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Help buying a car for teen

Hello. This is my very first CarTalk post so please be gentle. We’re in the market for a used car for our 17-year old daughter. She’ll be driving it this year and next, and then summer/holidays when she’s away at college.

We’d like it to be a smallish sedan (so easier to manuever for a new driver), 4-door, safe, low maintenance and not too $$ to fix, but nice looking.

I’ve heard good things about Gulliver so am looking online there. I’ve found dealers to be a bit more $$. We could go the CraigsList route but then we’d have to hire a mechanic.

Am hoping for an older (2004/5) car w/lowish mileage (50k)and we have time to wait to find one.

We’ve narrowed our search down to a Honda Civic and a VW Jetta.

Any ideas or suggestions? Thanks so much.

I would drop the Jetta from my list and replace it with the Toyota Corolla. The reliability of VWs has been less than stellar for the past 10 years or so, and their repair costs are more than the Japanese brands.

The Civic and the Corolla are two of the most reliable vehicles on the planet. The Chevrolet Prizm is a Corolla wearing a bow tie, and is a very good car. Another excellent choice is the Mazda3.

'tween those two, the honda.
My daughter loved her Ford Ranger pickup that we got out of a government motor pool sale for a song. Manual trans and all.

Mcparadise stole my thunder. I was going to say exactly what he said. I recently bought a car and considered the Jetta because I liked the look of it. After doing a bit of research on it I was scared away.

A small pickup truck can be very useful for some, but shouldn’t be recommended to new drivers. I read not too long ago that they had the highest driver death rate of any segment.

She’s probably going to hate me, but I’d definitely rule out the Jetta. For one, they have some pretty nasty reliability problems and they’re generally expensive to maintain. Secondly, at least in my opinion, that car is too fun for a teenage girl. A first car should be something that’s not really very flashy that’s going to get treated just like basic transportation and not going to end up being the cruising around vehicle of choice among her friends.

I’d say look at a nice midsize domestics along the lines of the Chevy Malibu, Buick Century (or really any non-SUV Buick), the old version of the Ford Taurus, etc. (didn’t I say she was going to hate me?). As an added bonus, these can be had for far cheaper than either of the two models you’re looking at and all of them, especially the Buicks, are about as reliable as any of the imports and the parts cost a lot less for them to boot.

My one other word of caution is that with a teenaged driver no matter how responsible, there’s a 50/50 chance they’re going to wreck whatever car you get in the first few years of driving. Because it is incredibly expensive to put full coverage on a nicer newer car with a teenage driver, I’d stick with just liability insurance and buy something that’s old and cheap enough that you can afford to write it off.

i agree with mcparadise vw is very expensive to maintain and definatly have reliability problems. id go for a toyota corolla excellent mileage and comfortable also easy to maintain

I just bought a '03 Ford Focus for my 17 year old daughter. I did my research and the Focus is the only American brand I considered. She likes the looks of the hatchback and you can get a 2-dr of 4-dr hatchback.

More expensive imports to look at are Mazda’s and of course Toyota’s and Honda’s.

2 Questions And A Couple Comments.

Have you considered any possibility of transferring one of your current cars to her and getting a replacement for yourselves?

Please give a price range so that we can help more. Please say whether or not you will be purchasing collision and comprehensive insurance.

I wouldn’t go too “smallish” for a newish driver.

I’ve done this recently and have seen the whole thing play out. I can offer more advice if you’ll include more information.


Check with your insurance agent on insurance costs before purchasing.

Mocromocro wrote:

We could go the CraigsList route but then we’d have to hire a mechanic.

It’s strongly advised that you have any used car you purchase checked out by a mechanic BEFORE you sign anything. There are too many opportunities for you to have a large repair bill afterward if you don’t.

Agreed! No matter where she buys the car, mocromocro will need to have any used car checked out by HER mechanic before she signs anything.

You hit it pretty well greasy-Jack. I’m not a big fan of American cars, but value-wise for what will prbably be a disposable car. Taurus, mMlibu, etc are a good bet.

And why is nobody addressing safety? Make sure whatever you get, that it has ABS and SIDE airbags, something that’s hard to come by on some of the econoboxes and rice-burners some of the folks are mentioning.

If the budget will handle it, the Mazda3 that was mentioned or its cousin, the Volvo S40 (2005 and after) and the older 2001-2004 S40 are good solid choices.

While avoiding used VWs is a good idea because they have some inherent problems along with being mostly driven by younger drivers who ride them hard and don’t maintain them, don’t think any of the cars mentioned are going to be hassle-free and cheap to maintain. Even the allegedly “bullet-proof” Toyotas can hurt you badly when the Check Engine light comes on.

You guys are great, great, great! All I’ve had time to do is go to Costco and you’ve already given me all this feedback.

I’ll nix the Jetta. I drive a Beetle which has been an awesome car service-wise, but I trust you on the Jetta. We thought about giving her the Beetle, but I really like the car and my next car will be more high-end and/or I’m waiting for an electric. So I felt we could ultimately save $$ by buying her an inexpensive but safe used car. My husband has a Range Rover so handing that down is not an option.

I’ve done some more research and yes, I now realize we can’t rely on CarFax and will defintely have a mechanic check out whatever we buy. Thank you. Our daughter is highly responsible but of course safety is impt and yes, side air bags would be great. I wouldn’t buy a microcar but I’m thinking something Civic-sized would be safe. She’ll only be driving this a year before she’s off to college and because of this, we don’t want a total junker as it will become an extra car for my husband and I and also because he’ll garage it at his office when she’s away at school and so we don’t want it to be a completely unpleasant experience when he takes it for a spin.

