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Car for a 16-year-old

We’re discussing what kind of car to get for our 16-year-old daughter to drive to school. My husband favors the smaller 4-door models like the Kia Spectra. I just worry that cars that small are unsafe. He says with all the airbags and safety equipment today, they’re fine, but I still think a mid-size model is better. Any thoughts?

Your husband is thinking rationally, and today’s smaller cars are very safe. The two most important factors for your daughter’s safety are 1) the ease of driving the car, including steering out of trouble, and 2) her own driving skills.

My wife feels very unsafe in a car she cannot easily control. I used to have a large “safe” car which she refused to drive, preferring her own Nissan Sentra.

Both my wife and son have taken advanced driving courses specializing in DEFENSIVE driving as well as severe winter weather driving.

You will get a variety of responses from the regulars here, but the ability of the driver to manage the vehicle at all times is the most important aspect, in my opinion.

I agree with your husband. There are many safe small cars. You can use to evaluate the safety ratings of whatever car you consider. Also, you can look at consumer reviews on as well as the car talk car report on this site to see what actual owners of whatever car you are looking at feel about that car.

I think a small sedan is perfect. The only thing I’d add is the word “used.”

Don’t buy a brand new car for a 16 year old.

There is nothing “unsafe” about a Spectra, Corolla, Civic, etc. Both of my kids drove cars like this when they were young, and they had no problems whatsoever.

The most important safety feature on any car is the DRIVER. If your daughter has been taught to drive safely it won’t matter what kind of car she drives.

Make sure she follows rule #1:

Absolutely NO cell phone use, talking or texting, while driving.

Get A Large Car. They Are Generally Safer Than Small Cars In A Collision, Often Much Safer.
You will see that on the IIHS and NHTSA websites. Young drivers are more likely to be in a collision.

Whatever reasons your husband or anybody responding here give you, that truth of the matter is that you will worry yourself sick if she is driving a small car.

When my son started driving I was nervous with him in a mid-size car. I was much more relaxed after researching and putting him in a large 5-star crash rated domestic car with front and side air bags.

Should he have been unfortunate enough to be in a collision it was my responsibility to see to it that he was protected. Definitely get a large car with high crash ratings and modern safety equipment. You would never forgive yourself if you failed in this parental responsibility.

A bonus to large safe cars is most often lower collision insurance premiums. Even insurance companies know a better bet when they see it.


My first car was a 93 Honda Accord wagon. Sharp steering, responsive handling (thanks to double wishbone suspension front and back, huzzah!)
I agree with most that the car should be easy to handle and steer. Unexpected events that may be minor annoyances for seasoned drivers are absolutely terrifying situations for new drivers, so a nimble, quick-on-its-feet vehicle is a must. Luckily, I never had an opportunity to test how safe the car was in terms of crashes, but the reviews I read were favorable (although it didn’t have any of the new handy-dandy features like side curtain airbags, active head restraints, etc).
I disagree on dropping wads upon wads of cash on a new or newish car with bucket-loads of features. The more features, the heavier the car, and, depending on make/ model/ trim specs, the heavier the car, the harder it is to control in certain situations. The more mass a car has, the harder it will hit, because as opposed to say, 2700lbs traveling at perhaps 25-35mph (the speed at which many accidents occur), a heavier car may have upwards of 3500lbs traveling at 25-35mph. Which do you think is harder to slow down?
Mid-sized sedans seem to be quite good. Volvos, for instance, are quite good. I recall seeing a friend’s car after being t-boned. There was serious cosmetic damage to the body panels, which were dented at a depth close to a foot deep, but the interior was completely unharmed, at least from what I could see.
Key items to look for, though, are ABS and, of course, airbags. (some cars, like earlier 4th generation accords, 91 and previous, had “suicide belts” in place of airbags…)

“Mid-sized sedans seem to be quite good. Volvos, for instance, are quite good. I recall seeing a friend’s car after being t-boned. There was serious cosmetic damage to the body panels, which were dented at a depth close to a foot deep, but the interior was completely unharmed, at least from what I could see.”

15 or 20 years ago, Volvos were probably the safest cars on the road. However, since all of the other manufacturers effectively played “catch-up” at a later date, the safety advantage of Volvos disappeared some time ago.

