What Kind of Car Should a Teenager Be Driving?

Recently, I had an early morning appointment that required me to take a different route to work. This detour took me through an upscale suburb, which was a definite “step up” from the middle class suburb in which I live.

On this route, I drove down a busy 4-lane thoroughfare. While in the left lane, I checked the mirror and saw an oncoming vehicle quickly gaining on me. I put on my turn signal and changed lanes, over to the right. As soon as I settled into the right lane, I saw the vehicle go barreling by me in the left lane. It was a nice looking BMW SUV.

As it turns out, the car had no reason to be in a hurry, as the light ahead was about to turn red. As I approached the light, the nice BMW was already there. I looked over at the SUV, and saw that windows were down while music was blaring. I took a half-caring glance to see this character was that was driving the SUV.

I saw a group of teenage girls in the car.

Remember, this was a BMW SUV, and it was driven by a teenager carrying a group of other high energy, loud-singing teenagers.

It looked like they were having fun, and I thought to myself: “What high school kid WOULDN’T have fun in a BMW like that?”

Then I started thinking about their parents. My next thought was: “What parents would give their high school kids a sharp, recent year BMW SUV?”

Perhaps to their parents, a BMW is like a Yugo. But for mainstream society, that’s an aspirational vehicle. Except of course for people like me, that have no intention of buying a vehicle like that even if I could feasibly afford it!

Anyway, the point is, does a kid really need a luxury vehicle?

When I was a kid, my first car was a Honda Civic that had no power steering, no power windows, and was a no-frills vehicle. Oh, and it wasn’t really mine – my parents let me drive it. When I turned 17, they let me drive the car most every day as they bought another car for themselves. I ultimately took this same Honda to college.

What’s funny is that as I close in on 40, I’m still driving a Honda. This time, it’s an Accord. Aside from the old-fashioned steering and windows aspect of it, my first car was not much different than my current car. There isn’t exactly a big gap between a Civic and Honda in terms of prestige.

Would that bother you? It doesn’t bother me much. Maybe a bit, if I think about it, but then I remind myself that this was a cash purchase and there are no car payments. That financially responsible approach is more important to me than having a bigger brand name or fancier car!

Now, as for my daughter, I will still work toward getting her a car of her own when she’s 16 or 17. It might be my car that she gets, or it could be a reliable, safe, used one. Either way, I will play a role in making sure I make the decision of what she drives!

So, with my stories as a backdrop, I ask you:

What was your first car like? Tell us make, model, and what kind of shape it was in when you got it. Did you buy it, or were you given it by parents?

Also, what are your thoughts on kids with new drivers licenses getting a car? Do you feel they should always be expected to buy it themselves, or should parents play a role in purchasing the car?


  1. Leigh says

    I started driving in 1984 and my parents let me use their 1972 Ford Pinto to get back and forth to school and work. After college, I was in even worse shape financially, so I downgraded (in 1990) to a 1970 VW Bug.

    Now I drive a Mini Cooper that I paid too much for and regret a little every day. It is paid off and therefore I will drive it for at least 7 more years, but that will be the last new car I ever own. From now on, I’m going the “pre-owned” route and paying cash.

    As far as children… by giving a teenager an expensive vehicle, you’re setting a level of expectation that the rest of their lives may not be able to match. You’ve given them nothing to strive for or dream about.

    I’ve seen these silver spoon kids never fully leave their parents because the payoff is too good to hang around. It stunts their development and competes with their marriage. But maybe that’s the parents’ underlying motivation all along. Buy the child’s love and never be alone.

    • Squirrelers says

      Leigh – I think you have some really good insights here. For the parents, it may be a deep rooted fear of losing the child and thus being alone. This can lead to co-dependence and the child having trouble being an independent person in his or her own relationship. Giving all things unconditionaly to teenagers is probably not the way to go if one’s thinking about the kid’s best long-term interest!

