Still, when it comes to buying a car for a first-timer, many parents would agree with experts that those with impressive safety features are tops. Choosing a car with stellar crash performance and features such as mandatory air-bags and electronic stability control can boost your child's odds in an accident and preserve your peace of mind.
Beyond safety, my first-car is based on affordability, fuel economy and overall value. I've set $25,000 as a maximum base price, well below the average new car's cost. Each model achieves average or better fuel economy for its class, based on federal mileage estimates. Each also achieves average or higher ratings for ownership costs--including fuel, insurance, financing, repair and maintenance costs and depreciation
In choosing a car that's apt to keep their kids in one piece, parents may have to balance competing interests. Subcompacts are often the most affordable, but usually not a good choice for a crash-prone driver.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which performs its own crash testing and ratings, takes a hard-line stand: It does not recommend any small cars or SUVs for younger drivers. Russ Rader, spokesman for the IIHS, says the institute favors midsize or full-size sedans, the latter being the safest vehicles overall.
Outside of wearing your seat belt, electronic stability control, or ESC, is now widely viewed as the biggest potential life-saver in an automobile. Electronic stability control can actually prevent accidents, reliably sensing and correcting a sudden loss of traction or control--something inexperienced drivers are least equipped to handle.
IIHS research of crash data--comparing models before and after ESC was installed--has shown that ESC systems reduce single-vehicle crashes by more than 40%, and fatal accidents by 56%. Projections indicate that equipping all cars with ESC could avoid up to 10,000 of the 34,000 fatal crashes each year.
The 2008 Subaru Impreza, one of three compact cars on our list, is the first and only compact car to be designated a Top Safety Pick by the IIHS. The award goes to models that achieve the highest possible scores in front, side and rear crash tests; whose headrests work effectively in crash testing; and that feature head-protecting side air bags and ESC.
Among compact SUVs, the Honda CR-V and Element benefit from Honda’s ongoing effort to be an industry leader in safety. Their features include sophisticated body configurations that also aim to reduce pedestrian injuries if struck in an accident. The CR-V and Element also garner IIHS Top Safety Pick awards when equipped with optional ESC systems.
For parents who can't afford a new car, the IIHS recommends buying a used car--midsize or larger--with as many modern safety features as possible.
Great With Gas
At $3 and more a gallon, it’s costing about $110 a month to fuel up the typical new car, with pickups, SUVs and minivans averaging about $145 a month. So for younger drivers with limited funds, and a tendency to borrow from mom and dad, a gas guzzler isn’t the answer.
It’s here that parents may find themselves balancing their needs: Again, subcompacts may sip the least fuel, but their crash protection can’t compete with that of bigger cars that as a rule get lower mileage.
As a midsize sedan, the Toyota Prius combines the security of a larger car with class-best EPA-rated fuel economy of 48/45 mpg in city and highway driving. And even for parents who demand a beefy full-size sedan, the Chevrolet Impala still manages a frugal 29 highway mpg with its 3.5-liter V-6.
Most Valuable Players
A first car isn't just a lesson in driving responsibility. Shrewd parents can make the car the latest introduction to the grown-up world of monthly bills, on-time credit payments and financial responsibility. If parents are footing all or part of the monthlies, the young driver might be expected to track payments, pick up the insurance, or cover gas and maintenance.
David Wurster, spokesman for Vincentric, says that focusing less on a monthly payment and more on total ownership costs--including fuel, insurance, repairs and depreciation--will not only save parents money, but provide a valuable financial education.
“If a younger driver really sees how much money goes into a vehicle, they may become a little smarter about not stretching their budget,” Wurster says. “They can learn that just because you can technically afford something, doesn’t mean you should buy it.”
For three consecutive years, the Honda Civic has topped all entry-level compacts for Vincentric’s Best Value in America designation, thanks to its affordability, low operating costs and tremendous resale value.
The Honda Accord, meanwhile, topped all 2008 midsize competitors with the highest projected residual value from Automotive Lease Guide, which tracks depreciation; Honda’s lineup as a whole ranks No. 1 among non-luxury brands for its projected.
Compact car: Mazda3
Base price: $13,895
Base engine: 148 horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder
EPA fuel economy: 24/32 mpg city/highway
Sharing its exceptionally safe body structure with the Volvo S40, the Mazda comes in sleek sedan and five-door hatchback versions. The Mazda features sophisticated standard equipment such as powerful anti-lock brakes with a panic-braking assist feature. Another strong point: its sporty, confident steering and maneuverability--a cut above that of the typical budget compact.
Compact car: Subaru Impreza 2.5i
Base price: $17,640
Base engine: 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder
EPA fuel economy: 20/27 mpg city/highway
The first-ever small car to garner an IIHS top safety pick--when equipped with optional electronic stability control, or ESC--the all-new 2008 Impreza sedan and hatchback also boast standard all-wheel-drive, making them a knockout choice for value, safety and secure handling in rain or snow.
Sedan or coupe, the Civic combines a spacious interior and silky four-cylinder engine with top mileage and legendary resale value. Standard safety features include everything from anti-lock brakes and curtain airbags to whiplash-protection headrests. Electronic stability control is available only on the sporty Civic Si model. A Civic hybrid version is pricey starting at $23,235, but boosts mileage to 40/45 mpg.