The ideal car for a first-time teen driver is one that decreases the odds of having an accident -- and minimizes the potential for harm if it does happen. We're talking pre-emptive damage control here.
Even if your kid is mature and responsible beyond his years, he is still a newbie behind the wheel. It takes a lot of seat time to become familiar with how a car behaves in various situations -- on ice and snow, at night, under unexpected conditions -- and more to the point, how other drivers behave in their cars.
The initial 12- to 48-month period is the "danger zone" when accidents -- because of errors of judgment, lack of experience or being in the wrong place at the wrong time -- are most likely to happen.
The car you choose for that first year or three of real-world, behind-the-wheel training can make all the difference between smooth sailing and something that doesn't have to happen.
Here are general car-buying guidelines that will help keep your teen driver out of trouble:
1. Choose a car. Sport utility vehicles and pickups are poor choices for first-time drivers, especially SUVs and trucks without four-wheel drive. They tend to be light in the rear and thus have a tendency to "fishtail" during panic stops or when the road is slick.
Even with four-wheel drive, pickups and SUVs are less stable, tip more easily, take longer to stop and are generally more dangerous for a new driver. It's better to learn the essentials on a car before moving to a specialty vehicle.
2. Choose a larger car. Bigger is inherently safer, especially in the event of a crash into a fixed object or with a larger vehicle.
Larger cars offer more built-in protection because they're able to absorb more force than smaller, lighter cars. Vehicles in the full- and midsize category tend to score much better in crash testing than cars in the compact and smaller categories, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Web site (www.nhtsa .dot.gov).
3. Choose a later model car. Reliability can be as important as safety. You don't want your kid learning the hard way about bald tires, bad brakes, shot shocks and a worn-out suspension.
Take the time to make certain the car is mechanically sound and roadworthy; have a reputable shop or mechanic give it a thorough once-over -- and fix anything that needs fixing.
4. Choose a simple car. Pick a vehicle without a wing, hood scoop, loud exhaust, big engine or anything else that says "I'm looking for a race."
Few teens have the judgment to resist being egged on by other teens to "see what it'll do." If it looks fast or sounds fast, you can bet they'll want to see just how fast it really is. And the result is often tragic.
V-8s should be off the menu, period -- but eyeball even the four-bangers, because some of them may look tame but are silly-fast things. Side benefit: You will pay much less to insure an under-21 driver if you avoid high-performance vehicles and stick with basic transportation.
5. Choose ABS and air bags. Most cars built after 1995 will have both of these safety features.
Antilock brakes, or ABS, prevent the vehicle from skidding out of control during a panic stop. Air bags protect against impact forces in a crash and are particularly valuable in smaller vehicles as they compensate to some extent for smaller size and weight.
If you must buy a smaller car, try to find one with both frontal and side-impact air bags, as they will dramatically improve the survivability of a smaller car.
6. Choose manual transmission. In some European countries, a license applicant must take his driver's test in a car with a manual transmission -- a sound idea that says a person who has mastered starting a car on a hill without stalling or rolling backward, who knows how to smoothly engage the right gear at the right time, to safely merge into traffic and so on has probably mastered the basic skills necessary to be a safe driver.
Modern cars are deceptively easy to "drive" in the sense of getting them going. Operating a manual transmission, on the other hand, is a skill that takes time to develop -- and imparts respect for the skill it takes to do so competently. Learning to drive on a stick-shift car is a great training tool and will help your teen become a better -- and safer -- driver.
7. Choose front- or all-wheel-drive. Front-wheel-drive cars and all-wheel-drive cars get better traction in rain and snow and thus are easier to control than a rear-wheel-drive car. Rear-wheel-drive cars also have a tendency to oversteer (fishtail) when they begin to skid, but front-wheel-drive cars tend to understeer (the front of the car "plows"), which is easier for the novice driver to handle.
If you must go with a rear-wheel-drive car, pick one that comes with electronic traction control to limit wheel spin on slippery surfaces and, ideally, an electronic stability control system, which uses the antilock brakes to keep the vehicle on course when it otherwise would begin to slip out of control.
Perhaps the most important way to protect your child, though, is to do all you can to teach him to drive with respect for others and to use common sense. Point out examples of good and bad driving, and show your teen by your example how it's done. Warn him of the dangers of being cocky and overconfident. Deal strictly with poor conduct and bad choices -- and pull those privileges if your kid does something that shows he may not respect being in charge of a potentially lethal machine.
If you can afford it, consider enrolling your teen in a professional driving course. These courses explain what happens during emergency situations, such as panic stopping or a swerve to avoid obstacles on the road, in a safe, controlled environment.
The cost can be high, but it's a lot cheaper than a totaled car -- or a lost life.
Eric Peters is an automotive columnist who has covered the auto industry since 1992. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, among other publications. E-mail him at Epeters952@aol.com.