More than 50 years ago, a certain graduate in an Italian roadster made a cross-country race against time, love and impending adulthood. Though Alfa Romeo has returned to the U.S. and “The Graduate” is still a classic, a lot has changed in how students will be using their vehicles to flee the parental nest and embark on one of the most uncertain and exciting times of adulthood.
The car buying process is equally fraught, whether someone is going into high school, college, vocational school or skipping higher education altogether, along with the six-figure debt that comes with it. You can get a lot of car for the price of a college education. But should you get a small car good on gas and maneuverability or get all-wheel-drive crossovers good on everything else? New or gently used or certified pre-owned? Lease or loan or just pass on the family beater?
While cost may be the main concern for young drivers, the parents of those young drivers — and the folks likely to pay the insurance — are more likely to be concerned with safety.
Tips for parents
That ‘66 Spider Duetto probably didn’t have seat belts, certainly didn’t have air bags, and there was no notion of electronic stability control.
“Almost no one has heard about electronic stability control but it is right up there with air bags as a crucial safety technology,” said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit founded by auto insurers dedicated to reducing the frequency and severity of vehicle crashes.
Mandated on all vehicles made after 2011, ESC uses the anti-lock braking system to keep the vehicle in the direction the driver intends in bad weather or unforeseen circumstances.
Newer systems such as forward collision braking and other advanced driver assistance features can minimize or even prevent collisions altogether. Vehicles equipped with such technology qualify for the institute’s Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick Plus award for each model year.
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“Forward collision braking is important for preventing the most common kind of front and rear crashes that aren’t high speed but do lead to a lot of vehicle damage and injuries,” Rader explained.
The technology reduced front-end collisions by half from 2010 to 2014, according to an institute study. It also helps to avoid rear collisions. We recently had a Volkswagen GTI equipped with such technology stop us from backing over our garbage can. Avoiding such a minor nuisance illustrates how it can prevent a tragedy if that garbage were a pedestrian.
“Advanced driver assistance systems can be a real boon to young drivers,” said Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst for Navigant Research. “It gives more situational awareness if they haven’t been paying attention.”
But optioning new cars with such technology can add anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000, depending on the automaker.
With Toyota Safety Sense, Toyota became the first automaker to offer a bundle of safety features as standard equipment on most of its vehicles.
It could be argued that driving with all those electronic nannies makes for less-qualified drivers overall. Such safety equipment could be a crutch that dulls drivers’ skills and makes them overly reliant on technology.
Teen driver safety
Given the near-record-high price of new cars, advanced safety equipment isn’t always an option. There are other common-sense safety considerations, such as avoiding higher-horsepower cars.
“Cars today have a higher level of performance capability than they ever had in the past,” Abuelsamid said. “It’s so much easier to get in trouble. Go for the basic powertrain; on almost any newer vehicle it offers more than enough performance.”
When properly equipped, used vehicles become a compelling option.
“Buying a used car is always a much better value because you’re not taking the depreciation hit,” Abuelsamid said.
Carfax estimates a new car loses 60 percent of its value in the first five years.
Since buying used comes with its own set of concerns, people who want the assurance of a warranty might opt for a certified pre-owned vehicle. CPOs typically carry a premium from the dealer of about $1,500 but include some kind of service and maintenance assurance.
If you’re going to keep a new car for a while, then the resale value as an original owner might far outweigh the benefit of a CPO used car.
“I think it’s possible in lower-priced new cars (such as Honda and Toyota) that a certified pre-owned might be close to the cost of a new car already,” said Brian Moody, executive editor of Autotrader.
For any car purchase, Moody recommends factoring resale value, cost of ownership expenses such as fuel economy and new tires, and accessibility to a dealership network.
“Kids go to small schools in small towns — what if there’s no dealership to service that car?” Moody said.
Other safety considerations blur the line with conveniences appreciated by all drivers, but especially a generation born with a smartphone implanted in hand.
“Look at vehicles with Bluetooth built in to enable hands-free calling, because kids are going to make calls,” Abuelsamid warned. “Voice controls would definitely help.”
Many newer cars come equipped with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, which are smartphone-compatible systems much easier to use than most automakers’ native technology.
The most everlasting consideration with car shopping for young drivers may be the most basic.
“Teach the kids proper maintenance — check tire pressure, check oil, check engine lights; teach the kid how to change a flat tire,” Abuelsamid recommended. “These are basic things everyone should learn.”
Then, at the least, your graduate won’t run out of gas at the most inopportune but narratively climactic time.