Kennedy: Car-buying tips for teen drivers - and parents

My first car was a 1957 Buick Special. It had a grill as big as the gates to Graceland.

This was the late 1970s and my sedan was nearly 20 years old, a throwback to the era when chrome was king. It had lightning bolts of red trim down each side and oversized tail fins. It was the perfect teen car: cool, cheap and indestructible.

Notice, though, I didn't say it was safe. If I had ever rolled the Buick, I would have rattled around inside like a BB in a soup can. Keep in mind, this was the same era when responsible parents let kids nap on the window shelf behind the back seat.

Among baby boomers my age - mid-50s - snagging a driver's license the week we turned 16 was ritual. Now, fewer young adults even choose to drive. One-third of people today ages 16 to 24 don't have a driver's license, according to the Federal Highway Administration. A generation ago, only about one in five in that age group were non-drivers.

For those who do choose to drive, picking a first car is a big deal, often done with the help of a parent or trusted friend.

A recent report in the New York Times, however, noted that most young people today see a car as a mere transportation appliance, not a status symbol. If you're the parent, that's a good thing. It means your child won't automatically want something sporty and fast.

If shopping for a car for a young person - a high school student perhaps, or a college commuter - is on your to-do list this summer, here are some tips that might be helpful.


Before even starting to shop for a car, it's worth trying to cut a deal with your child to put off driving. With peer pressure to drive waning and cars losing their luster as status symbols, you might strike gold.

You could even create some financial incentives for your 16- or 17-year-old to wait until they're at least 18 to drive. A recent survey by revealed that adding a teen to a family auto insurance policy results in an average 84 percent increase, or about $2,000 a year. Why not split the difference and offer your child $1,000 cash on each birthday that they delay driving? You might be surprised how many will snatch up the offer.

Pick a winner

If you've made the decision to purchase a car, a vehicle that's three to five years old is the sweet spot. Cars and trucks in this class of used vehicles often have some powertrain warranty remaining, yet they have shed most of their new-car depreciation. They also are likely to have the latest safety features - more on that later.

Here are three of my favorite used cars for young drivers. (One of my other roles at the newspaper is automotive columnist, so I've driven virtually everything out there.)

* Subaru Forester. This versatile, small SUV has the advantage of standard all-wheel-drive. There's nothing more planted and secure than a Subaru on a wet (or icy) road. This buys a lot of parental peace of mind, especially if your young driver is a college student. The Forester's cargo area is also just right for packing a dorm room's worth of supplies.

* Ford Focus. No matter where you drive in America, you're never more than a few miles from a Ford dealer with a service department. A 2009 Focus with about 50,000 miles on the odometer can be purchased for around $10,000, according to a leading consumer magazine, and should be mechanically sound and relatively safe. Great fuel economy is a plus.

* Toyota Camry. If you want to buy your college freshman a car that will last through grad school, the indestructible Camry is the car for you. Also, the Camry's conservative styling is incongruent with fast driving, so your teen may be less inclined to test its performance limits, i.e., involve it in a street race. If your driver is a boy, you'll know what I mean.

Safety first

Almost any late-model used car you look at will have air bags and anti-lock brakes, two important safety features. Newer cars, however, have a defense that's perhaps more important - stability control. Most serious crashes involving young drivers result from errors in judgment - speeding into a turn, for example, or slamming on the brakes to avoid a rear-end collision.

Stability control keeps the rear of the car from breaking loose (figuratively speaking), which can cause a vehicle to spin or a flip. With stability control, computer sensors selectively brake one or more wheels in sequence to make the car stop in a straight line. Standard on models from 2012 and later, it's worth checking to determine if any pre-2012 used cars you consider have this feature.

Contact staff writer Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at

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