    • Kenneth Simon says

      When i was 15 my Dad taught me how to drive and also my grandmother. We had an old ford explorer sport 1993, a Jeep X 2004, and a 2 ml mercedes 350 and 450 , my dad had bought the jeep in 04 with the intention of giving it to me, he had hugely modified it between the years by putting a custom lift kit with monster tires 35 inches dana 60s up front and dana 70s at the rear, direct from mexican military Ram trucks. It was wild, he let me use that for a while, we had moved from houston to Mazatlan, Mexico during that time, i used it to commute through mazatlan, i used it to go to the beach and cruise, then it had some problems so my father less wanted me to use it in case of an accident. I used my granparents expolorer for a long time, it had rusted out top, the interior was messed up, we had used it for moving palm trees from our property, and sitting near the beach it rusted alot of other things up to, but i can say i learned to drive and realy appreciate a car, i am a huge fan of automobiles and desired a mustang or a performance oriented vehicle, of course, but it got me going took me to friends, took my brothers and me to school, got me where i need to go, and thats what realy matters. Im 18 now and we sold our vehicles, were moving back to Houston now and my father wants to finance me a GT500, i have shown him i am a respectful kid, i work hard, i am a conservative driver, and i also respect a vehicle for what it is for, and thats what they are a useful tool , to the right young person. And can also be enjoyable to drive. Not saying that every 18 year old needs a 56 grand land rocket. Hopefuly i can keep the car for many years, and it will be fun to have and enjoy, and i think every kid that shows that they can be responsible with a old beater or even a nice car and respect it for what its for and learn on it for years and then a parent who can see that they are respectful drivers and good kids can get them something nicer.

  2. says

    What a timely post! I am considering getting a third car now that my son is 16. Having him drive would be a huge help around the house, as I am constantly stressed about getting everyone where they need to be.

    I can tell you, it won’t be a BMW. I want a car in good shape with 1000 airbags and antilock brakes.

    My first car was a 1976 Sunbird. It was an awful car, and I am shocked it lasted as long as it did. I had to use a coat hanger to keep the muffler up (I did that myself). Only one door worked, and the bad door would fly open sometimes, once it happened on a freeway on-ramp. (This was 1989, so the car was 13 years old.)

    My husband (who I was dating at the time) had a 1979 Camaro, and he just loved that car. It was 10 years old, but had held up better than my Sunbird. I believe he used thumbtacks to keep the fabric from falling on his head form the ceiling of the interior.

    • Squirrelers says

      Everyday Tips – your comment makes me smile, as it reminds me of a car that a high school friend had back in th day. It was this big ugly car we called the “Green Monster”. It wasn’t a classic like the iconic Green Monster in Boston’s Fenway Park; rather, it was a decayed, falling-apart vehicle that even had a hole made in it’s driver’s side floor, when my buddy’s foot went through the floor one day. None of us wanted to ride in his car, even back then. We knew it was on it’s last legs!

  3. says

    To your second set of questions,I feel cars are luxuries. They should be purchased at least in part by the young drivers regardless of family finances. If the family budget can accommodate subsidizing the purchase of a vehicle for a teenager, I presently don’t have a problem with it.

  4. says

    My first car sucked. Sadly, it was also a gift from my parents. They got it from a credit union for $1400 – 1997 Mazda Protoge. No power anything, no A/C (in Houston), and it would die randomly at stop lights and stop signs even though it was an automatic. I hated it and Mr. BFS-to-be drove me more often than not for 2 years. I wish my parents hadn’t ever gotten it for me since it was a pain to sell too. I tried to give it back, but they wanted some way for me to visit from college. So, no, I do not think parents should provide a car – let the kid buy a used one themselves. If you do get them a car, try to make sure it doesn’t completely suck, please. It’s not nice to give people problems.

    • Squirrelers says

      BFS – I agree that if a car is given to a kid, it should be functional. It’s not good to give a kid a car that could end up causing them problems. Despite good intentions, it ends up hurting the kid as much as it helps.

