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Kids may want control, but parents should be the driving force for car buying

By R.J. Ignelzi
San Diego Union-Tribune
July 26, 2004

Car, safety and family counseling experts would be proud of the Daleys.

The Scripps Ranch family did just about everything right when purchasing a 2000 Honda Civic for daughter Daryl, 17.

They made safety the first priority. They sought a gently used car that was mechanically reliable, easy on gas and reasonable to insure. And it had to appeal to the teenager.

"I really wanted a Civic. I thought it was the most 'teenageresque' type of car I could get," said Daryl, who will be a senior at Scripps Ranch High School in the fall.

Her parents, Darlene and Norm, liked the car for other reasons.

"We liked that this car had steel doors, air bags, power steering and (anti-lock) brakes. We wanted a car that would help protect her if she was in an accident," said Darlene, 48, who has driven a Honda for more than 20 years. "We felt this car was the safest and most reliable car we could afford."

The Daleys were certainly on the right track.

According to Chicago-based Teen Research Unlimited, kids' No. 1 car choice is the Honda Civic.

"They love the car partly because it will run forever and it's easy on gas," said Rob Callender, senior trends manager for Teen Research. "But, they also like the car because it's easy to soup them up" (which wasn't what the Daleys had in mind).

Rounding out Teen Research's top five teenager cars are the Ford Mustang, followed by the Honda Accord, Mitsubishi Eclipse and the Chevrolet Cavalier.

"Kids' top car choices share a couple of qualities," Callender said. "They want something that's typically inexpensive to own, and it has to offer kids a sporty kind of free feeling."

What a (shopping) trip

Shopping for a teenager's first car is a complex and time-consuming endeavor that more families are undertaking these days.

The percentage of driving-age teens (ages 15 to 20) with their own vehicle has nearly doubled nationwide in the last 18 years, from 22 percent in 1985 to 42 percent last year, according to CNW Marketing Research in Oregon. And experts anticipate that the trend will continue.

To help find your teenager just the right car – one that will excite the young driver and give moms and dads a sense of security and comfort – automotive and safety experts offer the following tips.

Set conditions for getting and keeping a car before the shopping begins.

Decide if you are going to spring for the set of wheels or if your teen driver will be chipping in. Determine ahead of time who will pay for other costs, including insurance, maintenance, repairs and gas.

Although Daryl's parents bought the car and continue to pay for insurance and maintenance, she buys gasoline out of her allowance.

"Lately, she's been complaining about so much of her money going for gas. So, she's starting to think before driving across town to visit friends or weekend trips to Disneyland," her mother said. "I think this forces her to balance her budget and teaches her some fiscal responsibility."

Some auto experts suggest that making teens pay at least a portion of the upkeep will make them appreciate and take care of their car.

"If they know they don't have to pay for the maintenance or any repairs, they'll just keep driving when the oil light comes on," said Jon Woods, a San Diego auto technician who's featured on KOGO/AM 600's "All About Cars." "Kids don't care that they're destroying an engine if they know Mom and Dad will pay."

Phil Reed, consumer editor for Edmunds.com, an online car-buying guide, says purchasing a car can be a learning experience for a teenager.

"When a car is given to a child with clear parameters – they have to pay part of the car payment or they're responsible for maintenance and gas – you're giving the child a lesson in responsibility," he said.

When other stipulations are involved in getting and keeping a car – a "B" grade average or performing certain household chores, for example – make sure everyone understands and agrees to the arrangement. Writing and signing an informal family contract can be a good idea, said some family counselors.

Make car research a family project.

Parents, along with the teen driver, should check out reviews, test results and prices for various vehicle makes and models.

"You're likely to make a better choice, and everyone will feel better about the choice if you all know and compare what's out there," said Rik Paul, automotive editor for Consumer Reports magazine.

Let the teenager have a voice in the car choice.

Even if parents are picking up the tab for the car, it's important to bring the teenager into the decision-making process. Although the teen driver's top car choice may not be practical or affordable, car experts urge the family to compromise on the selection so everyone is satisfied.

"Parents have to be realistic," said Gordon Wangers, president of Vista-based Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc., which markets and tests new models for auto manufacturers. "You've got to get the kids a car they won't be embarrassed to drive; something they will be proud of and excited about and want to take care of."

Another lesson can be learned when the teenager is involved in the selection process, Reed said.

"If you're working with a budget, use this as an opportunity to teach your child about finance and budgets and priorities," he said.

Think safety first.

"When shopping for a teen driver, we need to put the emphasis on safety. Teen drivers don't have the driving experience of older drivers, so it's better to choose a vehicle that leaves some margin for error," Paul said.

He recommends looking at vehicles with good safety, handling and braking reports, "all things that give you accident-avoidance capabilities."

"Look at vehicles with good crash-test results, so if they're in a collision, they'll be protected," he said.