I was hoping for a well-maintained 3-5 year old car, the lowest mileage possible for $9k give or take and I was planning only to get liability insurance. We live in Pasadena, CA. I greatly appreciate all your advice. We’ll definitely look at Volvos,the Corolla and the Mazda, but I’m highly resistant to considering an American car. Sorry! And thanks again.

Since You Won’t Consider An American Car, I Won’t Waste Time With Possibly The Safest, Best Deal.

However, I will say to check with your insurance company. I don’t know California. We put full coverage on my son’s car and it wasn’t worth $9K. You’re willing to risk more than I would. Anyway, my son got two “real” discounts through our company. One was watching a video and keeping a log and reflecting on different topics in this safe driver’s program. The other was for good grades and that discount worked all through college and goes to age 25. His full-coverage insurance was not all that expensive, but I don’t live anywhere near Disneyland. Check and see what’s available.

Also, his 5-star rated, 30MPG, side airbag equipped, nicely equipped, sporty large “American” car was less expensive to insure than most, probably because of the safety it offers.

I can’t comment on “Volvo Corolla and Mazda” because they don’t sell or service them within hours of where we live. Can you believe it? I wouldn’t want one anyhow.


but I’m highly resistant to considering an American car. Sorry! And thanks again.

2000 Toyota Corolla VE with 134k miles, $4500:

2000 Chevy Prizm(rebadged Corolla) with 67k miles, $4500:

Thanks for the insurance tip. We’re insured w/All-State and I know they offer a good grade discount, but I hadn’t heard about the ‘watch a video’ program and I’ll definitely ask. I definitely will check rate for liability only vs. full coverage, but my sense is they prefer to quote you based on specific models.

These “17 year old daughter” threads are always so much fun… You could try those words in this boards search feature to see an encyclopedia of past recommendations…
A Ford Focus should be considered…In my opinion, the Jetta and Honda are WAY over rated. A Kia will serve you just as well for FAR less money…

Thanks for the suggestion to start searching these boards which is a good idea. I’m brand new to this site so am just figuring it out. My original post is in ‘repair/maintenance’ instead of general discussion so I probably didn’t post it correctly in the first place.

Civic/Corolla are excellent choices for reliability and mileage. This is important when she is driving home alone for a holiday, and it is a drag when your kid calls from another state to tell you her car won’t start and asking what to do about it. I would opt for a slightly larger and less ‘sexy’ vehicle for a first car, however.

Both my daughters put only minor scuffs on their first cars, but it seems to me that among their friends, at least half totaled cars in their first two years of driving.

For their first cars, I put my daughters in old Volvo 240s with stick shifts. They learned to drive a stick and they learned to maintain their own cars. A 240 with a quarter-million miles on it is reliable, but requires some TLC. The car was built like a tank so it will stand up to an encounter with at guard rail or an SUV, it is not fast, it gets close to 30 mpg, and it is not sexy so there is no tendency to want to show it off. No one wanted to borrow it. And they could leave it in the school parking lot during road trips to competitions without worrying about vandalism or theft.

I bought liability insurance only, as the cars were worth only about $2k. Note that some insurance companies won’t give family rates if the car is parked in another zip code. This can be an issue when they go to college. Keeping that good grades discount is pretty tough if your kid decides to major in mechanical engineering.

Once mine proved that they could drive safely and take good care of a car (3rd year of college) I got them 10 year old BMW 3 series. Great little cars, solidly built as well, and they love the fact that they are not shaped like kitchen appliances.

Do you have an opinion about Civics/Corollas as far as safety goes? One of the threads I’m reading is that while it’s tempting to save $$ by getting an older car - even the safest older car can’t beat a newer car w/the safety enhancements of recent years.

Our daughter hopefully is much like yours. She’s a cautious driver - been driving a full 18 mos w/no mishaps. That said I’m worried about the other guy so I want something that will hold up well in a crash. She’ll be in school on the other coast so she won’t be taking a car to school. And a manual transmition is not an option as it’ll be an extra car for us when she leaves and I can’t drive a stick.

My first car (at age 30 - I’m a Manhattan transplant to CA) was a Volvo so I went to a Volvo place yesterday and asked the question above. ‘Is an older Volvo a safety match for a newer Civic’ and of course they fell back on the Volvo safety record.

Buying a car is equal parts exciting and scary so thanks for everyone’s advice.

You’re The Parent. You’re The Purchaser. You Want Your Daughter To Be Safe. Handle It.

Put safety first. Don’t horse around trying to save a buck by buying some little car of questionable safety. Don’t try and save a buck by buying something that gets 35 mpg instead of 30mpg. Don’t buy something cute.

Larger cars are generally safer than smaller cars. Newer larger cars are generally safer than older cars.

Remember, you said, “That said I’m worried about the other guy so I want something that will hold up well in a crash.” The key word is “worried”. You don’t want to be worried the entire time she is away.

Be a parent first and buy a larger, safe car for her to use. Many larger cars can be quite sporty, agile, safe and comfortable. An added feature in my son’s car is the large trunk and a rear seat that folds partially down or completely down, a very handy “away at college” feature.

Check crash ratings and IIHS and HLDI ratings and advice.