  5. says

    My husband and I were not given the opportunity to get a driver’s permit and learn to drive in our teens, let alone be gifted with a vehicle! I was 21 when my boss taught me to drive the company Toyota pickup on my way home from work. My first vehicle was a light blue Chevy Luv, which I bought for myself. We wanted things to be different for our children, and our youngest got his permit at 15 years, 9 months. One of us were with him almost everywhere he drove for a couple of years. In April, when he landed his dream job, it looked as if he may be moving away from home, and hubby put in a call to his buddy who buys good used cars, fixes them up and sells them at great prices. The guy happened to have a 1994 Buick Roadmaster Limited with a *Corvette* engine, hehe. AJ being a retro kind of guy fell totally in love with it. We bought it for him, and he’s making payments to us. He pays for his gasoline and insurance (still on our policy so quite affordable for his age). We like that he’s in a nice older vehicle instead of a newer plastic smaller one, we all feel safer with those crazy drivers out on the highways nowadays. Yeah, his gas mileage isn’t all that great (21mpg), but he only has to go into the office one day a week so it’s not that bad.

  6. says

    Unless you live in the far-off suburbs or the country, kids don’t really need a car. If they must have one, let them work at getting one themselves.

    I don’t judge others who decide to drive expensive cars, though I would question the wisdom of letting a pack of young teenage girls drive one! I’d stay out of the way of that car! 😛

  7. says

    My first car was a really old 80s Dodge. Second car was one of those carbureted corollas. The first one got rear-ended and the second one’s body was gone to hell and it wasn’t worth buying new tires for once they blew up. I loved to beat on those cars…

  8. says

    I agree with Shawn, cars are luxuries, and I’m not crazy about a kid/teen having a car unless he/she has paid for a good part of it. Now I get that it helps parents out if their kid can drive himself to activities, but after all, a car is a luxury. Teaching a child, teen, and young adult to work for what they want is really important. They will take much better care of it and appreciate it more.

  9. says

    Three cheers for the Wise Squirrel! My first car was a 1970 Datsun 510 with about a million miles on it that my cousin gave to me for free. I fixed it up, put a new engine in it and drove it for about 16 years – putting over 200,000 miles on it. I sold it for $800, but now I hear they are getting over $10,000 for some of them. Dang.

    I currently drive a 97 Honda Civic – a stick shift. It’s in immaculate running condition because I keep it meticulously maintained. However, the exterior is showing its age a bit. No worries. It’s a great car that is highly reliable.

    All the best,

    Len Penzo dot Com

    • Squirrelers says

      Len – that’s fantastic how you have gotten the most out of those cars. I think your experience with your 97 Civic is another example of how the life of cars can be extended through proper care and maintenance

  10. says

    I had an ancient Oldsmobile Cutless Sierra. My parents let me use it so that I could drive my little sister to her lessons. My mother almost died when I told her I was considering putting off getting my license another year (I was already 17)… she had really gotten used to the idea of a break from chauffeuring. I did not have to pay for any of its expenses, but it wasn’t like I had much of a social life anyway.

    Somewhere in my future blog posts there’s a small rant about BMW drivers. There is something about that brand that really encourages crappy crappy driving. I hate BMW drivers, teenage girls or middle-aged men.

    • Squirrelers says

      Nicole – I had a friend who once bought a BMW right out of college. Always a car fan, with expensive tastes in general. Now, many years later, he can laugh at how idiotic is was for someone his age to be driving that car. Actually, he and his wife make a VERY good combined income, yet he drives a 10 year old car – NOT a BMW, either! He’s too practical for that now.

  11. says

    i had a 1984 honda accord that was passed down from my parents. I drove it until it had almost 200k miles on it. But i’m so happy I started with a used car because i certainly put a lot of “teenage abuse” into it.

