Mere moments ago, you were changing your baby boy's or girl's diapers and singing lullabies every night. And then — poof! Just like that, your little tiny baby became a teenager — a teenager who wants a car. Hoo-boy. • This key transition toward adulthood can be tough for many parents to stomach, both emotionally and financially. The following tips can help.
1Talk with your teen. Only you know your child well enough to sense whether he or she is really ready for a set of wheels. Columnist Ann Landers once suggested that parents draw up a contract spelling out that their teen will never drink and drive, never transport alcohol, never drive unless all passengers are wearing seat belts and never expect parents to pay for any traffic tickets or damage to the car that isn't covered by insurance.
2Figure out how to pay. Even if you can buy a car outright for your teen, you might not want to do that. Some parents agree to match whatever their child earns toward the car purchase. This gives the teen a sense of ownership over the vehicle — and a sense of responsibility.
3Factor in all the other costs. Taxes, registration, gasoline, oil changes and other routine maintenance and repairs can all add up fast, and the cost of insurance premiums for teens may make you swoon. The deal you cut with your kid about paying for the car purchase should include these expenses as well.
4Put safety first. Experts advise that parents should lean toward buying a vehicle that has as much safety gear as their budgets will allow. Teenagers need that added protection because they have limited experience behind the wheel.
5Bigger can be better — but not always. Heavier automobiles tend to do better in crash tests, but very big pickup trucks and SUVs aren't ideal for teens because their handling can be unwieldy and their fuel economy can be dreadful. Sports cars also aren't good because it's just too tempting to drive fast.
6Check crash-test results. By visiting the Web sites of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (www.hwysafety.org) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (www.nhtsa.dot.gov), you can see crash results for vehicle models from the 1990s to the present.
7Listen to expert advice. Consumer Reports has tested the following cars and determined that they are the most appropriate for young drivers: Acura RSX, Mazda 3 (with side airbags), Acura TSX, Mercury Milan, Ford Focus sedan (2003 or later), Ford Fusion, Scion tC, Honda Accord (4-cylinder), Honda Civic EX, Honda CR-V EX, Honda Fit, Hyundai Sonata (4-cylinder, 2006 or later), Hyundai Tucson, Kia Optima (2006 or later), Pontiac Vibe (2006 or later), Subaru Forester, Subaru Impreza (not WRX), Toyota Camry (4-cylinder), Toyota Corolla, Toyota Matrix (2006 or later), Toyota Prius, Toyota RAV4 (2001 or later, non-third row).
8Foresee your ownership costs. Once you start zeroing in on a possible car model, visit the IntelliChoice Web site (www.intellichoice.com). In minutes, this site can serve up a projection of the likely costs of insurance, depreciation, repairs and maintenance over the next five years for both new and used cars.
9Seek out insurance discounts for teens. Insure teenagers on the parents' policy rather than a separate policy. Teens who maintain good grades and pass an approved drivers' education course usually can qualify for reduced rates. You also may be able to save if you insure all your vehicles on a single policy or if you buy homeowners' or life insurance from the same company. Other tricks: Make sure the insurer knows about all of the vehicle's safety gear, and request higher deductibles.
10Get the car inspected before you buy. It can be tempting to skip this step — but don't! Ask an independent mechanic to list repairs the car needs immediately and may need within a year and give cost estimates.
Laura T. Coffey can be reached at laura@ tentips.org.
Sources: Consumer Reports (www.consumerreports.org); Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (www.iihs.org); FamilyEducation.com (http://life.familyeducation.com)