Safety options should be a top priority in a teenager's car. Look for vehicles with air bags, an anti-lock braking system, and stability control to help keep the car from sliding or skidding.

"Buy a car with as many air bags as possible," said Jack Gillis, author of the annual "The Car Book" (published by the Center for Automotive Safety). "Statistics will show that it's not if your child will be in accident, it's when they're in an accident. And, when that accident happens, those air bags could save your child's life."

He cautioned that teen drivers should stay away from vehicles with a high center of gravity, which include many SUVs.

"Today's smaller sport SUVs, just by the nature of their design, have a higher center of gravity and roll over easier than your boring sedan," Gillis said. "We're worried that the drivers of these vehicles are inexperienced drivers who may make too quick of a turn and flip it."

Gillis also advised forgoing GPS gadgetry and even a sophisticated sound system, and buying a car with as few distractions as possible.

"These distractions are responsible for a lot of injuries. Fooling around with something on the dashboard causes a large percentage of accidents," he said. "When it comes to a vehicle for a teenager, the simpler, the better."

Just plain practice behind the wheel is a safety net, too. Daryl was 15, with a fresh learner's permit, when her parents bought the car she would be using. Both Darlene's and Norm's cars have manual transmission, and they wanted their daughter to learn to drive on an automatic, "so it would be less distracting," Darlene said.

"We spent that entire year practicing with her driving her car. She worked up to her comfort level, and by her 16th birthday, she was ready," she continued.

Skip the sports car and high-powered engine.

"If you give a kid a fast car, they will drive it fast. Most sports cars are just begging to be driven the way they were designed," said Reed, of Edmunds.com. "Putting a kid behind the wheel of one of these fast cars is a recipe for disaster."

Consumer Reports' Paul suggests looking for vehicles that have good acceleration, "but not too good."

"You want the car to be able to merge easily into and out of traffic. But, if a vehicle has too much power, they'll be tempted to abuse the power," Paul said.

According to the magazine's road and comparison tests, teenage drivers are better off with sedans, which earned some of the best emergency-handling scores and also tend to be more affordable.

A "new" car doesn't have to be new.

For anyone who's value conscious, a late-model used car may be the best bet for a teenage driver. Paul notes that a new car loses approximately 45 percent of its value in the first three years.

"A used car costs considerably less, it's cheaper to insure, and it holds its value better," he said.

When researching vehicle makes and models, he urges parents and teens to pay close attention to the reliability ratings.

"If you choose a reliable vehicle, it will likely hold up for 200,000 miles," Paul said.

Since some safety features became standard equipment only in the last few years, he recommends that the car not be more than five or six years old.

Size doesn't always matter.

"Small cars can be as safe as larger cars," Gillis said. "Don't make the mistake of buying a heavy rigid vehicle, thinking that it will protect your kid in an accident."

Some big vehicles are so stiff and inflexible that they "don't absorb the crash, but the occupants do," he said.

The concept behind crash protection, he explained, is protecting the occupants from the "second collision" – when the driver or passenger comes forward and his body hits something. Both the air bags – offered in vehicles of all sizes – and the dynamics of the vehicle can give protection.

Most of the vehicles that Consumer Reports recommends are midsize family sedans because they're large enough to hold up well in a collision and still offer nimble handling to avoid accidents.

"Smaller cars will give you better gas mileage, but they may not fare as well in collisions. Larger cars get poor gas mileage and are more ponderous in handling, but you'll probably get better crash protection," Paul said. "A midsize car is the best compromise."

Be practical.

After you've narrowed your car selections according to affordability and necessary safety features, check out details such as reliability, resale value, gas economy and miles on the odometer.

Chances are, your choices will fare well under scrutiny.

"These days, it's almost impossible to make a bad choice when it comes to cars," said Wangers of Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc. "The overall automobile quality has gotten so high that even the most lowly car is decent. The automobile quality, performance, safety and value per dollar is much higher in the last few years than 10 or 15 years ago."

Have an expert check the car for mechanical reliability.

When purchasing a used car for your child, make sure you have it inspected by a mechanic you trust.

Auto technician Woods says a car with under 50,000 miles can usually get by with just a mini-inspection for about $30 to $50. A vehicle with more mileage than that needs a full inspection. Expect to pay $90 to $150.

"When shopping for a used car, you need to see through the paint," Woods said. "A car may be terrible mechanically, but if the seller spiffies it up, people will like the way it looks and want to buy it. A car that has a few dings but is in tiptop shape mechanically is a much better deal."

It's also a good idea to check out the history of the car by running the vehicle identification number (VIN) through www.carfax.com for a $20 fee.

"You can find out how many owners it's had, or if the odometer has been rolled back," said Edmunds.com's Reed. "It's worth it for the peace of mind."

Check out insurance costs.

Call your insurance agent and get quotes for two or three of the cars that you're considering. Insuring a teenage driver is never
cheap, but putting a teenager behind the wheel of some models can be downright exorbitant.

© Copyright 2004 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

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