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Do you remember buying your first car? Did you buy it yourself, or perhaps your parents bought it for you?  Although my parents let me use their cars when I was in high school, it wasn’t until my senior year in college that I achieved the ultimate in personal freedom and bought my own car. And just a few months ago our oldest daughter earned her driver’s license. Add some grandparent birthday present cash to the license, and the big first car search began. Since our daughter doesn’t know much about cars, the search fell to us as parents. So how exactly do you choose your child’s first car for her?

We ending up choosing a 1997 Toyota Camry with about 195,000 miles on it. It was the best deal we ran across for the cash we had. As parents we wanted something safe and as reliable as possible. We wanted something that looked a little sporty but we didn’t want to pay sports car insurance premiums, nor did we want a performance machine in the hands of an inexperienced 17-year-old driver. We wanted something that wouldn’t be a big deal if it did get banged up a little, and something that had great gas mileage. And finally we wanted something that had the chance of lasting for as many years that we could get out of it.

Those sorts of requirements tend to lead to the same type of car: a Toyota Camry or Corolla, a Honda Accord or Civic, A Mazda 6 or 3, a VW Jetta or Passat, and other similar vehicles. The only major difference is what year you get, and that depends the amount of money you pay for one.

So far the only major issue with the car was that it needed a new EGR Vacuum Solenoid Valve. I was able to install it myself in my garage with some help from our daughter over the course of a Saturday. I also discovered the wheels didn’t allow the tire iron to fit over the lug nuts, so I purchased a new one from AutoZone so flats could be changed on the road if necessary.

In the end, our daughter ended up with the true American teenager’s dream: her own car. It’s lasted a month so far with no accidents and I’m keeping my fingers crossed in hopes that the accident-free streak continues. Only time will tell if the purchase was a good one or not, but I’m happy with it so far.

Do you have experience in purchasing a first car for a brand new driver? What sort of advice would you give to parents looking for their child’s first car?


32 Responses to Choosing Your Teen’s First Wheels

  1. FredB says:

    I guess for boys it’s different. You want to get them an old Suburban. It will let them survive almost any crash and it costs so much to run they won’t drive it just for mischief.

    • Marcus says:

      Something about putting an inexperienced driver behind the wheel of a behemoth such as a suburban sounds like a horrible idea.

      It won’t be safer for them as they’ll be more likely to roll it when taking a turn too fast and it’ll be far more dangerous for anyone else on the road.

      • Les says:

        Ah, fond memories of my high school friend Brian taking his first solo drive, and rolling his parent’s Bronco II the first curve he hit….

    • Jeff says:

      That’s a great idea- limit the range of their roaming!

  2. Fong says:

    I don’t have a teenage driver just yet but had a similar experience when I bought each of my younger sisters their first car. My approach was very similar and we settled on an Integra & Corolla. Got the newest model with the least # of miles the budget could afford at the time and they’er still driving them today (over 15 years between them) despite easily being able to upgrade. You never forget your first car as it is truly your first taste of freedom.

  3. Rob says:

    Get a manual. That way the kid will be the only one who can drive it. Also makes you pay attention to driving and car condition. Very valuable experience especially for a daughter.

    • IBMcginty says:

      That’s what we did with my daughter. ’91 S10 w/ 2.8 V6 and a 5-speed. She can drive a stick, way cheap parts, doesn’t fit many people in the cab. Win all around.

  4. laz says:

    WRT financing: I bought my first car, and made payments on it. My wife had hers given to her.

    I think we’re going to split the difference and match our kids’ saved money toward the purchase of their first car… assuming we can figure out a way to get them an income stream to learn the value of a dollar before they hit 16.

  5. West of the Potomac says:

    If you can find one, any Volvo 240 that’s had reasonable maintenance during its years. Stick shift version is a great idea, too. We called ours the Kremlin Staff Car, a homely buggy that kept our kids safe and out of traffic court.

    Our son later learned to wrangle a Ford F-150 in suburban traffic. Six-cylinder, four-speed manual, long wide box didn’t cramp his social life, and the beater truck taught him how to drive (and park) in all conditions.

  6. JJ says:

    My first car was a Datsun 240Z. In retrospect, I have no idea what my parents were thinking when they let me buy that car! Now that I’m getting to the age where I might have kids myself, I’m pretty sure my kids’ first car will be a Honda Civic or Volvo 240 (or the equivalent thereof when they reach driving age).

