Car Buying:  College Cars

Buying a New Car for Your Grad

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author photo by Christian Wardlaw May 2013

When it comes to buying new cars for grads, parents must consider several important factors besides finding a vehicle that meets a defined budget. After all, what's important to Mom and Dad is probably going to be a bit different from what's important to the newly-minted graduate. Your son or daughter is most likely concerned about in-car technology and connectivity, as well as whether or not a new set of wheels is going to reflect his or her personality, sense of aesthetics and perceived socioeconomic status — all while proving acceptable to peers. You, however, are interested in finding a safe, dependable and affordable form of transportation that can faithfully serve your child for years to come.

The good news is that there are vehicles that can satisfy everyone's requirements. It just takes some research to determine what they are. So, here's some advice about buying new cars for grads from a father whose daughter is turning 16, taking driver's education and needs a vehicle for school, sports and work. These are the things I'm thinking about.


As a parent, one of your biggest responsibilities is to keep your child healthy and safe, and that extends to selecting a vehicle that will do its best to achieve the same goals.

When buying a new car for your child, start by reviewing crash test ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS, Keep in mind that each of these organizations measures safety in different ways. Ultimately, though, any list containing the vehicles that are top-rated by both organizations will represent the safest models currently for sale.

Beyond crash test results, consider whether key safety equipment is standard or optional. In recent years, technology formerly reserved for more expensive vehicles has become available on more affordable vehicles, and some automakers provide more than just the government-mandated safety features even on the base versions of their less expensive models. For example, Toyota installs Smart Stop Technology on every new Lexus, Scion and Toyota the company builds. Smart Stop Technology is a system designed to make it impossible for the vehicle to accelerate if the brake pedal and the accelerator pedal are pressed at the same time.

Additionally, consider purchasing a car that offers automatic collision notification service. This feature activates when the vehicle's airbags deploy, and puts the occupants in touch with a live operator who can assess the situation and dispatch emergency personnel to the car's exact location to help speed rescue. Ford offers this technology as a part of its basic Sync connectivity system, and the 911 Assist feature works when a paired smartphone is aboard the vehicle at the time of the accident. General Motors provides a similar service as a part of its OnStar system, a subscription-based program that is usually free for a few months when a car is new but then requires monthly payments to keep active.


Ideally, if you're buying a new car for your daughter or son, you want it to last for a while. After all, that's one of the primary reasons you're choosing a new car instead of a used car in the first place, right?

To best assess whether a new car will be reliable, consider the previous performance of the model in studies performed by Consumer Reports or J.D. Power and Associates. If the nameplate is new and there is no history of dependability to consult, consider the overall reliability performance of the brand over the past decade.

Alternatively, select a vehicle with a long, comprehensive warranty that also provides roadside assistance. For example, both Hyundai and Kia provide a bumper-to-bumper warranty for five years or 60,000 miles, with powertrain coverage that lasts for 10 years or 100,000 miles. Additionally, these two brands provide five years of free roadside assistance with no mileage limit, which means that if your kid runs out of gas, gets a flat tire, suffers a dead battery or locks the keys in the car, help is just a phone call away, day or night, anywhere in the United States.


Value means different things to different people. For the purposes of advising parents about buying a new car for a child, we'll define it as vehicle price, fuel economy, insurance, resale value and practicality.

Chances are, you have a budget for this purchase. That said, remember that getting the best value doesn't necessarily mean buying the least expensive vehicle. For example, small differences in combined fuel economy ratings can amount to big savings over time, so choosing a vehicle that gets good gas mileage adds value.

Keep in mind that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fuel economy estimates are just that: They are estimates. You can't necessarily expect to achieve those numbers in real-world driving, so be sure to consult third-party sources of information to get an idea of reported gas mileage observations by expert car reviewers and the people who already own the models on your consideration list. Some car companies are very good at providing accurate fuel economy estimates on the window sticker, and some are not.

Some new cars come with free scheduled maintenance for a specific number of years or within a specific number of miles, which can help save money as your graduating child is getting started. For example, new Volkswagen models provide oil changes, tire rotations and other services at no charge for the first three years or 36,000 miles of ownership.

The cost of insuring a car is also an important consideration when choosing a new vehicle for your child. Speak to your current insurance company about your options and to find out which vehicles on your list are more affordable to insure.

Also, be sure that your child understands what will happen to their car insurance rates if they get speeding tickets or other moving violations, or if they have an at-fault accident. Make sure your child understands the concept of a deductible and how much it will cost if he or she damages the vehicle in a way that requires repair. Put this data into context — perhaps in terms of hours needed to work at a part-time job to repay the added costs.

Eventually, your child's new car will become an old car that needs to be replaced. When the time comes to sell, your daughter or son will want to extract maximum value from it in order to reduce the cost of the replacement vehicle. That's why, when buying a new vehicle today, it is important to consider the resale value tomorrow. A good source of such data is ALG (, a company that publishes depreciation ratings for new vehicles. The safe bet is to choose a popular model with a good reputation that will be desirable as a used vehicle many years from now.

Finally, consider how practical a vehicle might be for your child after he or she leaves the nest. A Jeep Wrangler or Subaru BRZ might be what your kids wants today; however, will that prove to be a smart choice in coming years, as they move from location to location, come home for holidays, launch careers and start a family? No, it won't — and it will add unnecessary complexity to their lives, and possibly yours.


Given recent shifts in generational values, your teenage son or daughter likely places a high priority on in-car technology to make sure they never miss a call, text, tweet or post.

While some car companies have been slow to understand this and provide these features in their lower-priced models, others see the inclusion of such features in affordable models as a key marketing opportunity. As a result, many of the affordable models on your consideration list likely offer voice-activated Bluetooth hands-free calling and music streaming, incoming text-to-voice messaging with standardized auto-reply response and a decent-sounding stereo system.

Beyond these modern technological basics, some affordable new cars also offer the ability to run certain smartphone applications through the Bluetooth and voice-recognition systems, or by using an in-dash touchscreen display. This type of service makes it possible to check Facebook and Twitter, access favorite Internet radio stations via Pandora and iHeartRadio, browse the Web using Google or Bing search engines and more.

Additionally, some vehicles even provide owners with the ability to watch a movie or play video games on the in-dash display screen, as long as the vehicle's transmission is in the Park position. Don't believe it? Check out the Hyundai Veloster's optional equipment list.

While we're on the subject of in-car technology, it bears mentioning that everyone in your household needs to understand the ramifications of driver distraction. As a parent, you are your child's role model. If you drive while distracted, so will your kid. Driving while distracted frequently results in an accident that hurts or kills people, and distracted drivers are increasingly held legally and financially accountable when collisions result from distracted driving.

Think about the following statistics:

  • Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death in teenagers
  • In 2011, 23 percent of all collisions involved a cell phone
  • Texting while driving increases the potential of a crash by 23 times
  • Every day, nine people are killed and 1,060 people are injured in crashes caused by a distracted driver

Be a good role model for your child and have this conversation with your graduating son or daughter, if you haven't already.


Your kid probably wants something cool to drive, however he or she defines it. One thing is certain: A gray Toyota Corolla LE with plastic wheel covers isn't it. Even if it's free.

The good news is that there are new vehicles for sale that offer a degree of cool without sacrificing safety, reliability or value, and that have the types of technology your teenager seeks in a new set of wheels. The model they really want might not make the cut, but if you're footing the bill, that doesn't really matter, does it?

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.
Buying a New Car for Your Grad - Autotrader