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Tips for Teen Drivers: What to Buy and How to Drive It

By KBB.com Editors on October 14, 2011 7:59 AM
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If in your teenage years, you're familiar with teen angst. (And if you're not familiar, mugs and T-shirts are widely available, some with definitions). Teen angst is a debilitating condition brought on by a variety of circumstances common to the teenage years. And while cars aren't mentioned in the same breath as skin condition, grades or parents as a root cause, one can't deny the potential of the car and traffic as a player in this phase-of-life trauma.

While we can't advise you on skin or grades, we can speak to cars and their operation; this is, after all, an automotive website. And while our teen years are behind us, we vividly remember our first cars being more than a little like our first love interests. And much like that first relationship, you don't want to screw it up -- too soon.

We'll divide it into two aspects: What to Buy and How to Drive It. In the first, of course, you may not have a choice; you might simply get what's left in the driveway. If your parents have been strategic, they bought the last new car 3-4 years ago, anticipating not only their needs for family transportation but your needs for first-time transportation. In a perfect world it would be a Ford Mustang GT or Chevy Camaro convertible, but it's not a perfect world. Even with a strategic approach, the greater likelihood is that they want you to drive the Toyota Sienna minivan -- the one whose middle seat smells like the kid sister's dirty diaper (and she's now 13), while the third row has a toxic mix of crushed Fruit Loops and vintage Milk Duds.

If you have the opportunity to "roll" your own, with a part-time job and no credit history (meaning no negative credit history), here's what we'll advise in making your first big purchase (after the prom dress and/or carbon fiber singlespeed).

What to Buy

Network. Everybody has a car, and at any one time at least someone in your social network would like to sell it. Look for cars in which the owner isn't dissatisfied; rather, they are simply in need of something different.

Do your research. Ask parents, peers and parents of peers what cars or trucks they've enjoyed. Your car represents a major investment on either your part or on the part of someone close to you. With so many variables the process can be overwhelming, but stick with the research. And don't let your purchase decision be built on happenstance; base it, instead, on a reasonable plan and timely execution.

Save like crazy. Unless you have a co-signer, a loan officer will spend more time laughing at your application than approving it. Your cash in the car market is king. And with a future of reduced health care spending for the elderly, the grandparents are focused on their prescription costs, not your transportation needs.

Buy what you need. Need what you buy. This is your first car, and you're a new driver. Don't be overly ambitious -- the BMW convertible will still be there when you're ready. Thankfully, there are a lot of new, entry-level cars in the marketplace, and a lot of very used entry-level cars that -- because of improved durability -- will get you through high school. Don't be afraid of the Corolla with 100,000 miles, as long as there is a proof of an oil change (any oil change) within those 100,000 miles.

Treat it with care. Ultimately, what you buy and drive will give as it gets. Treat it with disrespect, and it will drop you like a bad habit. Check on it regularly, keep the outside reasonably clean and the inside reasonably organized, and you'll have something that you can take with you to college -- or save for the now-16-year old little sister.

How to Drive It

Sign up for Drivers' Ed. And yeah, we know -- most programs for teenage drivers throughout the U.S. are unbelievably lame. There have been recent initiatives, mainly on the part of insurance companies (Allstate), manufacturers and the automotive aftermarket (Bridgestone), to put something in front of first-time drivers beyond someone's 1955 curriculum.

Practice. Practice. Practice. Remember your hours at the piano? A car -- in traffic -- is exponentially more dangerous than your grandmother's baby grand. So, beyond your formalized instruction, find a big parking lot -- in combination with a brave parent or licensed sibling, and practice. Practice steering, acceleration and braking. Practice parking and accident avoidance. And here's a new one: practice patience. With the number of cars on this nation's roadways growing, so -- it follows -- is the number of idiots.

Focus on the basic skills. This follows the above advice, but remains important once you're off the practice lot and onto the parkway. Stay aware and awake, and while recent distractions have grown in number, remember to avoid the more basic ones. The radio should be off, and passengers -- if they're even allowed in your state -- should be muted.

Keep -- and maintain -- a clear field of vision. Some of this goes back to car choice; those cars or trucks with a lot of glass area are typically easier for the teen or first-time driver than cars with minimal glass or glaring blind spots. But if you have things in your car -- and we've seen few kids that don't -- keep them below the car's beltline. The better bet is to keep them in the trunk - unless you've already placed the noisy friend back there, which is fine.

Enjoy the process. Nothing in the last century matches the automobile for enhancing the social experience; not -- we'll wager -- even Facebook. It affords an independence of movement that, in most of human history, could not have been imagined. People can drive in one hour further than most would have traveled in an entire lifetime but two centuries ago. If "Arab Spring" has been this year's shorthand for political liberation, "Auto Spring" would be the abbreviated descriptive for a century of independent mobility.

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