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Choosing an Automobile for a New Driver

The right pick will build good driving and ownership habits

A friend of mine recently posted photos of a Ford Focus RS that met an unfortunate demise via a rather forceful impact with a large tree in his quiet neighborhood. The driver was young and it’s clear he was travelling far too quickly on the residential road. It’s also clear to me that a 350 hp hot hatch isn’t remotely an appropriate automobile for a young, inexperienced driver. Which got me thinking—what is the right type of vehicle for a new driver, anyway?

First, you must remember that pretty much all modern cars are very quick. Gone are the days of properly slow vehicles. My first car was a 1983 Audi 4000 S. I badly wanted a 1983-1984 Volkswagen Rabbit (Golf) GTI but my dad, having owned one, smartly knew that the pocket rocket VW wasn’t a good idea for round one of car ownership. Under the hood of my Audi sedan was a not-even-remotely-lively 74-horspower, 1.7-liter engine. Extra-long gearing in the five-speed manual gearbox added to its leisurely demeanor but the boxy Audi never had any issues keeping up with traffic and cruised happily and efficiently at 80 mph on the highway. Today, the base Audi A4 in North America has 252 hp and hits 60 mph from a stop in around 6 seconds. That’s similar performance to a late ‘80s Porsche 911 Carrera. Even your average modern crossover/SUV would blow away the majority of vehicles on the road 25-year ago.

Speaking of crossovers, there’s the natural assumption by many parents that new drivers need all-wheel drive, especially in the snowbelt. They don’t. Power to all four wheels isn’t necessarily a good fit for educating drivers from scratch. The extra traction can give a false sense of security, especially in inclement weather. Front-wheel drive (with winter tires, of course) is the right setup for the snow as the forward momentum is better aligned with the grip levels when turning and braking. I also recommend buying a car instead of an SUV or crossover, as their lower stance means they tend to handle better and provide drivers more of a feel for the road.

Then we come to the transmission choice. There are many reasons why a manual gearbox is a good idea for a new driver but I fully understand the difficulty in finding a car thus equipped. Plus, finding a parent who actually knows how to drive a manual transmission and, therefore, is able to teach the skill to a new driver is getting more and more difficult. I prefer the three-pedal setup as it keeps drivers focused on the task at hand—driving. You’re less likely to reach for a smart phone or multitask if you have to shift gears. Again, the manual gearbox route isn’t an easy one for most people but, if it can work, I highly recommend taking the path and teaching your child the life-long skill and pleasure of dipping a clutch and shifting gears.

There’s also the matter of who pays for a teenager’s first car. Even if you can afford it, you should share the costs with your child. This includes insurance, which can be crazy expensive for a new driver. That 1983 Audi came with 144,000 miles (one-owner, with flawless service records from new) on the clock and cost $1,900 to purchase in 1991 (equivalent to about $3,470 today). I paid for half and my dad paid for half. He also made me a deal: if I kept the car nice and got good grades, he’d pay me my $950 portion when I graduated from high school. I took excellent care of my Audi and got the money from my dad in 1993. I continue to take OCD-like care of my cars to this day because I started off with that mindset from the beginning. My cars are worth more when I sell them and people often ask me to get in touch when I put one of my cars up for sale due to the meticulous maintenance and well-kept condition.

Given all of this, what vehicles make sense for the new driver? Well, the easy route is to not worry about it and simply trickle-down a current family vehicle. I don’t recommend that path. It’s important to go through the process of hunting for a used vehicle with your child. Teach them the process of finding a quality, pre-owned automobile. If one of my kids were ready for their first car, I’d be digging through Craigslist ads for a $5,000-7,000 (or maybe less) car outside of the salt belt (read: a rust free car) featuring a manual gearbox, a well-written ad and good photos. I’d make sure to confirm service records, ownership history, etc. and, if all checks out, I’d invest in having the car inspected by a reputable mechanic.

Maybe a Mazda3 or a Ford Focus would be good, as I’m partial to the utility and style of a hatchback. Or a Toyota product like a Matrix—or its twin, the Pontiac Vibe. Even though I like the German engineering, I’d stay away from an older VW Golf due to potential expensive repairs. They seem to lack simplicity and reliability. I like Honda products too, but most are sedans and their high resale values make them more expensive to purchase. Again, the rarity of a manual gearbox means I’d stay pretty open to what specific vehicle to hunt for and concentrate on service records, ownership history, condition, etc.

I’m glad I have quite a bit of time before I need to worry about this process with my kids. It’s not an easy one, but it’s never too early to begin chatting with your children about the process, costs of car ownership, maintenance routine, insurance, etc. Car enthusiasts sometimes take for granted that many of us understand the world of buying of good car. Many people don’t, especially the youth. So start by teaching your kids early. Maybe they’ll grow up to be responsible enough (and interested enough) to eventually to enjoy the ownership of a crazy-fast hot hatchback without imbedding it into a tree.