Auto Pilot - March 2016

What to Consider When Buying a Car for Your Teen

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Graduation time is rapidly approaching and with it always comes a few emails asking my recommendation/advice on the perfect car to purchase the graduate as a gift.

I approach buying a car for a teen as a careful balancing act. One must manage safety (lets face it, statistics prove it will likely have at least one fender bender), practicality and economics, while still being something your teen will consider somewhat cool. Regardless of the make and model you ultimately choose, there are a few mandatory basics for any teen car purchase:

Anti-lock Braking System (ABS): Stopping a car in a hurry can be very challenging. ABS removes most of the challenge of this sometimes white-knuckle event by preventing wheel lock up, and thus skidding, due to over braking. On slippery surfaces, even professional drivers can’t stop as quickly without ABS as an average teen could with ABS. Anti-lock brakes are a must for a relatively new driver. Give your child every bit of technological help you can. Note: ABS was not standard on all cars until 2011, so verify the trim level you are looking at came with ABS.

Electronic Stability Control (ESC): ESC assists in maintaining car control by applying a combination of differential braking and throttle to prevent a spin during a turn taken at too high a speed or on a slippery road. Much like ABS it became standard on all cars in 2012, but was an option on some built prior.

Airbags, specifically side curtain type: When combined with consistent seatbelt use, airbags drastically reduce injuries when compared to a non-airbag model.

When shopping for a car, remember that a used European luxury car, initially costing far more, often is the same price or even less than the comparable year Japanese car. While I try to remain objective, one simply can’t ignore that some used cars are just MUCH more attractive on a dollar-per-feature basis than others. This is where a bit of homework can pay off. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a Toyota or Honda but due to their strong resale value, one can purchase a used Mercedes or Audi for about the same price and these models often come with far more creature comforts and safety features.

One example I recently encountered was a friend considering a 2012 Honda CRV with 44,000 miles for a graduating teen. The car was one-owner, all-options, excellent condition, with a clean Carfax. It was offered at the Kelly Blue Book (KBB) asking price of $19,000. After a brief test drive, I determined it was a good car in as-advertised condition. But, I couldn’t help but think there were other options in that price range.

A few days earlier, I saw a 2012 Mercedes C250 sedan for sale posted by a friend on Facebook. It was the third car in their household and had spent most of its life sitting in the garage. It only had 29,000 miles and still looked and smelled new. I was shocked when he said they were asking $18,900 for the car. A quick check of Kelly Blue Book confirmed the value. This car (which is an excellent car) was less than four-years-old, still under the remainder of the factory warranty (with 2 year extended warranty available for about $2400 from MBZ). So don’t discount the idea of something that has depreciated over the last four years to a point it’s very affordable.

In addition, I recommend that your teen is made partially financially responsible for this new gift, such as paying for insurance, oil changes, taxes or gas. This is a way to show him or her a brief glimpse of adulthood, which is right around the corner. Also, think about basic rules, like how many people can be in the car at one time and the consequences of a ticket or accident. Please remember that if you are buying 100 percent of the car, you get to make 100 percent of the rules. If your teen doesn’t like the rules, perhaps he/she should download the Uber app and get a job.

Jay Ramowski is a commercial helicopter pilot, automotive consultant and professional driver based in Charleston. Jay brings an easygoing love of all things mechanical and a particular passion for cars and the people who drive them. Have questions? Email Jay at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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