    • Squirrelers says

      CNC – I can relate to the “teenage abuse” part of being a young driver. I drove that car (wasn’t even mine!) through empty fields a couple of times, with a group of friends. Chased away some of the wildlife, as they were fleeing from the bright lights of a hard-charging Honda Civic! Those were fun days….and an example of why kids shouldn’t be driving expensive cars!

    • Squirrelers says

      Sam – that’s funny stuff. I remember a few friends having some junkyard quality cars. They didn’t explode but at least one fell apart as my friend was driving.

  12. says

    Ah, my first car. It was a Dodge (I can’t remember the exact model, which is horrible, given that it was only a decade ago that I first got the darn thing). It was an ’89 model, I believe, with well over 100,000 miles that I purchased with $500 cash (earned through hours of toil at McDonalds). I paid for the care and the gasoline (although my parents handled the insurance; their way of paying for my chauffeuring services, taking my sisters to and from school and numerous after school events). I drove that thing all through high school, and left it for my sisters when I went to college. I came back and used it to go to work each summer, at home after my freshman year and at college following my sophomore year. During the commute to and from my college, it decided to die on me on a fairly major highway, which was freaking terrifying. Given how little the car was worth and the expense of repairing it (it would have essentially needed a whole new engine), we decided it had served its purpose, and let it go on to used car heaven.

    As for kids with new licenses getting cars, while I have no problem with the concept per se, I do think they should pay for all or part of the car ownership costs themselves; it promotes discipline, the idea of working to get what you want, and the attitude that things aren’t simply handed to you in life (just because you turned sixteen). Parents can (and perhaps even should) help out with the initial purchase and/or the ongoing costs, but there should be some strict conditions attached; ‘we’ll help pay the insurance if you take the younger ones to their after school activities’ or ‘we’ll help you buy that car, if you cover the insurance and gas costs on your own’, for example. And of course, I’m an advocate of only helping the kid out if they’re getting a clunker; none of this ‘my kid’s got a better car than me, and I helped him buy it’ stuff. If your teen wants a car that costs as much as a decent house in the suburbs, s/he can buy it without your help.

    • Squirrelers says

      Roger, thanks for the comment and your story. I too know that in many households the cars must be shared.

      As far as kids having expensive cars, I’m not sure that it teaches them much, other than they get something for nothing. Which, as we know, is not how the world works. That said, I do want my daughter to be driving a safe and reliable car when she gets older, but that’s the extent of my interest for the most part. There’s no need for kids to drive an expensive, brand name car. At least where I live, anyway!

  13. says

    My first car was an MGB that was 1 year younger than I was. It arrived on a flat bed, with 4 flat tires and a bird’s nest in the seat. In other words, non-running. About a year later (after paying for many parts and hitting up many junkyards) it was running. The car itself was a gift (which cost about $400) but the parts weren’t.

    I think kids should play a role in buying their own car, and I think they should delay doing so as long as they can stand to. For my son, I matched 50% of what he was able to save. Although his Grandpa is going to be giving him his old pickup, so he’ll be able to save that money for future repairs instead.

  14. TheMasterofLove says

    My first car was a 91 Lincoln Mark VII that i paid for 100% by myself. My parents said they would match whatever I had saved up and put it with my money for a car, but I said no and purchased the car myself. Got it for $500 and the only problem was the headgaskets had went. replaced them myself that weekend and had a perfect car. Drove it for 4 years before sticking a 347 stroker in it and sold it for $7500

  15. Miolnir says

    Last summer I bought my oldest daughter a Volvo. Now, before you start thinking “Volvo!” I should let you know that it is a 1991 Volvo 240 Sedan. Yup, the tank. In fact my daughter named it “Hank, the tank”.
    I told her it had the 3 S’s I was looking for in a car for her 1) Safe 2) Slow and 3) unSexy. She laughs.
    It was terrible looking, but no rust and $1000 later in some new parts, quite a few actually, and some Labor on the parts I could not do myself, she has a very, very good slow, safe and unSexy car to drive around locally. Is this squirreling away? I think so. Those cars were built to last a lifetime, so my 9th Grader should get to drive Hank 2 years out also.

