Today on Gearhead Parenting:  Choosing a first car.

By Omar C.

Oh, a young one’s first car, that 4 wheeled chunk of freedom, a teen’s ticket to social wonderland, and the first big step into adulthood.

For parents and teens alike, choosing right what will become someone’s first automobile is often a daunting task, since budgets have to be set, expectations have to be managed, and a balance between cost, performance, safety, and reliability must be achieved. It’s also important for the family to keep an open mind when it comes to the myriad of choices available.

Many questions arise when contemplating a first car for a teenager, and the answer stems from taking a good look at the circumstances in each specific case.

Should you buy New or Used?

This is mostly dependent on your budget, and on how capable the youngling is at maintaining, fixing, driving, and keeping the car in good shape. It also depends on how important reliability and safety standards are. Are creature comforts like power windows, heated seats, and such a real necessity?  A new car is expensive, but it comes with a warranty, and sometimes insurance, which takes care of two major concerns, safety and running costs, but more on that later.

A used car is not without its drawbacks, but there are several manufacturers with a reputation for reliability, and their 10, 15, or even 20 year old models are now in the used car market. A 2003 Honda Accord comes to mind as a practical daily driver. Everyday cars such as the Toyota Camry or the Chevrolet Cobalt are available in reasonable quantities at reasonable prices, and as long as you are careful in your purchase, it should be a gratifying experience.


Generally front wheel drive is thought of as the safe and sensible option, and is found in nearly all economy-focused vehicles, it’s the lightest and most compact layout in terms of packaging.  Rear wheel drive is sought after by most car enthusiasts, drag racing, drifting, and circuit driving are just a few disciplines of motorsport RWD is preferred in. All wheel drive is mostly known for Subarus and 4 wheel drive pickup trucks.

Every drivetrain has its perks and drawbacks, but unless you live in a snowy area, it’s best to stick with FWD for the ones that are just learning, not only is it safer, but it’s also easier to handle in an emergency. For regions with harsh weather and long winters, an AWD car might be the most sensible choice.

Which body style is best?

Practicality in a car is always a priority, especially in a daily driver. Depending on where most of the driving happens, and who or what gets transported, different body styles will serve different purposes. For the city street roamer, who carries fewer than 4 people, a small 3 door hatchback might be ideal. On the other hand, the teen that drives long distances and highways might need a 4 door sedan comfortable enough to drive long journeys. It boils down to what they need in a car, what they will transport, and where they are driving.

How much horsepower?

It’s more about power-to-weight ratio than horsepower alone, but a good benchmark is not exceeding 150 hp per each 2200 lbs of curb weight. That means the car won’t be fast enough to cause much trouble, and that the driver will be able to learn how to gauge throttle input and how to handle a small amount of engine power, before moving on to faster vehicles.

What about safety features?

Before we begin to answer this, we must remember, safety comes from the driver. Nearly every accident is due to human error. So, before looking for a safe car, we must ensure there is safe, attentive, focused driver behind the wheel.

That being said, when an accident does happen, the car must be able to protect the occupants. ABS and Airbags have been a must in production cars for over a decade, so it would make sense to look for a car with those.

The important thing here is to make sure the driver won’t panic in an emergency, and will react in a way that minimizes or stops any damage. Good driving habits should be taught even before there are plans to put a youngster behind the wheel.

What about insurance costs?

Insurance is a must in many countries, and with prices skyrocketing for young drivers, it’s important to choose a car that doesn’t increase the already high insurance costs. A sedan or hatchback instead of a two seat convertible is a wise choice.

What about fuel economy?

Once again, the driver is the most important part of the equation. When we drive smoothly and with caution, planning ahead and making smart decisions, we save fuel and thus, money.
However, choosing an efficient car is also important, so a small engine, with electronic fuel injection, and a catalytic converter are in order. A post-1996 car is preferred since after said year, all US market cars are equipped with an OBD 2 port, which means issues can be scanned for, reducing time spent on diagnosing the car.

How much should be spent?

A common rule of thumb is to keep it under 5000 dollars, but used cars can be had for much less. As long as the budget is adhered to, and the purchase is done carefully, it’s up to the family to set the maximum they are willing to spend on a car.

We have to keep in mind that the cost of a car is not only its price, but also, the cost on running it; more on that later.

What about running costs?

Fuel is not the only monetary worry that is encompassed in car ownership. Maintenance, repairs, and replacing parts such as tires, air filters, and windshield wiper blades, add up to a surprisingly hefty sum of money. Choosing a car that won’t “burn” though these components is almost a must. Knowing the car’s maintenance requirements is also a major obligation.

For example, a Mazda Rx-8, which has a rotary Wankel engine, uses more oil than you would expect it to, and it must be topped off regularly. That may seem like a trivial matter now, but keeping an engine in good shape saves the owner hefty garage bills for an engine rebuild.

Who will pay for it?

The age old debate about who should pay for a teenager’s first car. Depending on how affluent a family is, this can range from the parents paying for the whole thing, to the youngling getting a job and saving up, or anything in between these opposite sides of the spectrum.

Whatever arrangement you choose, it’s important not only to teach the price of things, but their value. Money is ultimately what you do with it.

A car is not only an expense, it’s an investment, and the first slice of freedom a young person gets. Driving is an experience that brings joy to every gearhead on this earth; there are few things better than being behind the wheel.

Will it be a project car?

As gearheads, we are bound to tinker with out machines sooner or later, so if your teen is one too, maybe a project car is in order.  We have already talked about a father’s deal with his teenage son who wanted a Foxbody Mustang.  And while the foxbody is a fine start for a project car, there are several options for any application they are interested if, from 3rd generation Camaros to an EK9 Civic for autocross, the choices are plenty, and the market is full of opportunities. Even classic cars that can turn into a restoration project are available now.

When it comes to our passion for cars, we are more lenient towards fulfilling the “boring” criteria for a project car; instead we focus on character, performance, and all of the little things that give our cars a soul.


No matter the choice, a first car is one of the most important steps for any teenager, so the whole family has to sit down at the dinner table, whip out the notepads and calculators, and compare all options available, balancing the needs and the wants, to select a car that will not only become a mode of transport, but a companion for the youngling behind the wheel.

The road ahead is waiting, so, who’s driving today?