    The irony is that I have extremely fond memories of the Datsun. I have memories of my adolescence whenever I see a one, and I’m fairly certain that my midlife crisis will involve buying a another Z.

  7. Eric R says:

    195,000 miles to start with are a lot, but if it runs good, that’s all that matters.
    I had an ancient F-150 in the nicest shade of dark blue you ever saw.
    Man, I loved that truck!

  8. Toolfreak says:

    My kids car (if we’re still using cars by then) will be a piece ‘o crap, or at least will be a good car that needs a lot of work. Get it for a few hundred dollars as a 13-14-15th birthday present, and they get to learn how to drive with it when the work is done. The work will be done mostly by them, with assistance and supervision of course. If this doesn’t suit them, they can choose to be clueless about cars and buy whatever they can afford when they move out. But I won’t be fixing it.

    Seems to be the best general way to have a kid invest their time and money into something so it gets treated appropriately, and so they wind up knowing enough in the end to fix it themselves again if/when anything happens. I suppose if they get into motorsports at a young age it might be a lot different, though.

    For others it would depend on their situation. It’d be tough to expect a kid to deal with a fixer-upper if the parents are equally clueless about cars. Chances are good that if you’ve raised you kid well so far and are pleased with the results, you’ll do just fine with however you go about getting them a ride or helping them out. Most kids probably do well with some kind of decent used car that is dependable, or whatever suits their interests if a Corolla/Civic isn’t an option. If you’re financially well off and your kid has been an honor student with straight A’s their whole life, heck, get them something awesome.

    My main advice isn’t just in choosing the car, it’s in getting them to learn to drive it. Take ’em to a racetrack (not kidding) or an empty parking lot and have them really FEEL what a car does when you slam on the brakes, turn hard and skid, etc. People who can deal with a car that is pushed beyond it’s limits are usually better drivers, and safer drivers.

  9. DeadGuy says:

    We bought my son a used Ford Explorer that was fully loaded. Similar vehicles were priced around $15K, but I found a single owner, 2004 with 70K miles for less than $12K.

    Our situation is unique. My son and I are both 6’4″ and have a genetic deficiency that causes us to have weak joints that dislocate easily, hurt constantly and we can stiffen up in a heartbeat in an uncomfortable seat. I had to find him a vehicle that he could drive for four or five hours and still walk when he got out.

    The one thing I did that worked like a charm was take pictures of him sitting in cars, so he could see what he looked like. He found out that sitting in a sweet corvette made him look like he was driving a golf cart, so he ditched the hot-rods immediately. He eliminated a lot of cool/expensive vehicles through not liking how he looked in them…with a little help from me making fun of him in anything ridiculously expensive. Teen vanity is a virtue, if you know how to exploit it.

  10. TJ says:

    Now that she has a license and a car consider enrolling her in Tire Rack’s Street Survival Course. See the details at http://www.streetsurvival.org.
    I took my daughter (and the Ford Ranger that she was using) just after she got her license. There was a noticable difference in her ability between driving to and driving back from the class. Note – I am not employed by the course or Tire Rack, I just think their idea to make safe teen driving a priority makes a lot of sense.

    • Les says:

      +1 on this. I’ve talked with some instructors (fellow autocrossers) and they speak highly of the course.

  11. Aaron says:

    One concern to keep in mind is how your child will be driving with friends. Keep in mind that many a good driver, when combined with friends in the car will, get distracted, start to show off, etc. in that way, a nice pickup, sans the bench seat, will do well.

    My first car was a 1973 chevy inline six (250) with a three on the tree. no power anything, and no a/c (in arizona). I loved that car. Simple, ran well, was not overpowered (I later swapped for a bored out 350 with hop up parts and was glad I was older and wiser). I couldn’t take a lot of people, and the lack of a stereo provided one less distraction.

    interestingly, the guys on TG USA had a show on this. Their suggestions a VW rabbit pickup and a Chrysler K car. On this I have to say that this would be great. An old man car, cheap to pick up and horribly uncool, but otherwise reliable. I dont think Gas mileage would matter as much, because they aren’t driving that many objective miles.

  12. george says:

    older mercedes diesels were popular around my circle of families.

