Garageboy's Dream Garage

Driving Tip of the Moment:

What Car Should My Teen Drive?

by Garageboy

In June 2005, I had the pleasure to be an instructor at a “Street Survival” training course, where I was introduced to a group of very cool teenagers. Their parents were even cool for signing them up for this day of “fun education”. From the website, the goals of the program are “to teach students some of the basics of car control, to enhance their enjoyment of driving and to improve their competence as drivers. We want the students to understand how their actions govern a car's responses, and as a result to become safer, more effective drivers on the road." While explaining the exercises to the students was easy for me, the most difficult aspect of instructing for this class was trying to remember what it was like to be a teenager. I tried to recall what I thought I knew about cars at the time, and how that affected my driving abilities.


Of course, at that age, just like the teenagers of 2005, I thought I was indestructible. Forget the very real statistic that teens are most likely to die in a car accident than for any other reason – at the time, I believed all those bad things you hear about happen to someone else. I thought I was an excellent driver. I knew it because some things you just KNOW at 18 – in fact, it took ten more years to figure out that I had never really learned how to drive. But I was also different from the teenagers I was instructing. Unlike one of my students, my father never discussed the possibility of buying me a new X3 after my first year of undergraduate studies. The best I could hope for was that my parents would consider paying for a second year of undergraduate studies, which was more than I deserved, and far more valuable than an X3. In fact, in my last year in college, I borrowed $1000 from my parents to buy a nine-year-old German Opel, pay the insurance premium, and have enough left over for a badly needed brake job and other repairs. Ultimately, I paid the loan off at $100 per month for a year – they didn’t charge interest – I had simply missed a payment or two. Unlike the teenagers I was instructing, today’s common systems like anti-lock brakes and electric windows were for the truly rich back then, whereas now multiple DVD players and GPS systems separate the "haves" from the "have-nots".

[Street Survival Students Admire an E30 BMW]

As I sat there in the 90-degree heat waiting for my students to arrive, I contemplated what the automotive industry was like in 1980 when I was 18, and tried to recall how the modern cars of that day had influenced my thinking about driving. Back then, very few people had been initiated to the concept of the “sports sedan” in the United States.  The BMW 2002 was just starting to be regarded as a cult car, and only the concept of the “Yuppie” and the BMW 320i was starting to enter into our pop culture. In 1980, we were seeing the worst of automotive engineering in American cars – Detroit had reached the bowels of mediocrity. Japanese cars were on the move, proving that “Made in Japan” finally meant “reliable” and the American consumer was desperate for reliable cars. Yet in many parts of this country, driving a foreign car was strictly forbidden.  Those were the days when hostages were being held in an embassy in Teheran and anti-foreign sentiment was very strong.

Boy, has the industry changed in 25 years. The teenagers of 2005 are inundated with a myriad of automotive choices from all corners of the globe, each model with available options and choices that make you dizzy if you didn’t have an interest in cars in the first place. And their parents are in no better position to figure out the answer to the question, “What is the safest car for my teen driver”? How is a parent to decide when each manufacturer claims to have dozens of safety options. Is an airbag the same in any car? Not really – some cars’ airbags are so poorly designed that they harm the occupants when triggered. With the SUV craze, people are often misled into believing that sitting up higher is somehow “better”. Then public opinion changes when another news program comes out with an exposé on some SUV’s dismal rollover record. However, take a sedan with a competent set of properly-inflated tires, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and properly mounted 3-point seatbelts (used by the teen driver and all their passengers), and now you have found a simple recipe for safety. In a sedan, a teen driver can remain alert and conscious of the fact that they’re still hurtling 2 tons of steel and glass down the road, which is what many of today’s SUVs do a brilliant job of making you forget.

[Uniondale FD Drenches the SkidPad]

I believe the parent considering an X3 for his daughter truly has her best interests in mind. We didn’t have enough time to discuss all the reasons why a new X3 might seem like a great choice on the surface, but may not turn out as well as a lesser vehicle. If I could influence that parent about what to buy, I would tell them to take a trip out to Arizona or California and search for a mint condition E30 (1984-1992 3-series, but the later year models are best) that their child, male or female, would learn to respect in the best possible way. These cars are solid, and despite the lack of airbags, withstand accidents as well as most new cars.  For about $5000, it would teach your teen respect for rain and snow. And male or female, it would teach them respect for checking their oil and other fluids. It would put them in touch with the driving experience in the best possible way and instill a healthy respect for driving safety. They would not be overly isolated from the road, with a dozen computers making up for their every mistake. If they need to show off some of the same toys as their friends have, aftermarket audio, video, and GPS systems are readily available. And the best part is not only would they have the hippest parents for buying this car for them, they would have the sweetest car on campus – a reliable classic car – and they would probably be the only student around to have one. How cool is that?

For more information on the 2005 Street Survival program in New York, download the July-August 2005 New York Chapter BMW CCA Newsletter here.

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©2005 - Steven J. Bernstein All rights reserved.

Comments to:
Steven Jay Bernstein
updated Wednesday, 27 July 2005 2:47:00