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author photo by Autotrader October 2007

Can’t figure out what’s the best type of vehicle to select for a new teenage driver? You know to avoid that backfiring rust bucket with space aliens in the trunk or that muscle car that would bury you with insurance premiums, but are some types of cars better for beginning drivers than others? Before you give your teen that mint-condition ‘77 International Scout or ‘86 Chevy Sprint - or even that shiny new SUV - consider the following tips:

Avoid SUVs and small cars. For many good reasons, conventional truck-based sport-utility vehicles aren’t recommended for first-time drivers, nor are small cars. A higher center of mass in SUVs usually gives them unforgiving handling characteristics compared to passenger cars. Abrupt maneuvers, distraction from friends, or simply “fooling around” could lead to a rollover accident. Small cars should be avoided because they do not always provide the occupant protection that larger cars do, especially in collisions with other larger vehicles, and teens are for obvious reasons more at risk for being involved in accidents. Inexperienced new drivers should have a moderate-sized vehicle with stable, predictable handling characteristics.

Steer clear of flamboyant sports car models and models with a strong performance image. The reason is obvious! According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an insurance-industry affiliate, the statistics show that younger people are more likely to be in a speed-related crash in such vehicles. Chalk it up to peer pressure, the sound and feel of these cars, and the way they’re marketed.

Newer is generally better. Contrary to the popular opinion of “Detroit Iron” advocates, a ‘77 Chevy Malibu doesn’t provide better protection than a ‘97 Chevy Lumina. Newer models offer more safety features, plus they have better structural crash protection (i.e. the car will sacrifice itself for the driver, and not the other way around). Newer cars are also less likely to suffer from stalling problems or other component failures that might cause a lack of control, especially for inexperienced drivers. Worthwhile safety features to look for on late-model cars include anti-lock brakes and dual airbags.

Choose a model with good performance, but not high performance. You don’t want your younger driver in an underpowered slug, because some power is necessary for safe passing maneuvers and merging. On the other hand, it shouldn’t have so much power that encourages spirited driving, if not reckless driving. Avoid older diesel models and midsize four-cylinder cars from the 1980s, for example.

Automatic for new drivers. While many driving schools recommend simultaneously teaching teens on both manual- and automatic-transmission cars, it’s a good idea to put your new driver in a car that does the shifting for itself. Real-world driving distractions that aren’t issues during learning, like eating, talking to passengers, trying to find directions, or tuning the radio while driving, can easily fluster a new driver who also has to worry about shifting in traffic. If he or she really wants a manual gearbox, trade the car in after at least a year.

So what’s best? Most auto experts, consumer groups, and insurance industry officials agree that the best cars for new teen drivers are late-model midsize sedans: cars like the Chevrolet Lumina, Ford Taurus, or Honda Accord. These vehicles provide a good combination of decent handling and performance along with good occupant protection. Look to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and also with the Insurance Industry for Highway Safety for crash test results, and check with Consumer Reports for advice on reliability and other safety issues.

Hopefully you and your teen driver will find some common ground: With a little luck, you might just find that special car that’s safe, not too hideous, and - of course - has a good stereo.


© 2001 The Car Connection

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
First-Car Tips - Autotrader