We’re close to wrapping up our Attainable Dream Garage. This week, we’re covering the last vehicle on the list (but not the last part in the series), your teenage kid’s car. Sooner or later, Junior will turn 16, and he or she will free up some space in your family hauler. And as cool as a modified Chevy Express can be, you’ll probably be a bit tired of hauling your kid around by the time his or her 16th birthday rolls around. You’ll be nervous, sure, setting your offspring in a machine that will hurtle them at highway speeds toward their planned destinations, but knowing they’re in the right car can help you go back inside instead of watching the taillights fade over the horizon.
A note on the Attainable- “I didn’t know I was about to crash, but my Mercedes did.” You probably can’t afford to put your high school student in a brand new E-Class, but if you could, Junior might make full use of its state-of-the-art radar crash prevention technology. There is, however, no replacement for good training. So the first suggestion is plenty of parent-child education, beginning with bicycles, go-karts, riding mowers, ATVs, and whatever else you happen to have within reach, and at all ages.
I’ll never forget the day when, at age 15, my dad took me to an empty lot in the industrial park and let me switch seats for the first time. Combined with a state-approved regimen at Driv Rite Driving School (not to be confused with Spel Rite Spelling School), I got a very solid education. Here are a few qualities you’ll want in the car itself.
Efficient- When I was in high school, cruising my small town in my 1988 ½ Escort hatchback, I didn’t care about the price of gas, even though I made staggering $5.25 an hour (minimum wage) at the local Pizza Hut. That’s because gas was less than a buck a gallon. Today, gas is an investment. Junior can’t fill up on his allowance. He probably won’t be able to fill up at all. Something with a temperate, sub-two liter mill is recommended.
Safe and Slow- A small engine can also help with this, unless you give Junior a Caterham Seven. If your kids want to learn to drive fast, it’s best for them to do it in a slow car. They’ll never master precision and control, the most important safety features, in some supercharged monstrosity if they can’t first master them in an ancient, rusting compact. However, a little technology can never hurt. Airbags for Junior and his date, disc brakes, and ABS will make a big difference if things get ugly. And since you’re the parent, I’m not predicting an argument on that point.
Inexpensive- Financing is too often a necessary evil when you’re car shopping. If you’ve ever had an auto loan, you’d sooner send your kids to The Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good than make them pay off a loan. A cheap ride, something for which they can save up their summer job earnings, will keep them out of the red and teach them a thing or two about money. Even if you’re able to buy a car for each of your kids, you won’t want to make a huge investment, since it stands to reason that they won’t be as obsessive about maintenance as you’d like. That 88 Escort I had? I never changed the oil.
Manual- It will bring tears to your eyes, but it’s better to prepare now for the idea that one day, your son or daughter may tell you that he or she would rather drive an automatic. But despite that possibility, and as a measure to prevent it, make sure that first car is a row-your-own. It will be especially helpful on the off chance that Junior will ever want to travel outside the US, where you could make a game out of counting how many automatics you’ll see in any given country. And then there’s the greater good to consider. With fewer and fewer manuals offered every year, we must entrust their preservation to our progeny. Save the sticks!
Reliable- The real reason I never got the oil changed in my escort was time. I never had time for anything. Between the Pizza Hut gig, marching band, youth group, and the full time job that was school, I was busy enough to need a personal assistant. Had I one, she would have been able to arrange a rental car for me when the old hatch broke down. But I didn’t, so any car trouble I had was a serious detour in the already labyrinthine route I had to navigate to get through high school.
Simple- If and when that car does succumb to the rigors of teen ownership, you’ll want to be able to fix it with your kid. You should be able to roughly explain how it works, bumper to bumper, so junior can even fix it by himself if he must. It’s something he’ll be glad you conveyed when he’s stranded with his date in the Cinemark parking lot, or if his ride overheats half an hour from the Owl City concert, and the opening band is already on stage. There’s nothing worse than a car load of disappointed teenage fans: just consider ease of repair another safety feature.
My Choice- 1997 Honda Civic DX Hatchback
No, it probably isn’t what Junior wanted, but it’s not a bad looking car, so it won’t be a fight. Under the hood is a wimpy little 1.6 L straight 4, capable of a drag-race incapable 106 hp. But your kids will thank you at the pump, since it gets 32 mpg. In the city. On the highway, the EPA says 37, though owner reports of dubious veracity claim 40.
You can easily get an example of this generation in good condition on Craigslist for less than a Pizza Hut friendly three grand. It’s a non V-TEC model, so should you need to do any serious work, you won’t have to spend half your day in the customs office that is the ECU. And the DX model came standard with a pair of air bags and front disc brakes. It lacks ABS, but the only Civic of that generation with ABS was the EX model, which was much more powerful. It’s a trade-off.
Best of all, it’s not uncommon in the least to find a copy with a stick.
That’s what I want my kids to drive, but if you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know that I don’t have any yet. What do you want your kids to drive? What are they driving now?