Buying a first car for your teen? Shop for safety

At Bankrate we strive to help you make smarter financial decisions. While we adhere to strict , this post may contain references to products from our partners. Here’s an explanation for

It’s red, it’s shiny, it’s fast — and it’s for sale. And you have a 16-year-old son with a brand new driver’s license.

It’s his dream, and a parent’s nightmare.

Helping a teen bridge the gap between what he wants and what he needs is a big part of choosing a first car for a teenager. Safety has to be the first factor because statistically, teen drivers are an accident looking for a place to happen. That’s why their insurance rates are so high.

“We know a kid will almost certainly be in a crash between 16 and 20,” says Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which performs crash tests on vehicles.

“Surround them with as much car as you can afford. Since teens have a tendency to speed, you want a well-engineered car with crumple and crush space.”

It also helps if the car is slow and perhaps not too cool.

“If you put a kid in station wagon, he’ll drive it differently than if you put him in a sports car,” Rader says. “Teens tend to make driving errors and take more risks. The last thing you want to do is to give them a car to exacerbate that.”

Phil Berardelli, author of
Safe Young Drivers: A Guide for Parents and Teens, agrees.

“A big engine and a teenager should never be placed together on the road,” he says. “Their abilities are not up to speed. The last thing they need is the ability to go really fast.”

A survey done this summer for the Web-based car buying service says 70 percent of parents and teens shop in the used-car market for a first vehicle.

While price is important to both parents and teens (the vast majority of those surveyed planned to spend less than $10,000), the agreement ends there. When considering a specific vehicle, top concerns for parents were safety, price and vehicle condition. For teens, the top three issues were price, color and appearance, and safety, in that order.

Think big
So, once you get through to your teen that he’s not getting a hot rod for his 16th birthday, what are the most appropriate options?

Berardelli says parents should think big. Resist the thought that a smaller car will be easier for a teen to handle and give him more maneuverability to avoid an accident. Statistically, smaller cars are involved in more accidents than larger ones.

“They’re going to bump into things for a while; they need the protection” of a bigger car, Berardelli says. “Smaller cars are easier to handle, but the ratio between small cars and the biggest things on the road is widening with the sport utility vehicles.”

His recommendation is an “old, big clunky car,” that has more steel than newer models.

“Your best bet is a sturdy, not overpowered sedan,” he says. “It’s not going to go very fast and allows them to get into the process of driving … You don’t want them driving in high-powered automobiles or SUVs with high centers of gravity that will roll over or skid.”

If you go the older model route, take a good look at the seat belts in the passenger compartment. Three times as many teens die as passengers than behind the wheel. Look for three-point seat belts, and make it a rule that everybody in the car wears their seat belts before the car moves. Teens have a poor record of using seat belts when their parents aren’t in the car.

Also, make sure the vehicle fits the size of the driver. A large car may provide a good crumple zone, but if your teenage daughter is 4 feet 10 inches tall, she won’t have a comfortable command of the steering wheel, accelerator or brake, or have a clear view of the road.

The Insurance Institute recommends newer models. They perform better in crash tests and have additional safety features such as air bags, passive restraints and anti-lock brakes. They’re added protection for inexperienced drivers, Rader says.

If you opt for a used car, the standard rules apply. Do your homework and have your mechanic check the car before you buy.

Cover yourself
For $14.95, you can order a report on the car’s history from
Carfax. For an extra five bucks, you can get reports on all the cars you’re looking at. With the Vehicle Identification Number, you can find out if a car has ever been reported as a loss to an insurance company, branded a lemon or had flood damage. Plus, you’ll get the last recorded odometer reading.

Also, several car-buying sites, such as, allow you to do side-by-side comparisons of several vehicles’ features, performance and safety equipment.

While Rader was reluctant to designate any vehicles as the “safest” cars for a beginning driver, he was willing to drive home the point about what to steer clear of.

“I wouldn’t get a small sport utility vehicle,” he says. “They sit up high and have a tendency to roll over. They’re promoted as off-road vehicles, and it doesn’t take much for a kid to want to test the limits of a vehicle.

“I also wouldn’t get any high-performance sports car. If a young man falls in love with a car that’s bright red, has a big engine and sits low to the ground, it’s probably not the car for him.”