Help your kids pick the right car

October 25, 1999

"I need my own car!" If you're ready to respond, "OK," then heed our test driver's shopping recommendations.

Help your kid pick the right car

By Michelle Krebs

"I need my own car!" If you're ready to respond,"Okay," then heed our test driver's shopping recommendations.

So it's finally happened: Your teenager has earned a driver's licenseand started bugging you for a car.

No way does your offspring want to be seen behind the wheel of anythingresembling Mom's boring minivan. How about Dad's luxo-barge? Forget it.Your teen wants something fun, fast--and cool--to get around in.

You, on the other hand, are mainly concerned about finding a vehicleto transport the family's fledgling driver safely from point A to pointB--without breaking down. And it must be economical; you don't want to dipinto the college fund for big monthly car payments, gas, and insurance.

What's the best set of wheels for this new driver? Fortunately, thereare a number of good choices. Here are my top six recommendations. All offeraffordability, safety, reliability, and fuel economy, in varying combinations.Best of all, there's a better-than-even chance the kid will actually likeone or more of them.

VW's New Beetle

Your son or daughter may well be bugging you for a Bug. "Cool".. . "sweet". . . "cute"--all those words are used, fromhigh school parking lots to college dorms, to describe Volkswagen's NewBeetle (price $16,425*). With a silhouette remindful of the original version,the New Beetle's smooth, arching lines resemble a child's Fisher-Price toycar. And it comes in colors nearly as playful.

Small on the outside--making it easy to park--the New Beetle is spaciousinside, with enough head- and legroom for basketball players (the below-seven-footers,at least). Rounded surfaces and a deep dashboard dominate the interior design.Fittingly, a bud vase, like the one in the '50s version, is "standardequipment" on the New Beetle.

Unlike its predecessor, this Beetle has front-wheel drive for good wintertraction. Acceleration from its standard 2-liter, 115-horsepower enginewon't get your teen in trouble with the police, but it will keep pace withhighway traffic. And with a rating of 24 miles per gallon city/31 highway,this car shouldn't consume too much of its young owner's pocket change.

The New Beetle performed best of all small cars in the federal government'scrash tests. And it's the only car listed as "a best pick" bythe Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard equipment includesdual front air bags, side air bags up front, headrests front and rear, antilockbrakes, and daytime running lights.

Toyota Echo

The Echo is one of two newcomers to the US market (the Ford Focus, nextpage, is the other) that are aimed specifically at young drivers yearningfor "hot" wheels.

Available in two- and four-door versions, the Echo ($10,450) was inspiredby a special team of young people dubbed the Genesis group. They were hiredto help Toyota design vehicles that would be fresh, different, and affordablefor first-time buyers.

Reliability is virtually a given for any Toyota model, and I'm bettingthe Echo will live up to that reputation. Although it's small on the outside--foreasy maneuvering--there's plenty of room inside, with lots of storage spaces.Powered by a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine generating 108 horsepower,this car is a fuel sipper: It's expected to deliver 34 mpg city/41 highway.

Although the Echo hasn't been around long enough for government crashtesting, Toyota says safety was a principal consideration in its design.The car comes with dual front air bags and headrests for whiplash protection.But antilock brakes and daytime running lights will cost extra, and sideair bags aren't available.

Ford Focus

Introduced to American drivers this fall, the Focus has been on salein Europe for a year now. And it's been a hit there: It was voted 1999 EuropeanCar of the Year by the automotive press. There are three versions--sedan,station wagon, and two-door hatchback.

The Focus ($12,280) employs Ford's "New Edge" design, combiningrounded surfaces, crisp creases, sharp intersections, and taut lines. Likeothers in the new generation of compact cars, it's surprisingly roomy inside,with seating for up to five and ample legroom. Unlike many small cars, though,the Focus offers a sporty ride and handling more typical of expensive Europeansedans. There's a choice of two 2-liter engines, one rated at 107 horsepowerand the other at 130.

Dual front air bags are standard; side air bags and antilock brakes areoptional. A couple of features are ideal for young owners (and for olderones, if they're forgetful): a standard antitheft system and a battery saverthat automatically switches off headlights 10 minutes after engine shutdown.

