First Car Tips and Opinions

With some regularity, YrHmblHst is asked the question, "Whats a good first car for my offspring?" My answer is usually the same - "Whatever they can afford."
Now, YrHmblHst is not entirely without sympathy for the plight of the teenager wanting their first car. Things are different now, and I understand that obtaining a vehicle is a trifle more [financially] challenging now than it was in my day. Which was worse than in my parent's day... As an example, let's look at my experience and then 'project it forward' to today.
My first car was a Plymouth RoadRunner. It was 6 model years old when I got it, low miles and in very good condition. I paid $1200 for it. My first job started at $2.85 and almost immediately went to $3 an hour. So lets just say wages of three dollars an hour. Whilst there is no exact equivalent made today, the closest thing available in the US is a 2006 Pontiac [nee Holden] GTO. A really nice midsize 'musclecar' , now 7 model years old as this is written. A really good 06 GTO sells for about $18000 +/-. 'Teenager' jobs are at about $7 / hr now. Even the most mathematically challenged amongst us can see the problem.
So, more often than not, Mom and Dad are footing at least a significant portion of the purchase price, so they rightly have a say in what to buy. And usually, Mom and Dad are mainly interested in 'safety' and reliability. Thats what I'd like to address here without necessarily getting into specific makes and models.
My first recommendation, after banning cel phone use, to a parent -or a mature teenager that might listen - is to invest in driver's school. I'm not talking about that waste of time and tax dollars available in the local high school, nor 'Joe Blow's Driving Academy' there in your home town that is little more than a more personal and slightly expanded version of the high school thing where at least your child DOES get more time behind the wheel...running the instructor's errands. No, I mean a REAL driving school, like Bondurant, Barber, Daly, Russell ,etc etc. Many high performance car makers like Porsche and BMW have their own courses for owners just in case Mom and Dad might own one...Now I don't necessarily mean a racing  school, although those are very useful in teaching car control, but advanced skills courses. Bigger places like Bondurant have corporate schools, chauffeurs classes, even anti-terrorist curriculum. Several of the racing schools have begun to offer courses specifically for beginning drivers. Look for one in your area. Anything that will teach Junior how to handle a car in an emergency situation and instill good habits is well worth the time and money. Books, video, practising in empty icy parking lots in the winter, whatever can be done to improve the driver is worthwhile. Especially banning cel phone use.
Understandably, most parents havent the wherewithal these days to drop 3K + on a drivers school and then buy a car for their little one. YrHmblHst certainly doesnt. So even though anything you can do to TEACH them to drive more safely and efficiently is first on the list, 'passive' safety of a car is still high on most people's priority scale. Let's talk about that.
Regrettably, I was stuck in a job for about 25 years where I saw wrecked cars 5 days a week. Obviously, even the unobservant couldnt help but notice what cars held up well in collisions and what ones didn't. These observations and a little knowledge of the industry are what I will base my recommendations on. Remember that these GENERALISATIONS are based on real world observations in the US. Europe presents some pretty impressive variables and differences, and I dont have enough real world experience there to address specifics for different countries. My general comments will hold true here in New Zealand and Australia, though with a caveat that I will try to remember to address in a moment.
Assuming one is looking for a 5 to 20 year old passenger car, and an H1 Hummer or a 65 Cadillac are off the table, generally speaking, Swedish and German cars hold up best in an accident. American cars next, and asian cars last. To be fair, there are significant differences amongst asian cars - Japanese cars do much better [with a couple of exceptions] than older korean ones [which are now mostly on par with the japanese brands as they get better at copying them] with anything from red china a distant last. A DISTANT last. And watch where the car is built - there are 'Chevrolets' that are chinese...
"But HmblHst" someone says. "I saw the IIHS lists and brand xyz got really high marks!" A couple of things... First, the IIHS is a political entity.  Period. I won't go into a discussion here, but that is fact.
Secondly, the IIHS 'standards" and tests are readily available and are easy to 'engineer' for, i.e. make a car do well in specific tests. [in fact, Renault has recently admitted publicly that they do just that for similar 'ratings' in Europe...]  A couple of examples spring to mind.
One of the tests the IIHS does is a 'rear impact' test. What this entails is running a ram into the center of the rear bumper and then looking at the damage and calculating repair costs. The imperative word here is 'center'. To do well in this test, a certain major asian manufacturer [t***ta]  put a 4 inch piece of sturdy steel square in the center of the reinforcement on the rear of one of their more popular models. It did it's job. BUT, if the impact is 4 inches to either side of exact center, the damage went up exponentially. However, it passed the 'rear impact' test with flying colours...Another example that comes to mind is when they started the angle impact tests. This attempts to represent more real world collisions, as not all wrecks are straight on. So, an angle of impact of 45 degrees was decided upon. Again, another fairly flagrant example I know of was the same company, with their minivan. They added a large plastic/styrofoam and metal wedge in the corner of the bumper cover to absorb and deflect a 45 degree impact. It worked.  At 37 degrees tho..watch out. Others are guilty of engineering for these tests too I'm certain, I just happen to know about and remembered those off the top of my head. So don't put TOO much faith in IIHS ratings, ok?
***The caveat for my Antipodean readers - the above generalisations will usually hold true for you too. Substitute 'Australian GM and Ford'  for 'American cars' and youre good to go. In fact, in my experience/observation, albeit very limited, the Australian cars may well be sturdier than their American cousins. The difference comes in Japanese cars. Due to Japan's unique, and somewhat ingenious, tax schedules for registering and licensing cars, there are a LOT of 'jdm' Japanese cars flooding the used car market in both Oz and NZ. These cars are not built to normal Australian, New Zealand, or US standards and are lighter/thinner/have nice smaller bumpers etc than those normally imported through new car dealers. Theyre a good deal dollarwise as theyre usually cheaper and have very low miles, and they might be just a tad quicker than our home market units, but they do not appear to hold up as well in collisions from my very limited observation. Just a thought.

