4 Practical Tips For Buying Your Teenager Their First Car (Eek!)

by Christine Burke
XiXinXing / Shutterstock

On my 17th birthday, I rushed out into the parking lot of the DMV, eagerly clutching my new driver’s license. My mother, waiting in the family station wagon, handed me a small wrapped box as I got into the driver’s side of the car. Thinking that my birthday couldn’t get any better, I screeched with delight when I saw the set of car keys nestled in the box, assuming, of course, that the keys were for the brand new car waiting for me in our driveway at home.

Turns out, those keys were for the family truckster, and my mother happily told me I was welcome to borrow the “Big Blue Bomber,” as it was known in our family, any time I pleased.

Talk about a birthday buzzkill, right?

Flash-forward to the present, and I’m now the mom almost ready to be sitting in the passenger seat, handing the keys to the family truckster to my own teen.

And it’s terrifying.

The idea of him on the road makes me twitchy, not only because of his inexperience but also because of other drivers and their bad habits. I worry about him being distracted by a text message or from having too many kids in the car. In a few short months, my firstborn will be operating a car and I won’t always be in the passenger seat to tell him to slow down or to brake for a stop sign up ahead.

The thought of buying him a car is daunting, too, because of the dizzying array of safety features, tracking systems, and car-assist functions makes it difficult to decide what’s necessary and what’s an expensive add-on.

Fortunately, Jamie Page Deaton, managing editor of U.S News Best Cars, and her team waded through all of the current safety features and latest technologies on the 2018 car models to help parents make the best choices when it comes to purchasing a car for their teens.

When I spoke with Page Deaton recently, she had several practical tips for parents about to buy cars for teens.

1. Technology is never a replacement for good parenting.

Page Deaton stressed that the most important feature on any car is one that will open a dialogue with your teen. Features like the radio turning off when a car is over the speed limit or other systems limiting features are helpful, but those features won’t necessarily let you have a conversation with your teen when she arrives home. Text-alert features, ones where parents can receive a text when their teen driver is speeding, allows the parent to say, “Hey, I wasn’t in the car, but I got an alert that you were driving 70 mph. What’s going on?” Opening a dialogue allows your teen to tell you he was passing an 18-wheeler truck, which is an appropriate driving action, before jumping to the conclusion that your teen was recklessly speeding.

2. Buy a car that embarrasses your teen. Well, sort of.

While it might sound obvious, parents should steer away from cars with flashy colors, big engines and room for lots of kids to pile in on a Saturday night. “Big, boring, and slow,” says Page Deaton. Research indicates that the risk of a crash increases with multiple kids in a car, and throw in an engine designed for speeding and that could be recipe for disaster. Parents should look for a car that is big enough to provide ample crash protection, an engine that isn’t going to break the sound barrier, and one that a teen won’t be too excited to show off to their friends. Safety before vanity, sorry, not sorry, teens.

3. Skip Apple Carplay or other phone-to-car interfaces.

One of the newest technologies on the market is Apple Carplay, which allows your phone to sync with the car radio, and the screen interface becomes your phone screen. While it sounds cool that you’d be able to listen to your playlist while tooling around town, the fact is, the interface also shows you your text messages, emails, and other notifications. Texting while driving is already a dangerous epidemic, and Page Deaton urges parents to give a hard pass to features that make texting behind the wheel easier for teens.

4. Consider the hidden costs of buying a car for your teen.

I asked Page Deaton whether parents should consider buying a small SUV-style car for their teen who will be traveling back and forth to college. While having lots of room to tote college dorm supplies (and laundry) back and forth seems like a good idea in theory, Page Deaton stated that the biggest cost associated with cars these days is gas.

SUVs are less economical on gas, have a higher monthly payment, and can fit more kids on a Saturday night. And she said that since most people are in the market for an SUV these days, there are real deals to be made on sedans and smaller-model cars. “People aren’t buying cars these days, in favor of an SUV. A dealer may be willing to throw in an extra safety package or low interest financing,” she said. And, she urged parents to price out the cost of a summer storage unit versus the cost of an SUV for their college teen.

Cars have come a long way since I was behind the wheel of my parents’ big blue station wagon. And according to Page Deaton, this new wave of technology is all incremental steps toward self-driving cars, which is absolutely mind-blowing. Lane line assist, smart cruise control features, and parallel parking features will make it practically foolproof to operate a car in a few years. But, she says, “Technology and safety systems are not guardian angels for your teens.”

And that’s exactly why I’ll be saying Hail Marys as I teach my teen how to parallel park.