Buying an Old Beater vs a Newer Vehicle for Your Teen Driver

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Teen Driver taking a Ford Driving For Skills for Life Course/Image Credit: Ford Motor Company

Contributing Author: Craig Fitzgerald

My daughter is 17. She has a newly minted driver’s license, and she’s also something of a car enthusiast. We needed to make the decision about what she was going to drive. The choice for us was: Do we buy a relatively new car, or do we buy an old beater for our teen driver’s first car? There are some obvious advantages to a newer vehicle, but there’s a lot to be said for an older car, too.

Safety

The biggest consideration for new drivers is safety. This is one of several areas where a vehicle made in the last seven or eight years has a distinct advantage over something older.

Technologies like adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking (AEB), and forward collision warning have been proven to not only reduce the number of crashes but the severity, as well. A Chinese study in 2020 showed that overall, AEB reduced the number of crashes by 27 percent, and the severity of crashes by 44 percent.

But the single most important piece of safety technology in any vehicle regardless of age is STILL the humble seatbelt. Seatbelts reduce the risk of fatal injury by 44 percent. They also reduce the risk of moderate to critical injury by 50 percent. Yet, teens are among the demographic group LEAST LIKELY to wear a seat belt. In 2019, 46 percent of the teens who died in car accidents weren’t wearing their seat belts.

All the advanced safety technology in the world is ineffective if you’re not wearing your seatbelt.

NHTSA suggests that over half of teens killed in accidents were unbuckled/Image Credit: NHTSA

My kids are 17 and almost 13, and neither one of them will let the car move unless they’re buckled. This gave me some sense of security that at the very least, my teenage driver is wearing her seatbelt at all times, and she’s seriously reducing her risk, no matter what she drives.

And we, unfortunately, put this to the test already. A few days before Christmas on a rainy Saturday, she pulled out of the parking lot at Lowe’s, accelerated a bit too aggressively, and looped her vehicle, resulting in a fender-bender with another car. Fortunately, because all concerned were wearing safety belts, they all walked away with nothing more than some repairable damage to the vehicles. But this gets us to our next point.

Traction and Stability Control

When my daughter was on her learner’s permit, we did all 60 of her required driving hours with a parent in my 2003 Jeep Wrangler. It was the vehicle she came to know and love, and when she was ready for her own vehicle, she wanted to have it.

I had told her that I’d pay half for whatever her first vehicle was. I had purchased the Wrangler for $7,000, so she gave me $3,500 that she’d spent a couple of summers saving, and we made a deal.

It’s a fine vehicle, but after her experience a few weeks ago, I do wish that it was new enough to be equipped with traction and stability control. In 2012, stability control became mandatory on all vehicles sold in the United States with a gross vehicle weight rating under 10,000 pounds. It, along with anti-lock brakes and traction control, has been a significant advance in safety in the last decade, and even if it wouldn’t have prevented the minor crash she was in, it certainly would’ve helped.

Cost

The most obvious advantage of an older vehicle is cost. The average new car price in 2021 – thanks to chip shortages, supply line issues, and red hot demand for product – was a staggering $47,000. The average used car in 2021 ran at over $27,000.

If you can afford a newer vehicle, by all means, spend the money. But a $100,000 bill for a college education is about to come due for the 17-year-old, and there’s a good chance we’ll have another one in four years for the 13-year-old. Dropping anywhere from $27,000 to $47,000 on a car is not in the cards for the two adults living in this house, let alone the kids.

Driving a newer vehicle means guaranteed depreciation. Driving an older vehicle? Not necessarily the case. Eventually, as she gains some experience, she’ll want to move up to something newer, and maybe something that’s a little more suitable for the highway, especially as she considers going to college several hours from home. Wranglers tend to be like a savings bond. If you buy an older one and keep it in good condition, it’s likely to increase in value, rather than depreciate.

Infotainment Technology

Aside from safety technology, there are infotainment technologies that are almost mandatory for drivers today, especially those who we’d like to keep from being distracted by their phones.

Apple CarPlay/Image Credit: GMC

Technologies like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integrate with the vehicle’s infotainment interface, allowing some functions to operate exactly the way they do on your mobile device (Spotify, for example) while restricting the ability to use others (texting, for example, is restricted to audio and voice commands).

Most newer vehicles are now coming standard with these technologies or they’re available as optional equipment.

But, if the older vehicle you’re looking at doesn’t have these technologies, they can be added. We opted for an audio head unit that has Bluetooth connectivity, which allows voice commands for texting and listening to messages, hands-free calling, and integration of Spotify. We invested $150 in the head unit from Crutchfield, and I installed it myself in about an hour. Adding a head unit with Apple CarPlay is more expensive, but you can still get one in the $275 range.

Skin in the Game

I mentioned that my daughter invested a significant bit of her own money in the vehicle she drives now. That wasn’t because I couldn’t afford to buy her a car outright. It was because I wanted her to have some tangible investment in the vehicle so that she’d feel compelled to take care of it.

It’s worked to a degree. Aside from the car accident, she’s taken very good care of it. When she banged up the fender flares and the front fender, she was devastated because she truly loves this vehicle and it’s become a fun part of her identity among her friends. She’s very aware of her oil change intervals, and she’ll alert me instantly to any kind of weird noises or running issues she runs into.

I also thought it was important for her to make a choice, rather than me forcing a Corolla on her. She made the decision to ask me to buy my Jeep because she liked it, and she’s continued to like it for the last year.

This is a difficult decision for any parent, and none of this advice is one-size-fits-all. I felt fairly confident that my daughter was mature enough to drive a vehicle and not do anything too terribly dumb with it, but I’m not sure if I would’ve been as comfortable with that if I was putting a kid like myself at 17 behind the wheel. I probably would’ve been better off with the Corolla.

Spend some time with your teen and work through some of these questions together. Involving them in the process and having them invest a little bit of their own money in the effort is – at the very least – a fun bonding experience, as they’re just about to become independent adults. And when you’re ready to begin your search for the perfect vehicle in earnest, we know a good place to start looking.

Craig Fitzgerald began his automotive writing career in 1996, at AutoSite.com, one of the first online resources for car buyers. Over the years, he’s written for the Boston Globe, Forbes, and Hagerty. For seven years, he was the editor at Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, and today, he’s the automotive editor at Drive magazine. He’s dad to a son and daughter, and plays rude guitar in a garage band in Worcester, Massachusetts.

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