Buying That First Car for a Teen Requires Research, Restraint [Slideshow]


You never forget that first car. Whether it was a clunker or a brand-new ride, most people can easily recall the first one they called their own. For young adults, the first car has become a rite of passage. But it’s also something that must be considered carefully before buying.

“Take a Goldilocks mentality when getting a car for a young person,” advises Tom McParland, a professional car-buying consultant who runs Automatch Consulting. “Cars that are too small don’t offer a lot of protection in a crash; however, you don’t want a novice driver in the biggest vehicle you can get your hands on.”


A larger car has a slower reaction time when it comes to braking and turning, which can be a recipe for disaster when combined with a new driver’s response to unexpected situations, McParland says.

“Normally I recommend compact to mid-size cars for teens,” McParland says. “They’re large enough to be safe, but small enough to be easily maneuverable. They also tend to be less expensive to insure and maintain.”

He adds that front-wheel-drive cars are easier to control in bad weather conditions such as snow or rain, so it’s a good idea to leave rear-wheel drive models to more experienced drivers. Either way, he says, “It is very important for all drivers to understand the benefits and limitations of the vehicle they are driving.”

While vehicle size matters, there are many other considerations when buying a car for a first-time driver.  Here are a few more things to factor in:

  • How old is it? A brand-new car is generally going to be pricier to insure, in part because of repair and replacement costs. Older vehicles may save you money up front but they won’t necessarily have some of the safety features you’re looking for and they may not handle as well. So a middle-aged car (five- to seven-years old) is a good bet.
  • How much does it cost? The cost of the car is more than the sticker price. Do your homework and know what kind of gas mileage you’ll get, what average repair costs are and what the cost will be to maintain and insure the car.
  • What kind of safety features does it offer? Today’s cars offer plenty of advanced safety options including electronic stability control, air bags and anti-lock brakes. While shopping around for safety features, know that some companies offer discounts for safety equipment.
  • How much power does it have? Stick to smaller (four-cylinder) models; they have less power and are easier for inexperienced drivers to control. Higher-horsepower models provide too much temptation for speeding, so a V6 or V8 may be more than a novice driver should take on.
  • Is it too sporty? Sportier cars might be the vehicle of choice for teens, but even a lower-powered four cylinder model that’s sported up can pose safety threats because it brings the temptation of risky behavior like speeding or racing. What are its crash test rating and safety record? Check out the history of the models you’re interested in by visiting You can find and compare ratings for virtually any car. Look for cars that score well. Since inexperienced drivers are more likely to have accidents, they’ll benefit from having greater protection in the event of an accident.

Safety matters

Getting the best safety features for the best price is usually the name of the game, particularly for a first car. One of the safety features you should make sure the car has is electronic stability control, or ESC.

“ESC is so crucial because it helps a driver keep control when they’re doing things like going around a curve too fast or driving on slippery roads,” explains Russ Rader, a senior vice president at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). “It helps prevent the loss-of-control crashes that teens are more likely to get into.”

ESC has only been required in cars since 2012 but many automakers were including it before then. So if parents are considering a car built prior to 2012, Rader recommends searching which cars have ESC.

“What it comes down to is that you want to buy as much safety as you can afford,” Rader says. “Do your research, and, if it doesn’t meet the safety ratings, don’t buy it.”