How to Pick out a Car for Your Teen Driver

(Here's what you should know first)

Happy teenage girl shows off the key to her new car.

Teenagers lead busy lives. Between school, sports, work and other activities, giving your teen a car can simplify your life and theirs. But choosing the right car can be difficult.

So how do you, as a parent, make the best decision about which car to buy? The following are some frequently asked questions you should consider. It'll point you in the right direction and narrow down your options. Just make sure your teen is covered with an affordable car insurance policy.

Should I buy a new or used car?

There is no right or wrong answer. However, there are factors parents should consider that will affect the new vs. used car decision.

Here are some new car factors:

  • Insurance rates are higher for new cars.
  • New cars have fewer maintenance issues.
  • New cars are typically more reliable. 

But there are some benefits to old cars, too:

  • Old cars eliminate artificial inflation in cost.
  • Old cars have a performance record, and can be considered "more reliable" based on prior performance.

That being said, this issue comes down to:

  • Preference
  • How much you are prepared to spend on a car
  • The likelihood that your child will take care of the car

What should I look for if I’m buying a used car for my teen?

Most parents buy used cars for their teens because:

  • Insurance rates are lower for parents than on a new car.
  • New car prices are artificially inflated.
  • Used cars are more affordable.

It's best to purchase your teen's used car from a lot where the vehicle is dealer-certified and comes with a limited warranty. If you purchase a used car from a private seller, you may be unaware of the car’s history and if it has safety or reliability issues. 

This doesn't mean you can never purchase from a private seller. Doing so comes without dealer costs, so you can get a better deal. Regardless of where you purchase, get a report on the car. Take it to a mechanic if you have to. A deal isn't a deal if you're paying for repairs every few months.

The Bottom Line: If you buy a used car for your teen, here's what you should pay attention to:

  • Price (in relation to condition and age of the car)
  • Usability (get a mechanic's report)
  • Reliability (think age and track record of the car and others like it)

What factors should I consider when purchasing a new car for my teen?

The best car for one teen won't be the best car for another teen. This means that parents should pay attention to several factors, like:

  • Size: SUVs can be dangerous because they are too big, but some compact cars are too small. Most parents go for a mid-sized sedan to make sure their teen is protected in a crash.
  • Safety: If you purchase a cheaper model, you can add more safety features and stay within your budget. This might include features like rear-view cameras, blind spot detection and electronic stability control.
  • Reliability: You want to purchase a car that won't leave your teen stranded on the side of the road.
  • Other cost efficiencies: While fuel economy is important, you should consider differences in the cost to insure each new car, too. Add in the price of potential repairs and you'll have a better idea of how much your teen's car will cost you.

Keep in mind that while cost is one factor that can affect most of the others, you can save money in other areas. For example, you may be able to recover a portion of these costs as reductions on your insurance premiums.

What is the safest type of car to buy?

Safety is by far every parent's biggest concern for their teen. 

A large part of safety has to do with your teen's behavior, including seatbelt use and avoidance of cell phones while driving. But the car itself matters, as does maintaining it properly to ensure it's as safe as possible.

Let's talk about size first:

  • Subcompact cars have very small crumple zones, increasing the risk of injury in an accident.
  • Sport utility vehicles have a high center of gravity, making them prone to roll-overs. The roof isn't always that strong, which also leaves your teen in danger.
  • Sports cars are too powerful and are often small, also putting your child at risk.

This often means the safest choice is a large or mid-sized sedan. They're heavier than subcompact cars, not as big as SUVs, and have enough weight with just enough power to keep your teen protected.

A Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study found that in traffic accidents involving male drivers under the age of 25, the vehicles least likely to cause fatal injuries included:

  • Large sedans: 5%
  • Minivans: 7%
  • Mid-sized sedans: 14%
  • SUVs: 14%

The vehicles in which drivers were most likely to suffer a fatality were:

  • Sports cars: 36%
  • Import luxury cars: 26%
  • Pick-ups: 24%
  • Subcompact cars: 22%
  • Compact cars: 21%

Before purchasing any vehicle, be sure to check out its safety ratings by consulting the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Safety Administration (NHSA). These groups put vehicles through rigorous safety testing and publish their results on their websites.

How do I know if the car I am purchasing is reliable?

You can't see the future. But keeping your teen's car well-maintained and getting it inspected annually will go a long way. Some cars, however, are known to have problems.

If you're purchasing a used car, you can easily find the car's reliability rating. The dealer should have a report. If the dealer doesn't, you can find a report online. If you are purchasing a new car, you should base its potential reliability on the maker’s track record.

Some reliability issues aren't things you can plan for. Be sure that your child knows what to do in the event of a breakdown. If your insurance provider offers roadside assistance as a coverage option, you may want to invest in it. This gives your teen a phone number to call if they ever have a problem.

Is my insurance going to skyrocket?

It's a fact: Teen drivers are one of the groups most likely to get in an accident. This happens because of driver inexperience, distractions, and careless behavior. When you add a teen driver to your auto insurance, you can expect your rates to rise - but it might not be by as much as you think.

Luckily, certain discounts are available. For example:

  • Defensive driving course: Your teen will learn how to be safe and defensive behind the wheel, and you might get a discount on insurance.
  • Good grades: Some companies provide a small discount for good grades.
  • Cars left at home during college: Some companies give a discount on insurance if a teen leaves the car home and goes away to school.

Speak with a representative at your insurance company to learn how you can keep your costs at a reasonable level.

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