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Girl TORQUE: Buying your teen a car


Airbags? ABS? Hatchback? Diesel? Choosing the best car for your young driver.

What, no airbags? “Nope, she’s only going to crash it so I don’t want to spend too much on her first car. We can splash out later…”

Um, you what? You’d think having brought the child up, and launched her on the world – literally, given her four-wheeled reward for achieving certain NCEA results – any parent would prefer the safest car they can afford.

The trouble is deciding what your priorities are – and doing that before you go looking.

I’d suggest a four-cylinder, normally-aspirated petrol engine for flexible, rather than high performance. A well-maintained diesel is good, turbo or otherwise, for the grunty pull at low speeds soon changes to less keen a response as you accelerate.

If buying second-hand or affordable-mainstream, an auto tends to deliver a more relaxed reaction to the throttle, though it also means your teen may be flummoxed by manual transmissions in future.

A sedan or coupe is better than a hatch – loose items in the boot will stay there after an impact, instead of flying into the passenger space. If you get a hatch, buy a luggage net and encourage its use.

A driver airbag should be a minimum – even slow-speed crashes can cause serious injuries, and an airbag will reduce that risk. Side airbags are good if you can afford it, as a car’s flanks offer a much smaller crumple zone than its bonnet – inexperienced drivers are prone to errors at junctions, or unplanned power pole clinches.

ABS brakes will reduce the chance your teen will skid, as will stability control.

Neither will save anyone from extreme recklessness; both will extend that safety envelope and, one hopes, deliver a fright – not an injury – to a too-confident teenage driver.

Paying extra for an airbag, for ABS and for stability control (increasingly standard in even the smallest cars) dramatically reduces the chance your teen will suffer the ultimate penalty for a driving error.

Don’t be tempted to get an SUV just because it’s bigger. My hairdresser’s apprentice received a three-door Mitsubishi Pajero as her first car, because her dad reckoned she’d be better protected.

She had no idea that her Pajero would take longer to brake to a stop than a lighter hatch, would be less assured when taking corners and be more prone to rolling, with a higher risk of severe injury.

She also had no idea that the short-wheelbase cars ride less well, and are even less stable in corners than their longer siblings.

All she knew was that if she hits a smaller car, she’d be better off than that vehicle’s passengers and she’s right. Let’s hope she’s also reasonably motivated not to try it out – for their sake.

Which leads us to minor fender benders, and parts replacement. Check the cost of head- and taillights, bumpers, and perhaps windscreens, especially if you’re looking at a used import. Parts can be prohibitively expensive for unusual models, and a dime-a-dozen for common ones.

Now consider insurance – and making your teen responsible for its cost, so they learn to value and protect their car. An undamaged car has undamaged occupants – which is surely the aim.

These recommendations might cut your purchase options, but will help your teen survive those risky learning years unscathed, and set them up right for the many years of driving ahead of them.

Read Jacqui's past Girl TORQUE columns here.

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