  13. Eddie Hagler says:

    You should of gotten a late 90’s model geo with a 3 cyl engine and a stick… slow, fuel efficient and if she can drive a stick, she can drive anything.

  14. frank says:

    Nothing beets the good old VW bug. No matter what brakes it can be fixed in a weekend. Gets good milage. Doesn’t go to fast (that is unless you modify). Teaches you how to “DRIVE” a car and keep yourself safe.

  15. Steve says:

    My first vehicle was a 1979 Subaru Brat. It was a fun little 4×4 pickup. I don’t recommend vehicles that are easy to roll (like Jeeps) for young drivers.

    A short article on my blog about teen driving…


  16. Jim Wheeler says:

    A few years ago a lady customer of ours asked our help to select a first car for her teenage daughter. She finally settled on a 1988 BMW 528e, a car known for its long-term durability and safety. She bought the car and sent it to us to refurbish, which we did. On the day of delivery to her daughter, we wheeled the car out, the daughter jumped up and down, excited about her first wheels. Mom then had us set the radio to a New Orleans talk radio station, adjust the volume to mid-range and cut the knobs off the radio so the daughter could not adjust while driving…
    We think she made an excellent choice…

  17. Mike Larson says:

    My son purchased an 02 Saturn SL1 for his 1st car. Low insurance, maintenance costs and gets up to 40mpg + highway. My youngest daughter had purchased an 02 Sunfire that was replaced with a 2000 Grand AM after she was a victim of hit & run. I am our families mechanic and have the thousands of dollars in tools to keep all my friends & families auto’s in excellent shape.

  18. Alan says:

    We recently helped out daughter purchase a 2010 Kia Forte with 30,000 miles. Hell of a value and a fine car. I had originally dismissed Korean origin cars but was very impressed with the Kia. And this is from a family of 30 years of Toyota – couldn’t touch the price from any reasonably used Toyota.

    A far cry from my first car – 1960 Triumph TR-4 manual with dual carbs. Guess it didn’t matter I only got 12 MPG back in 1960. Fortunately I bought it from a mechanic who passed it for inspection no matter how bad it was (big hole in floorboard – cardboard as a floor).

  19. Dr Bob says:

    First car my boys drove was a hand me down 88 Cavalier 4 cylinder with automatic which they started driving around 1997, it was pushing 185K miles then. When the youngest started driving we added a 93 Saturn SL 4 door automatic to the motor pool – that one was a low-mileage totaled out car which was rebuilt – and well, it finally died a few weeks ago after we had sold it with over 200K miles on it.

    Key words here were cheap, 4 door, automatics, tepid performance at best.

  20. gary says:

    A good choice for first vehicle would be a 5 to 10 year old six cylinder Ranger or S-10 pickup. Affordable, Cheaper insurance, decent protection, easier maintenance, and best of all limited seating. Kids tend to behave better and pay closer attention to their driving without a car full of distractions.

  21. gary says:

    And make it an automatic. Clutch and shifter are distractions best saved for a few years down the road.

  22. KH says:

    If anyone is preparing to obtain a vehicle for their child PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE ignore most of the advice in this discussion regarding trucks. I can’t believe how many people in this discussion suggest trucks as first vehicles. Trucks are inherently unstable, and aren’t held to the same safety standards as cars. New drivers should have safe vehicles, and no truck is safer than a car. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen kids fishtailing around in trucks on rainy days. Even four wheel drive trucks are horribly imbalanced and susceptible to loss of control and only the most experienced driver can pull it back on the road. Plus they disintegrate on impact. If you don’t believe me, go down to your local firehouse and ask some first responders before you take the advice of those here who suggest trucks to first time drivers.

  23. Scott Rupert says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone! I’d like to take the time to respond to some of the great points you brought up.

    @FredB: While I generally used to agree in your assessment, being an engineer and looking into some of the newer safety measures present in cars today slowly brought me away from that line of thinking. This YouTube video changed my mind forever: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joMK1WZjP7g. That and this crash that happened last year a few miles from my home: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-6UCv4etyk. When my son starts to drive he’ll be taking that same road to the hockey rink and although the median has been updated with a divider to prevent wandering into the median, the 100 mph impact of the car with the bridge has me looked at safety first. So no old Suburban for my teens.