As for reliability... too many variables here. Most newer cars are fairly reliable. The most important thing here is maintenance and care. You can usually tell if a car has been rode hard and put away wet. And even if its well maintained, extreme use puts a damper on reliability. Generally, the higher the performance of the car, the more maintenance required and the shorter the lifespan of the driveline. Also the more fun the car!  Iron blocks and heads with pushrods dont have as many troubles as all aluminum engines nor aluminum heads on iron blocks. Belt driven overhead cam engines MUST be maintained [timing belts] lest you have some very expensive failures. Manual transmissions tend to be less troublesome [and cheaper to repair] than automatics. Turbochargers are expensive maintenance items that require special care and somewhat different driving habits to maintain. The more electronic controls/accessories/devices a car has, the more likely you are to have [ofttimes expensive] problems. All pretty obvious. Just check, or have checked, the car's mechanical condition and look for maintenance. Oh, and carfax may not be worth the paper its printed on. I have seen cars with 'clean' carfax that have had major structural work and poor repairs. It MAY be an indicator, but it is FAR from being as reliable of a source as they claim.
I will give you this one specific tip though ; look around your area for 'make specific' independent repair facilities. These guys have to make a living, and dont stay in business if there are no customers. As an example, in my home town with a metro population of about 500000, there are 7 independent repair facilities [plus the dealers] that I can think of from the last time I looked, admittedly 3 or 4 years ago, dedicated solely to one 'highly vaunted for reliability' brand of automobile. [h***a] And they are staying in business...Can't always believe advertising either.

So, what to do about a first car? First, learn to drive. And STAY OFF THE CEL PHONE! Then, try and buy the nicest car that interests you that you can realistically afford. [dont forget to budget for some repairs, insurance, petrol and the like] Then  enjoy!  Oh, and send the story of it to me here!   :)

Lets be careful out there kids.

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