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6 steps to buying the perfect car for your teen driver

He wanted style, high performance and maybe a little bit of bling. But his mother had a different idea about the car he would soon be driving. Like most parents, Kathy Clarke of LaGrange, Ill., placed importance on the car's purchase price, safety features and cost of car insurance. ?Style? wasn't required for her teen driver.

The car "had to be safe, reliable and not expensive," says Clarke, a mother of two teenage drivers. "Those were our factors."

Safety is probably at the top of every parent's list — and for good reason. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), 16- to 19-year-olds face four times the risk of being involved in a car crash than older drivers. Risk is highest at age 16. The crash rate per mile driven is twice as high among 16-year-olds compared to 18- to 19-year-olds.

The statistics are scary. It's no wonder many parents experience a strange mix of fear and joy when their teen first receives a driver's license. But here are ways to minimize those fears.

1. Pick a safe car

safe cars for teen drivers

Teens are not experienced drivers, which elevates their crash rate. According to IIHS, "young novice drivers are at significant risk on the road because they lack both the judgment that comes with maturity and the skill that comes with experience."

Putting teens behind the wheel of a high-performance sports car or a large sports utility vehicle is a bad idea. Sports cars tempt teens to put the pedal to the metal. SUVs, while they can be appealing to a 16-year-old driver because they have plenty room for friends, have a much higher probability of rolling over in an accident because of their higher center of gravity, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III).

The IIHS and III recommend choosing a midsize car with updated safety features and avoiding sports cars or high-performance vehicles that encourage speeding. According to IIHS, fatal crashes involving young drivers are typically one-vehicle crashes and are often due to driver error and/or speeding.

Affordable and safe choices for midsize cars include the Chevrolet Impala, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord and Volkswagen Passat. Even slightly smaller cars, like the Ford Focus or Honda Civic, are recommended by experts for beginning drivers (see sidebar list of safe cars for teens). But be wary of certain small cars that offer less protection for occupants.

10 safe cars for teens

Most experts recommend avoiding small cars, SUVs and sports cars. Midsize cars (and some smaller cars) are recommended for new drivers. Insure.com compiled a list of cars recommended for teens by industry experts and those that perform well in crash test ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

  • Acura TL
  • Chevrolet Impala
  • Ford Focus
  • Ford Fusion
  • Honda Accord
  • Honda Civic
  • Nissan Sentra
  • Toyota Corolla
  • Volkswagen Jetta
  • Volkswagen Passat

     

"The perfect car for a teen is one that provides the greatest amount of safety," says Loretta Worters, spokesperson for III. "A car is a mode of transportation, it's not a joyride. It's not there to be ?cool.'"

Worters recommends choosing a vehicle that is easy and comfortable for the teen to drive. The child should feel comfortable in the seat and be able to reach all the features with ease. Your teen should also be able to handle the car under adverse conditions.

2. New or used?

If you can afford to buy your teen a new car, you'll garner the latest protection features such as air bags, antilock breaks and electronic stability control (technology introduced in the '90s that improves the safety of a vehicle's stability by detecting and minimizing skids). Of course, you can also expect higher collision insurance premiums on a new car.

But you don't need to buy your teen a new car for it to be safe. Clarke and her husband chose a 10-year-old Saturn for their 16-year-old son and it's proved to be safe and reliable.

"It's not the most glamorous car but it had the right price and it seemed to be in good condition," Clarke says.

Worters says that most cars made in the '90s and after come equipped with the necessary safety features. So if you can't afford a new vehicle, an older model in good working condition is a fine choice as well.

3. Check the car's crash test results

Whether you choose a new or used car, it's a good idea to check its car crash ratings. Not all new cars perform the same in crash tests. Insure.com's Car Crash Performance Tool contains information about vehicles that have been crash tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and IIHS. The tool has safety ratings for car model years 1990 to 2009. Among other things, the cars were tested for their frontal impact, side impact and rollover performance.

In addition, IIHS names top safety picks for new models annually. Cars, trucks, SUVs and minivans are categorized by size (large, small and midsize). The institute rates vehicles based on high-speed frontal and side crash tests plus evaluations of seat/head restraints for protection against neck injuries in rear impacts.

"They are good indicators of which is the safest car for your teen," says Worters.

4. Evaluate your car insurance options

Consider the cost of insurance before you purchase a car for your teen. But prepare yourself for premiums that will increase no matter what you do.

"When a teen is added to your insurance, you're going to see a huge increase — by as much as 100 percent," says Worters. "And a boy is usually a bit more expensive than a girl, but that's starting to change."

Keep in mind that safer cars are generally less expensive to insure because they have a lower claims history. Many car insurance companies offer discounts for having air bags or factory-installed mechanical seat belts, antilock brakes and antitheft devices such as alarms. But shop around. Insurance companies differ dramatically in how they price policies for young drivers.

5. Employ a money-saving strategy

If you plan to add your teen to your existing car insurance policy (which is less expensive than placing a teen on his own policy), you should qualify for a multi-car discount by having more than one car covered by the same insurance company.

If your teen earns good grades at school, ask your insurer about a "good student" discount. Many car insurance companies provide small discounts for students who maintain B averages or better. If your licensed child is under 21 and leaves for college more than 100 miles away, you can save a little because they won't be driving your car year-round. Let your agent know and ask if your premium can be adjusted for lower teen use.

save money

Also, find out how your insurance company assigns drivers to cars. Some insurers will assign the driver who is the most expensive to insure (your teen) to the car that is most expensive to insure — not necessarily the car that your teen will be driving. If possible, assign your teen to the least expensive car because it will save you money.

According to III, some insurers will allow you to do this if the number of cars equals or exceeds the number of insured drivers on the policy. However, make sure that your teen drives only the assigned car — even in an emergency. While your child would be covered if involved in an accident while driving an unassigned vehicle, your insurance company could penalize you afterward. Some insurance companies could drop you. Others could charge you back premiums (based on the assumption that your child was driving the car regularly) dating back to the start of your policy period.

Another factor to consider is liability limits. If you carry only the state minimum liability limits required, you are not well protected from lawsuits should your teen get into an accident. Granted, higher liability limits will increase the price of your car insurance policy. To offset the cost, Worters recommends increasing your deductible from the typical $250 to either $500 or $1,000 (you can save you anywhere from 10 to 20 percent on your premium).

6. Consider "spying" for a discount

spying

Insurance companies call it "monitoring." Teens will likely accuse you of "spying" on them. In any case, some insurers will give you a discount on your car insurance premium if you agree to install a tracking device in your teen's car. This monitors your child's driving through a global positioning system (GPS) unit that is fastened to the dashboard. The GPS is connected to a Web site that allows you to track your teen's driving. For example, if your child is driving over a certain speed limit or ventures too far from home or school, you can automatically receive an alert via e-mail or text message.

"It depends on the company, but you can save maybe 10 to 15 percent [on your premium] if you install it," Worters says.

If you don't want to monitor your teen, consider enrolling him or her in a "safe driver program." It's a great way to save money on car insurance premiums while providing your teen with education about becoming a better driver. Not all insurance companies offer ?safe driver? programs but it's worth asking. If your teen completes the program, the insurance company generally offers a discount on your annual premium.

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