There's a plus for ecology-minded teens, as well. They'll be glad toknow that the Focus is built with parts made from recycled consumer goods--plastics,carpets, even denim jeans.

Honda Civic

The venerable Civic ($11,165) is a favorite among teenage drivers--especiallyin California, where the car often gets gussied up with low-riding wheelsand accessories.

As the top seller among American small cars, the Civic comes as a sedan,coupe, or hatchback, in a variety of trim levels. There's a choice of engines:106-, 115-, and 127-horsepower versions of the 1.6-liter, four-cylinderpowerplant. Some versions of the car are among the top gas-mileage achieversin government tests. The HX coupe, for instance, gets 36 mpg city/44 highwaywith manual transmission.

Like other Hondas, the Civic is renowned for nearly bulletproof quality.Consumer Reports rates it one of the most reliable, and it showsup consistently on the "best values" list of IntelliChoice, whichrates vehicles on cost of ownership.

Saturn S-Series

The S-Series ($11,125), available in coupe or sedan versions with twotrim levels, is another safe and economical choice for your family's newestdriver. The SL sedan scored high marks in government crash tests. Plasticbody panels keep the Saturn young-looking by preventing the dents and dingsthat afflict steel-bodied cars.

Intellichoice named the base-model SL its best value for a compact sedanunder $15,000, and the SC coupe was rated among the best values for modelsbelow $14,000. Saturns are competitive in fuel economy (29 mpg city/40 highway,with manual transmission), and their high grades for safety translate tolower insurance costs.

The small Saturns are available with a choice of two four-cylinder engines.And the car company offers something no other does: a three-door coupe.From the outside, it looks like an ordinary coupe; there are two doors,each with a handle. Open the driver's door, though, and you'll find a leverinside. Push it, and presto, that third door--in the rear and without itsown handle--pops open. It's ideal for tossing a gym bag into the back, orfor letting a friend get on board.

Don't count on carving dollars off the sticker price; haggling is notallowed in a Saturn showroom. But you--and that newly licensed driver you'resubsidizing--will be treated nicely, more so than at many other dealerships.

Nissan Xterra

Some of the cars kids crave aren't cars at all. Ask their preference,and they'll probably respond enthusiastically about sport-utility vehicles.And among teen drivers, no new SUV is cooler than the Nissan Xterra ($17,349).

Nissan executives recognized that many sport utilities were getting tooexpensive for young buyers. That led to the design of the back-to-basicsXterra. Rugged and muscular in styling, with fender flares and a raisedroof that can handle loads up to 125 pounds, the Xterra is tailored to youngdrivers with active lifestyles.

A tubular roof rack is ideal for skis and surfboards, and the rear seatsplits and folds to increase cargo capacity. A re- movable basket in theforward part of the roof rack can carry up to 30 pounds of wet or dirtygear, secured by a net. The tailgate has a space for items like a firstaid kit. Throughout the Xterra, there are all kinds of nooks and cranniesfor storing sunglasses, cell phones, and CDs, as well as hooks and tie-downsfor bikes.

Reliability is a good bet: The Xterra is being built at Nissan's Tennesseeplant, which is frequently lauded by J.D. Power and Associates, the marketresearch firm that rates plant and vehicle quality.

Safety features include standard dual front air bags and antilock brakes.Federal crash tests haven't been conducted on the Xterra yet. Be aware,however, that SUVs don't have to meet the same rigid safety standards ascars. Crashworthiness varies widely from model to model--as do quality,reliability, and cost of ownership.

Help from the Web

You and the household's new driver can use the Internet to get authoritativedata on vehicle safety and reliability:

©Findings from government crash tests are available from the NationalHighway Traffic Safety Administration (www.nhtsa.dot.gov). That Web site has a link to the one for the Insurance Institutefor Highway Safety, which does further analyses of those crash tests.

©Information on vehicle quality and reliability is available inConsumer Reports magazine, its buying guides, and Web site (www.ConsumerReports.org), and fromJ.D. Power and Associates (www.JDPower.com).

Price and ownership cost data can be obtained from Intellichoice (www.intellichoice.com).

Michelle Krebs. Help your kids pick the right car. Medical Economics Oct. 25, 1999;76:93.