    • Squirrelers says

      Miolnir – well done with the car purchase for your daughter. Those cars are solid, in my opinion, and are perceived to be safe. To get two kids to drive that car at different times is a good use of money that many aren’t able to match.

  16. ArielSt says

    My first car was a 1981 Toyota Tercel manual transmission with a caved in passenger side door. It had 200,000 miles on it and my Dad bought it for me to learn to drive on for $200. Amazingly, it ran another 25,000 miles before we sold it. I learned to drive a stick, had a car with great mpg and low insurance costs, it was ugly but it was mine. Once I had my license I bought my own car for $850 cash, and now that I’m a 32 yr old parent I finally own my first car that I didn’t buy with cash. You know what? I hate this car, and I hate that it cost us so much in interest because of our poor credit and lack of emergency funds. I miss my Toyota.
    On kids getting cars: My daughter is 12 and we’ve talked over what will happen when she is old enough to drive. She has decided to start working as soon as possible and save up for a car of her own, I told her if she got a job that I would loan her our car for work if she had to work hours that the bus didn’t run. I also explained how interest on a loan worked and why it made more sense to wait on the car and pay cash. I promised to help her pick out a good vehicle, and pay her insurance until she is out of high school, after which she will be responsible for paying gas, insurance and repairs. I made a point of telling her that while a car opens a lot of doors it also is a liability and if not managed properly would cost her more than it was worth. She’s a very responsible kid so far, I’m hoping she will handle it well.

  17. Colin says

    When I was 16 my parents gave me my moms old car, it was a Mercedes. I have a daughter I bought her what car she wanted because she had 100-109 in every class at school, so I took her to the car lot Abd she bought a 2009 Acura MDX, she pays for gas and insurance, we think they should get a car they deserve, and if the parents can afford it, we were blessed.

  18. Devon says

    I am 17. When I got my license I had no intension or expectations of having a vehicle, although i knew we had a 1996 GMC Jimmy sitting in our driveway that only needed a windshield, battery, and fuel pump. It had been a daily driver for my dad until he decided to use his F350 pickup truck once the Jimmy started to have problems. By no means is my dad good at keeping a car clean and nice looking. The Jimmy had seen better days. Although at the time it only had 58,000 miles on it the interior was trashed. So to sum up it was about 2 weeks before i was to get my license and i decided to do a full detail on the jimmy. I took out the dash the center console and seats and shampooed vacuumed and wiped it down. it looked and smelled brand new. then i moved to the exterior. i washed and waxed it until it was spotless. I was flabbergasted because that car looked brand new! Once my dad got home and saw it he about lost his mind. he asked if i was the one that cleaned it and i explained it to him and he told me he would get it fixed up and let me drive it. It now has about 72,000 miles on it and its 2012! it looks brand new. My parents told me once I graduate from High school its mine. By no means to i take it for granted. I take care of that car like its a newborn child. Its clean and diapers free! Now some teens i see at school that drive brand new Jaguars and mustangs and nice brand new suvs are generally the irresponsible partiers. Im not saying ive never partied but i have the common sense to not drink and drive and to take care of the car of which i have the privilege of driving. It makes me sad the society we live in where the kids expect so much from their parents. A car is a car!

  19. anon says

    Parents should provide for their childrens basic needs, but a car is not really needed until said child goes to college and even then it is debatable. A car is a convenience and most times a luxry. If you are a full time college student with no job you probably can’t afford a car and shouldn’t have one. I think someone doesn’t need a car until at least being 18 yrs, graduated from high school and then they have to work for said car.

