What Car Should I Buy My Teen Driver?

New Cars: Clearly, when buying a new vehicle, there's less to worry about in terms of maintenance and upkeep. The main concern, then, centers around crash resistance and structural integrity. This falls into several different areas (not to mention the cost of the auto insurance).

1.    Crash-test scores: These play an increasingly important role in helping consumers determine the crash-worthiness of a particular vehicle. Crash-test scores give the best picture yet of the ability of a vehicle to withstand a front or side impact. NHTSA Web site is also a good resource to check for safety ratings. While crash-test scores are approximate, they represent an excellent appraisal of the structural integrity of a particular model. Use these sources to narrow down your choices and keep your child safe.

2.    Rollover risk: Most people know by now that SUVs, trucks and other truck-based vehicles have a higher center of gravity and are more prone to roll over than passenger cars. NHTSA offers rollover resistance ratings for a number of vehicles. While these statistics are not base on real life crashes, they offer some guidance as to what vehicles to buy and which ones to avoid.

3.    Size: On the other hand, a vehicle's size can offer protection during a collision. Big vehicles have a larger crumple zone, which can limit injuries in an accident. So what do you do? Our recommendation: buy your novice driver a non-truck-based vehicle with excellent crash-test scores and focus on defensive driving skills. Many, although not all, accidents occur due to operator error. Teaching your child solid driving skills is a gift that will last a lifetime. Setting a good example is the start!

4.    Reliability: Certain models, such as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, have legendary reputations for drive train reliability. However, they also cost more. If you can afford it, consider buying your child a model with a great reputation. It may save her from being stranded by the side of the road someday, and the added sense of security will benefit the whole family.

Used Cars: Many parents can't afford to buy a new car for their teen driver, and must instead shop in the used market. No problem, as there are a lot of great values in that segment. Here are the factors to consider when buying a used car.

1.    Tires: Tires are a critical component on any vehicle. Think about it: They're the only place at which your car has direct contact with the road. Therefore, their condition is critical to your vehicle's stopping and handling ability. So examine them closely. Are they cracked or aging? Is there plenty of tread left, or are they worn down to the wear indicators? If so, use this as a bargaining chip with the seller, either getting them to lower the price enough to pay for a new set of tires, or, in the case of a car dealership, insisting that they mount new rubber before you'll purchase the car. You may also want to read Flat Tire Hell and Change a Flat Tire, as well as Tires: Traffic Safety Tips.

2.    Brakes: Without a doubt, your teen will be more interested in how quickly his car accelerates versus how fast it stops. No single attribute contributes more to vehicle safety than the ability to stop quickly. Therefore, running a close second to tires is the condition of the brakes. Do they squeal or howl? If so, this could indicate uneven wear. Are the drums or rotors scored? (Disc brake rotors can be checked visually or by running your fingernail across the surface of the rotor. If either inspection turns up scoring, have the rotor replaced, not turned on a lathe. It's cheap insurance, and could save the life of your child someday. Conversely, most drum brakes require the removal of the rear wheels for inspection.) As above, use any deficiencies as leverage to negotiate a lower purchase price.

3.    Belts and hoses: Similar to tires, hoses and belts have a tendency to wear over time. Inspect them for cracks and aging and replace them before they give you trouble.

4.    Radiator/Cooling system: This is a hard one to check, but worth the effort. If nothing else, stick your nose under the car and see if there's any fluid on the ground. If it's clear, it's probably just melted condensation from your air conditioner, but if it's green or pink or some other strange color, it could indicate leakage from your radiator. Another test: drive the car hard and see if it overheats. If so, return immediately to the seller to renegotiate. Don't mess with a finicky cooling system: It's a good way to land your teen somewhere you don't want him — by the side of the road.

5.    Seat belts: Pretty obvious, but make sure all the seat belts attach and retract correctly. Also, check their condition for fraying fabric or loose anchor points. This is the best 40-year-old safety innovation in the business.

6.    Engine and transmission: Again, fairly obvious, but not worth overlooking. A qualified mechanic can do a compression test and other procedures to check the strength of the engine. A transmission will usually go a long time unless it's leaking, but be on the lookout during a test drive to spot any slippage or harsh shifts.

7.    Battery: Most auto parts stores and repair facilities will test your battery for free to see if it needs replacing. It takes about five minutes.