list of requirements and immediately assume it’s pointing to an NA or NB Mazda Miata.
Normal people usually see a two seat convertible and assume it’s a terrible choice for teenagers, but I stand by my assertion that it’s not a terrible choice, especially with a manual transmission. Sure, it’s possible to text while driving in a manual transmission car, but it’s quite a bit more difficult.
As Joann Muller points out in Forbes, though, the “old and inexpensive” approach to a teenager’s first car might not be the best way to go when you consider safety as well as cost. She says that if parents can reasonably afford to do so, they should buy new cars for their teens. Why? Because new cars are so much safer than old cars.
She misses a bit by calling out a 1998 Volvo S70 for lacking modern safety features, but considering other models that are popular first cars for teens, she does have a point. In general, cars today are built to meet much higher safety standards and offer standard safety features that 15 years ago were only available in top-of-the-line luxury sedans. Sadly, that means an old Miata is probably off the list.
Teen drivers can be counted on not just to take risks, but also not to have the experience needed to safely recover from mistakes they make. The list of available modern safety features is too long to lay out here, but while some — like adaptive cruise control — are helpful, the most important ones to look for are anti-lock braking, traction control, and electronic stability control.
Whether teens have to stop quickly in traffic or recover from taking a corner too quickly, those three systems make it much more likely that no wrecks will occur. Even if there are no bodily injuries, the cost of a single vehicle accident can easily be $1,500 or more to repair, and a multi-vehicle accident can drive the cost several thousands of dollars higher.
Insurance will cover most of it, but often the only way to insure teenage drivers is with a high deductible. When you combine the high deductible with increased insurance premiums, cutting corners on car safety to save a little money can become quite expensive. The increased risk of injury to teen drivers is impossible to put a dollar value on, but finding truly safe cars for them to drive is definitely important.
If you do choose to buy new, the Mazda3 is one of the most appealing vehicles on the market, offering optional safety features that go above and beyond ABS, TCS, and ESC. Another great option is the Ford Fiesta. It’s smaller than the Mazda3, but it also offers Ford’s MyKey teen driver technology that allows parents to limit certain features when their teen is driving and also allows parents to monitor their teens’ driving behavior.
Not every family can afford to buy a brand new car for their teens, though, so how do you buy a car on a budget without sacrificing safety? One option is to buy a used version of these new cars. Used car prices on newer model Fiestas, for example, are getting down close to $10,000.
Even if a family doesn’t have the budget for a $10,000 car, it doesn’t mean modern safety technology is entirely out of reach for their teens. One great option is a six-cylinder 1997 to 2003 BMW 5 Series. I used to own the eight-cylinder version, and while I don’t recommend buying V8 sports sedans for inexperienced teen drivers, its stability control got me out of more than a few sticky situations safely. If you’re worried about it having too much power, a 1997 BMW 528i makes fewer horsepower than a base Kia Optima. For a few thousand dollars, a 5 Series from that era is a great option.
Finally, another great option for parents looking to buy on a budget is, oddly enough, the car Muller points out in her article as a poor choice. The 1999 Volvo S70 had ESC as well as a whole host of other modern safety features. It’s not exactly a sexy or cool choice, but a Volvo S70 is pretty darn safe, and who cares about making sure their kid looks cool? One could argue that, especially during their teenage years, parents are responsible for making sure their kids look as uncool as possible.
It would be great if everyone could afford to buy their teenagers a new car, but sadly, that’s not the case. Even if you can’t afford to do so, the modern safety features available on new cars are probably within your reach. It will always be terrifying to hand a set of car keys over to a teen, but at least if the car the keys go to has modern safety features, it will be a little easier to do so.