Advice Has Changed on What Car to Buy for a Young Driver

Posted June 8, 2018 3:48 p.m. EDT

If you’re car shopping for a recent graduate, the traditional thinking about the best vehicle for new drivers has changed.

In the past, families generally looked for the oldest, largest and cheapest car possible — “slow, big and ugly,” said Alex Epstein, director of transportation safety at the National Safety Council, a nonprofit group.

“That’s not true anymore,” he said. Advances in safety technology mean that old “beaters” are no longer the best choice for young adults, or new drivers generally.

The top killer of teenagers is automobile crashes, and “the No. 1 reason,” Epstein said, “is inexperience.”

But new safety technology can help provide “extra eyes and ears” for rookie drivers. Systems include forward collision warning, which warns of an impending crash; blind spot monitoring, to help with changing lanes safely; lane departure warning, to alert drivers who are drifting; and automatic emergency braking, which applies the brakes to avoid a collision.

The catch is the cost. Blind spot warning, for example, is not yet standard on all cars, and may be available on some models only as an expensive upgrade.

So how should parents weigh the decision?

“Buy as much safety as you can afford,” said Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at the Consumer Reports auto test center in Connecticut.

For used cars, which are often the first choice for families because of their lower prices, it’s best to look at model years starting at 2012, when electronic stability control was required, Stockburger said.

“It’s the greatest safety feature since the seat belt,” she said. The stability control systems work with anti-lock brakes to control each wheel individually, to help manage skids and swerves.

It can be a challenge, however, to find a suitable car from 2012 and after for less than $10,000, she said. Some carmakers included electronic stability control on earlier models, however, and those may be found at lower prices. For a list, check the website of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Also, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety offers a list of recommended used cars for teenagers. (Consumer Reports does, too, but you need to be a subscriber to see the details.)

For families willing to consider a new car, many models have advanced safety features.

One challenge, Epstein said, is that different manufacturers use different names for the same technologies and may offer them in a bewildering array of combinations, so shoppers should read up on the different systems before buying.

Toyota, for instance, offers a Safety Sense bundle on many models; Subaru markets an EyeSight driver-assist package. Mazda has made automatic emergency braking at lower “city” speeds standard on most of its 2018 cars, but getting the feature at highway speeds generally means pricier trim lines. (Automatic emergency braking is expected to become standard on most new cars by September 2022.)

“You really have to learn what your individual vehicle does,” Epstein said.

In a follow-up email, he also advised having the auto dealership explain how the safety features work, and taking time to read the owner’s manual.

“If you are not accustomed to driving with these features,” he said, “they can be a bit confusing or disorienting at first, just like getting used to any new feature.”

One option for keeping monthly payments lower while getting advanced safety features is leasing a new car, Stockburger said. Typically, Consumer Reports doesn’t recommend leasing because it is often less economical in the long term. But giving a new driver a safer car is a possible exception; leases may be available for around $200 a month, or even less, depending on your credit history. Stockburger said she had recently leased a car for her daughter, who drives regularly to an off-campus activity at college. Stockburger said she was a fan of teenagers having “skin in the game” in many situations, including car purchases. So to help cover costs, the family agreed that her daughter would pay for vehicle expenses when she was home from school in the summer.

Choosing the right car involves trade-offs. In general, larger vehicles are safer in a crash than smaller ones. But very big vehicles, like large sport-utility vehicles, can be more difficult for new drivers to handle. They also can carry more passengers, which increases the risk of distraction, Stockburger said.

She said to look for a reliable car with good crash-test results (you can find them on websites for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety), equipped with as many advanced safety features as you can afford. “Our philosophy is keep them out of the crash in the first place,” she said.

Here are some questions and answers about buying a car for a new driver:

Q: Where can I learn about advanced auto safety features?

A: The National Safety Council has created a website,, that outlines current and future safety innovations and explains how they work together to reduce the risk of crashes.

Q: I’ve heard that “new driver” contracts are helpful for families to sign. Where can I find samples?

A: Many organizations offer templates, of varying length and detail, for contracts that new drivers and their parents can use to set ground rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics offer a two-page version. The Teen Driver Source, created by the research institute at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, offers several more.

Q: How can I keep insurance costs down for a new young driver?

A: Adding a teenager to a family’s automobile policy can greatly increase insurance premiums.

Many insurers offer discounts for drivers who complete driver training programs or keep good grades, so it’s worth asking about them.

Also, some insurers — including Liberty Mutual — offer discounts for drivers of cars with certain safety features, so ask about those, too.