    A parent can help with money, but this often times means that the teen will have a car that they couldn’t afford in the first place. It is important to teach a child basic finances. A car isn’t all about initial cost, it has insurance, maintenances, possible repairs, depreciation, mpg, etc. A parent should help their child understand what all of these mean, calculate the costs and then decide what the teen can afford based on the number calculated and job the teen has. A $2k car may turn into a $300 a month pain in the rear if good research isn’t done. A parent wouldn’t want their children to start life as a slave ‘having’ to work instead of ‘wanting’!

  20. Sonia says

    I drove a 1972 Skylark that was 7 years old when I got it in1979. Great used car..powerful engine 350 and more power than my mother wanted for me. Price $750. I had saved $400 by working starting at age 16. Minimum wage was $3.30 per hr. Mom put in the rest and I paid her over 6 months . I paid for my insurance and gas. Taught me to be responsible. Made me value it by paying for it. After college I purchased a new car for a good price..Ford Taurus but it was the last new car I ever bought. Always go preowned from an original owner if possible and preferably never from a dealer. Weed them out by asking how many times they changed the oil in past year and a few maintenance questions. Great deals to be made with cash. In 2002,purchased a camaro 6 cylinder withn 52k for $6000 …still have it.

  21. bobby says

    yes a teen can have a luxry car or mussle car my father is wonder ing wether to give me the new camero, new challenger, or the new corvett

  22. Mike says

    I understand the argument that giving a teen a nice car can give cause for feeling “under-compensated” later in life. This is probably true for some, but not for most. Personally, at twenty, I’ve been blessed with more than I could need in this life; my parents have been very good to me, which in the eyes of some would be considered “spoiling me”. We are simply living within our means, as I believe every family should do. I drive a 2012 Mercedes ML63 AMG. I understand that my car is valuable and as a student at a state university with people from all walks of life, my car gets hit-on more often than I do. I enjoy my car but I respect its power and I respect the fact that it was my parents’ hard-earned money that bought it for me. I don’t believe that its wrong for a couple to buy their child a luxury car. I could be considered biased, but that is my opinion.

  23. Judith says

    Hi I’m 16 years old and I’m getting a car for my 17th birthday but I have not a idea which one to get. My dad told me that the limit of the car has to be $16,000 and it has to be new (2014). I saw the accent by Hyundai and I really liked it but a lot of people has been telling me that they are really cheap and problematic. So I was thinking about to get a honda but I don’t know wich one, can you please recommend me a car? I doesn’t really has to be a honda.

  24. Justin says

    I am turing 16 next month and getting my license. I own a 2000 BMW 540i given to me from my grandpa. I am incharge of repairs and gasoline and insurance if there is an increase from a ticket. Its not what kind of car a kid gets or is given. Its if they are responsible enough for that car.

  25. says

    Interesting post and I agree that many teenagers are handed way too much too soon. I didn’t have my own car until the last year of college and my kids won’t have one until they can afford to buy their own (which is looking like after college).

    There are many different families and many reasons for a teenager to have, or not have, a vehicle. I don’t think there’s a perfect hard-and-fast rule about when and how to buy one just so long as the teen has a stake and some responsibility in the purchase, care and keeping of the car.

    I found one thing interesting though – there is an assumption that the vehicle belonged to the teenager you saw. It might be that the teenager doesn’t own a vehicle at all. Mom & Dad might have said she could have a car when she could afford to buy it herself so she’s borrowing Mom’s car (and maybe even paying for her own gas). Either way it’s an interesting discussion.

  26. Bryce F. says

    My first car I received was a 2000 BMW 528i and it is, in my opinion, one if the best vehicles I have ever used. I got it at 190k miles on it 3 years ago when I was a Sophomore in High-school and they only thing I had to have maintenance on it was the replacing of the fuel pump to an OEM fuel pump aside from the normal oil changes. My buddy neighbor on the other hand got a new 2012 Audi R5 for his Junior high-school son and he already got in a fender bender ruining the matte black rims and pearlesent red-orange paint.

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