Choosing the safest vehicles for your teen

On occasion, I’m tasked with helping a client find a suitable vehicle for their teenager(s). And from what I’ve learned, this is no easy task – mainly because of the stakeholders involved and their rather polar priorities. Parents obviously want something that won’t endanger their children with too much power or a high centre of gravity that might make it more prone to rollovers. And their kids want something cool and quick. The boxes parents (should) look to check are: safety, reliability and low operating cost. But at the same time they don’t want to end up being the lamest parents ever in the eyes of their kids because they’ve come home from the dealership with something like a PT Cruiser (if this offended you, congrats – your kids think you’re lame). And although I’m told by parents that safety, reliability and operating cost are the three most important search criteria, the desire not to be lame always seems to pervade their decision-making; probably more so than it should.

Whatever your shortlist of prospective vehicles may end up being, call your insurance company for quotes. This might be a huge determining factor when selecting the right vehicle for the kids and is a better place to start than to finish. Chances are, the more expensive to insure, the less appropriate for your child. The reason a vehicle is more expensive to insure is a greater propensity to be involved in a claim. So it’s likely faster or more powerful, or is more desirable to a higher-risk demographic. That said, actuaries never cease to amaze me and there will always be exceptions to the rule. But in general, the lower the cost to insure the more likely it’s a suitable option for teenage transportation as probabilities (and actuaries) are telling you it’s less likely to be involved in a claim. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying simply choose the cheapest to insure – but there often is a correlation between insurance cost and suitability.

Something like a Toyota Corolla won’t be a teen’s first choice (unless your teen is far more responsible than their age states they should be), but it’s efficient, reliable, safe and inexpensive to operate. And being a lame parent whose kid has survived an accident is way better than the alternative. If you feel a mid-size sedan will be a safer choice (greater mass and larger crumple zones), stay away from 6-cylinder engines. Most mid-size sedans can be configured with either 4- or 6-cylinder engines so pay close attention to the trim level that indicates the number of cylinders. The last thing you want is to enable your offspring to go fast. 4-cylinders are capable of overtaking on the highway, so “needing” a 6-cylinder is moot when it comes to being a “safety” issue.

Now let’s get down to the meat of it. What should you look for?

Shop pre-owned. Insurance premiums for new cars will be more than pre-owned, and pre-owned doesn’t necessarily mean less safe or suitable.

Don’t go too old – ESC is a MUST. You can go a handful of years back and still have a very safe vehicle with modern safety features. Airbags have pretty much been standard since before 2000. Same can be said for ABS except on the most basic of cars with base trim levels. But one feature you should make a “must have” is ESC (electronic stability control) or some manufacturer-specific variation of the term which will help prevent roll-overs – a deadly type of accident. ABS (anti-lock brakes) are also great for emergency situations and in icy or snowy conditions.

Don’t rule out SUVs. In fact, do the opposite: put them near the top of your list. Once upon a time, SUVs were considered more dangerous because of their high centre of gravity that made them more prone to roll over. But with ESC-equipped SUVs that aren’t prone to roll, you’ll be placing your teen in an elevated vehicle that proves safer. Basic physics can’t be defeated, and the greater the mass the better. Even when compared to cars of similar weight, SUVs have lower death rates (IIHS via Globe & Mail).

Use season-appropriate tires. This may not affect your vehicle decision-making, but leave yourself a few bucks to purchase a decent set of winter tires. They’re one of the best safety features money can buy.

So what vehicles are the best bets for your teens? Here’s a list of vehicles (in no particular order) I believe to be worthy of consideration:

  • SUVs
    • Honda CR-V
    • Toyota RAV4 (4-cylinder)
    • Hyundai Tucson
    • Kia Sportage (2011 or newer)
    • VW Tiguan
    • Honda Element
  • Mid-size sedans
    • Honda Accord (4-cylinder)
    • Toyota Camry (4-cylinder)
    • Nissan Altima (2010 or newer 4-cylinder)
    • Ford Fusion (4-cylinder)
    • Mazda6 (4-cylinder)
    • Hyundai Sonata (4-cylinder)
  • Compact sedans or hatchbacks (note: compact cars aren’t the safest option due to their smaller mass and crumple zones. But sometimes they’re the only option within budget or due to garage / parking constraints.)
    • Mazda3 (2010 or newer)
    • Honda Civic
    • Toyota Corolla
    • Hyundai Elantra
    • Ford Focus
    • Kia Forte
    • VW Golf / Rabbit
    • Mazda2
    • Honda Fit

Whatever type of car you decide on, don’t forget that your kids learn from you (even passively when in the back seat) – so set good examples behind the wheel.
Best of luck with your search. If you’d like assistance, I’d be happy to help!

Angus McComb