    @Rob, @West of the Potomac & Eddie Hagler: My first car was a manual transmission too. I loved the shift from 2nd to third the best while accelerating, but I have to agree with @Gary. I feel like a manual is too distracting for an inexperienced driver that’s more concerned about finding her way from point A to B than on what gear she has to be in.

    @West of the Potomac, @JJ, Jim Wheeler, @Mike Larson & @Dr Bob: A Volvo 240, BMW 525, Saturns, Kias, Nissans, and Hyundais are all very good cars to start out with too. I just didn’t feel like naming every single suitable car out in the article but did state “other similar vehicles” to cover the cars like you all mentioned in your comments.

    @laz: I totally agree. I’m a firm believer that if you have a financial investment in something like a car or your college education that you will value it more. In this case our daughter will be paying for her own gas, insurance and licensing. Also, she used the majority of what was left in her savings account to pay for it so she does have a very large financial stake in the car. I’m also a firm believer that you need a job to support owning a vehicle and our daughter did get a job first. So I’m pretty satisfied with the money angle on things. Of note, my son also started a hockey referee job last yer at 14. I would highly recommend a referee job to any kid between 12-16 since it is difficult to hold a job anywhere else with child labor laws and transportation issues (as prospective employers see them anyway).

    @Toolfreak: I have often discussed this method of buying a fixer-upper with my son who is 15 now. He hasn’t settled in on a type of car until now – a Mustang thanks to NBC’s newer Knight Rider show. I told him to start researching available ones to get back to me. The specific problem with the Mustang is that it had some horrible looking body styles throughout the years so you have to be picky on what year you get. But the window for doing this is closing fast if he wants something to drive to school next year so he might have to settle on another option.

    @TJ That driving survival school looks awesome. We might just do it if our work and activity schedules line up.

    @frank The women of the household were interested in the newer VW bugs, but they haven’t scored so hot on long term reliability (for example: http://usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/cars-trucks/Volkswagen_New-Beetle/2007/) so we steered away from them on the used car market.

    @gary: I’m actually leaning towards a little (emphasize little @KH) pickup for my son if he doesn’t do the Mustang fixer-upper idea now. I think it will fit his lifestyle and needs better as well as be cheaper. Unfortunately our requirements with our daughter included driving around 2-3 other family members so we needed something with four full seats and those little pickups didn’t fit the bill. Besides, the wife simply said “no” when I brought it up for our daughter. So Camry it was.

  24. Andrew says:

    My first was a 1988 Mustang Manual 4-Banger (in 2000) 160K miles and was paid for half by me and half by my folks.
    -I’ll second the manual idea as it made me pay attention to DRIVING and SPEED rather than my cell phone, my radio, my friends, and the cute girl on the corner. I was by FAR a better driver with a stick then an auto.
    -Also the idea that a small pick-up will limit the amount of people your child can drive around with is ridiculous, as that bed is wide open and most kids don’t think twice about letting a buddy or two leap into the back. If you want to limit the number of people in a car limit its total size, cause I once fit 7 teenagers into my sister’s VW cirroco.

  25. Rich says:

    Two unrelated comments:

    First, I’ve long been in favor of the older beater (I drive one that’s 25 years old myself), but recently I’ve realized that newer cars are much safer than older ones. There is of course a point of diminishing returns, but things like airbags and antilock brakes are really nice to have, particularly for a beginning driver.

    Second, I’m trying to get my kids into bicycling first. Once they are good at cycling in traffic the hope is they’ll drive a bit more like they’re vulnerable.

  26. Anonymous says:

    funny enough, I’m starting to drive here as well, being 17 and all.
    my parents own a suburban and a t5 volvo estate.
    the insurance company is less worried about me in the volvo than in the suburban. maybe because it is much safer, even though it is a performance vehicle.

    IMHO, a good car is just a cheap old volvo. they just keep going, relatively easy to repair, and they are insanely safe, which means your kid will survive when they inevitably wrap the car around a tree.

  27. Toolfreak says:


    If he likes Knight Rider and wants a mustang, go for it. Get him a banged-up 6 cylinder that has a lot wrong with it for cheap. Paint it black, of course.

    After the car is fixed up and works great, spend the next few years together building up a badass 302/351 to throw in once his driving skills are where they need to be to handle it.

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