Last year, I was riding in my friend’s 2001 Accord when we were T-boned by a crazed woman in a Lexus SUV. The damage to the side of the Accord was sufficient for the insurance company to “total” it, even though it did not really even look that bad to the naked eye. The interior sustained no damage whatsoever, and neither of us suffered any injuries from the crash. Trust me–a Volvo could not have made us any safer than we were in that Accord, and the difference in purchase price (as well as the incredibly high cost of maintenance and repairs on a Volvo) would surely not have been worth it.

You have to let the primordial, reptilian section of your brain make this decision. You don’t go to war riding a pony when everyone else is riding grandiose steeds!!
Where do you draw the line? If a mid-size is better than a compact, isn’t a full size even more safe? Heck, move up to the full hummer w/armor plating and everything but the most robust IED will simply bounce off the exterior! Hey, you scratched my paint PAL!

Seriously, it’s about risk vs reward. A tough line when it’s your kid.

A huge percentage of dangerous situations are actually under the driver’s control. If the daughter exercises care and restraint, pays attention and drives defensively, then almost any car can be safe 99.9% of the time. Is it worth it to you and her, to suffer all of the downsides of riding around in a massive tank for that 0.1% chance of something outside of her control? That is a decision only the parents and she can make. Nothing will ever be 100% safe. It’s where you draw the line and your tolerance for risk. Teaching her how to minimize the risk and witnessing her exercising that care should put your mind at ease enough to allow her all of the benefits of the smaller car. And the safety difference between a 4 door Spectra and a mid-sized is negligible IMO unless it’s a Volvo tank or something.

4 door Kia Spectras are too big. You need something small 2 door car. Something without a radio. Something unpopular. Big car encourages her friends to ride in it. At that age, peer passengers can become as bad as texting.

At 16, I did some stupid stuff when I had passengers that I rather had not done.

Thanks for all the thoughtful replies. We were not planning to buy a new car (I don’t believe in new cars!), but probably a 2007 or 2008. We will probably go for the smaller car, and I’m going to look into a defensive driving class.

We started both of our kids with Novas/Prisms Corollas. They later graduated to used Accords. Accords/Camrys are always my first choice for recomendations. The minimal gain in economy of a Spectra is not worth the loss in security of a little heavier car and better record of reliability. Others can argue for some something else but these models are tough to argue against.

Small cars are not as safe as larger cars. They can’t be. If a small car impacts a large one, the large car transfers momentum to the small one. There is a lot more energy input into the small car. And there is not as much room to absorb the impact in the crumple zone. A good source for this information is HLDI:

Look at the 4-door size groups. The smaller cars generally cost more in an accident because they, and the drivers, experience more damage. This does not mean that they are unsafe. Car safety has improved tremendously in the last 20 years. But if a Kia Rio meets a Chevrolet Suburban, the Kia is toast. It is highly unlikely that your daughter will be in an accident and any car is likely to be acceptable. But if you want to enhance personal safety in an accident, bigger is generally better.

The statisitics I’ve seen indicate mid-sized cars are safer in general, but cars of the same size can differ. You might get a Consumer Reports car buying guide. Also, this web site pulls safety info together from lots of different tests:

I won’t put a 16 year old in any car less than 8 years old. Too small isn’t good, too big isn’t good, and too powerful is horrible. The more the kid wants the car the less likely they should have it, for instance boys who have to have Mustangs.

Girls are more pragmatic about cars and not into testosterone driven show off antics. But girls can go too fast as too. Any older mid size sedan with a few bumps, scapes, and nicks is good. Before you spend much money on the motor, make sure the brakes work perfectly.

I just feel giving new driver’s a car that is too nice and too expensive is asking for trouble and high insurance rates. I also do not pay for collision insurance on new drivers. If the wreak the car they are out of luck, no Mr. Insurance to the rescue unless it is the other driver’s fault and their insurance covers the repairs.

Used minivan, great crash statistics,gas mileage not too bad, not rollover prone like suvs, and best of all ,none of their friends will want to ride in it.

I learned to driver may years ago and I survived.  I would take a modern small car any day over and old large car.  Size is a factor, but with modern cars it is far less important than it was before.  

I would place the maturity of the new driver far far more important than the car when it comes to safety.  If they are a mature and competent driver, the differences in cars is nothing.  

What you really don't want is a 16 year old in a muscle car.