Best First Cars: Don’t Skimp on Your Kid’s First Wheels


My life actually began when I got my driver’s license. I had been saving up money since just about childbirth for my first car. I got myself a sporty, rusty, sexy, failure-prone 7,000-rpm ode to petrochemical joy. But today, the advice I give anyone who asks me for advice on cars for their teenagers beginning to drive is not to recite make or model lists. It’s more circumspect: don’t cheap out on the cheapest possible wheels for your young driver. Yes, teens might use it as a car-sized pinball. But see the forest here, not the bark. That young driver inside that rusty jalopy is your most precious creature. It does not yet have all the maturity to make the best possible decisions when things go south. Full safety, low power, big margins for error should be the order of the day, not ultimate low cost. And atop this pyramid of priorities is stability control–God’s gift to teen driving survival.

We’ve all heard granddad’s stories about buying his first car that barely ran for “25 bucks and a pack o’ chewing gum and baseball cards.” And he then proceeded to fix the steering box, which had previously been only loosely associated with the front wheels by way of rope and hose clamps. Given this common 20th Century scenario and add cigarettes, the Cold War and a few actual hot wars, it’s a wonder granddad lived to sire a family. Well, we’re way better off these days—perhaps far too better off in some ways—and you can put a reasonably-priced, safe, reliable, slow used car under your kid’s butt, if it’s time for such an undertaking.


First off, any teenager’s car should not be over 20 years old. By 1995, most cars sold in the U.S. had airbags for both front occupants and were required by law to have a driver’s side airbag. Also by 1995, we were done with our long national nightmare of the uniformly loathed motorized passive shoulder belts (derisively and justifiably labeled “mouse” belts), which often caused more harm than good. With this two-piece belt system, the shoulder belt was always latched – the car would not start if unlatched – yet the occupant still had to latch the lap belt. In violent head-on crashes where only the shoulder belt was secured, serious injury due to submarining under the dash could occur and in some ugly cases, it caused decapitation. Bad regulation, meet the laws of physics.

Rather than motorized shoulder belts, some cars had belts that were affixed to the door, so that when you closed the door, you were already belted. This made ingress a comic form of performance art, the poor sod trying to enter his car getting tangled in an ill-conceived web of belts that Detroit weaved. This door-belt variety is a different kind of dreadful, especially when doors flew open in high-impact crashes. Don’t buy one of these motorized belt or door-belt cars. Ever. For anyone.


Also by 1995, most cars in the U.S. had reliable, minimal-maintenance and widely serviceable fuel injection systems. They improved drivability, economy, compensated for thinner air at altitude which carburetors, God bless their little float bowls, did not. They almost always ran cleaner, too.

Most importantly, though, stability control systems were not required by the government until 2012, but many vehicles had the feature far before then. Stability control is a proven lifesaver. Every young driver should learn how to control a skidding car on slippery surfaces, however. But that’s a lesson or a day for a controlled environment. And there are worthwhile youth driving programs like Bob Bondurant’s Teen Driving Program and Skip Barber’s Teen Safety and Survival School. But it’s not always practical to enroll and attend right when a youngster starts driving, so stability control is the paramount factor in your young ones’ car.


In fact, in October, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety even compiled a list of recent used cars recommended for teen drivers solely judged on safety and crash test results. Some are more affordable than others based on current data from Kelly Blue Book (, but there are many excellent choices under $10,000 across body styles and brands.

The IIHS does not factor repair costs or desirability, so there are several which I concur with, given those factors. Clearly, they are not all enthusiasts’ cars that would cause you and I to salivate upon first sight, but they are solid choices that won’t break the bank for your young drivers. These include the 2007-up Volvo S80 and 2008-up Volvo C30; the 2011-up Chrysler 200; the 2010-up Chevy Malibu with a build date after November, 2009 (these scored better on passenger safety then prior models); the 2008-up Audi A3; 2010-up Subaru Legacys and Foresters; 2011-up Hyundai Sonatas; the 2007-11 Honda Element; and the 2006-up Subaru Tribeca SUV, despite its homeliness.

The common thread through all of these disparate cars? Stability control.

Your kids are worth it.

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