Cars You Shouldn't Get Your Teen Driver for the Holidays

Steer clear of these poor choices

Last updated: December 18, 2015 08:00 AM

Buying the first car for your kid is an important rite of passage; car ownership brings a host of responsibilities, from driving etiquette to car maintenance. But it all starts with selecting the right car—one that will be safe, reliable, affordable, and hopefully serve them well for years to come. With all the teenage budget constraints and image concerns, it's easy to gravitate toward models that are poor choices for an inexperienced driver.

Given that teens are three times as likely to crash as adults ages 20 and over (according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety), these young drivers need all the advantages they can get. And that's why when you’re buying for your kid, you should avoid the car types featured here.

See our recommendations for the best new and used cars for teens.


Larger Engines

Generally speaking, the ideal car for a teenager is a four-cylinder mid-sized sedan—something large enough to provide good structural protection and small enough to be easily controlled. When shopping for even mainstream sedans, know that many offer larger engines that may prove too fast for an inexperienced teen. We suggest teens start with a car with modest acceleration: 0 to 60 mph between 7.5-11 seconds. Four-cylinder engines tend to fall into that window, whereas V6 versions of many sedans are often quicker than that. Speed is a known contributor in crashes for people of all ages but perhaps an even larger contributor to teen crashes. As a bonus, four-cylinder engines tend to be more fuel efficient and cheaper to maintain.



Sports Cars

If too much speed is to be avoided, then it should be a no-brainer to avoid high-performance sports cars. By their nature, sports cars with swift acceleration invite misbehavior. Sportier cars also tend to come with higher price tags, followed by higher insurance rates and maintenance costs. While used versions may be appealing, older, affordable models may lack the latest safety features. Combined with their potential for speed, this makes sports cars even less appealing.


Photo: DaimlerChrysler

SUVs and Pickups

Many are tempted by the crash protection advantage of larger SUVs and pickup trucks in a multi-vehicle crash over a smaller car. There is no denying the fact that one-on-one, a larger vehicle will often fair better than a smaller one. Simple physics. But not all crashes are multi-vehicle and will take advantage of that mass differential. According to IIHS, even though passenger car occupant death rates are similar in single (55 percent) and multi-vehicle (51 percent) crashes, single vehicle crashes accounted for 61 and 62 percent of SUV and pickup truck fatalities in 2013. Size alone may not give the advantage you expect in a single vehicle crash event.

Additionally, size and mass can be a challenge for an inexperienced driver to control in an emergency situation. Ratings for larger SUVs and pickups in our emergency handling tests are often lower than better-handling vehicle types. Plus, they introduce unique risks, such as carrying many, potentially distracting passengers; overloading with cargo (thereby altering the center of gravity and stability); or towing a trailer.


Too Many Passengers

Passengers can be particularly significant distractions, which make minivans and three-row SUVs risky—a carload of teens is not a recipe for safety. Though graduated licensing programs in many states limit a new driver’s ability to load up a car with friends or even siblings for a period of time, eventually passengers will be allowed and the more of them there are, the more distracted your young driver will be. And the greater the risks should something go wrong.



Other Things to Consider

Braking ability and handling are also important for avoiding crashes. We only recommend vehicles that stop on a dry surface in 145 feet or less in our tests, and perform adequately in our accident avoidance maneuver test. Electronic stability control is a must-have feature. If shopping new, forward-collision warning with automatic braking is highly recommended.

Even with all of these factors considered, the odds are still skewed toward a young driver experiencing a crash at some point, so make crash-test performance an important checkpoint. In the end, don’t scrimp on safety.

Read more about choosing the right car for a teen driver.


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