Reader Question: Car for 15-Year-old Proto Non-Clover Driver?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Sean asks: My son is turning 15 this year, which means he’s going to have a learner’s permit and I’ll start teaching him how to drive. (North Carolina is a good state for many reasons, and their licensing process is one of them.) Once he can drive on his own (2020) I intend to give him my 2015 Forester. This is because I want to start driving a manual transmission again!

That said, he’s interested in, and I want to teach him, how to drive manual – and I’d love to start as soon as he can. I would love your advice on what models and years I should look at. Here are my ranked criteria for this car:

1. Comfortable for a daily city commute, 10 miles each way.
2. Known reliability and affordable maintainability.
3. Sporty enough for having fun on country roads.
4. Rugged enough for dirt and gravel country roads.
5. Useable back seat (although it can be a coupe).
6. Good for learning to drive in.
7. Good-looking, but not a police eye-catcher.

I will pay cash and have flexibility to spend up to $15k, but I’m looking for value. So if I can get what I’m looking for for under $5k, for example, I’m happy to spend only that. On the flip side, if there’s a real strong contender at 20k, I could look at saving for a while and buying it later in the year. Following on from that comment, I have time on my side for making the purchase, so makes and models and price ranges are all I need, not specific listings or anything like that. If you wanted to turn this into an article, I think it would be fabulous. I’m sure I’m a bit biased, but I doubt I’m the only one looking for the kind of car I’ve described with my criteria.

My reply: I’ll begin by expressing great satisfaction with your decision to teach your son to drive using a manual-equipped car. This alone will render him a better – and so, safer -driver than his peers who never acquire the skill (and habits) that come along for the ride when you shift for yourself.

Cars with automatics are terrible teaching cars because they encourage passivity and inattentiveness, especially to the ebb and flow of traffic – which (in a car with a manual) you necessarily must pay attention to. And that situational awareness alone makes one a better (safer) driver. A kid who develops those habits when first learning to drive will retain them for life.

As regards the car itself:

I would not buy a new anything, because (a) it’s a poor financial decision and (b) I think it sends the wrong message to a teenager. I would look for something older and get him invested in the car, by having him pay for part of it at least and for all of the insurance on it. This will serve the very good purpose of instilling in your boy responsibility and respect – per Ben Franklin’s line about esteeming too little the things which come too cheaply.

Given all your criteria, my dowsing rod is pointing toward a Subaru. An Impreza (or Outback or Baja) without the turbo engine but with a manual transmission. These cars are all kinds of fun to drive, great for learning how to drive – and have the goods (AWD, ground clearance) to deal with backcountry roads. Excellent for commuting, too. Just really good all-around cars. The hatchback/wagon layout is a boon, too. And the Baja has a small bed!

You ought to be able to find a good one – reasonable miles (I’d define this as under 120,00 for a teenager’s first car) and in very good overall mechanical/cosmetic condition – for well under $8,000.

This is a car he’ll probably love – and have many lifetime memories in!

. . .

Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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  1. Well, a used Subaru is GREAT until you find out it needs a $3000 engine “rebuild” because of bad head gasket(s)!

    I’d suggest an older Chevy or Ford pickup with a four speed, or maybe an older Jeep. Even if it needs work, make the kid learn how to fix it up. Old 2wd pickups are dead cheap where I live, and you could buy it and rebuild virtually everything for less than $5K.

    • Hi No One,

      This is why I suggested the non-turbo engine… these are very durable. Not very speedy, but they go and go and ago … and then go some more!

      But, I agree – a pick-up could be a good choice. I’d recommend a compact-sized Nissan Frontier or Toyota Tacoma as these are ingot-solid little trucks and also pretty simple to maintain.

      • Actually from what I understand it is the non-turbo Subaru 4-cylinder engines that have the head gasket problems. Turbo and six-cylinder models use a different head gasket design which holds up better. (Of course while the turbocharged models won’t have the dreaded head gasket problems you have a turbocharger and its complications to deal with.)

        If you catch the head gasket leak in its early stages (they leak externally at first) and can do the work yourself you can replace the head gaskets for not too much money and be good for another 100K miles. This requires pulling the engine but that’s not too terrible a job since it’s not a crosswise motor. (I helped a friend do it years ago. We rented a cherry picker and used a garbage can as an engine stand.)

        If you can find one that isn’t rusted a really old Subaru with the pushrod engine might do the trick. They were VW bug slow but the engines in those were practically bulletproof. Camshaft was gear-driven, no timing belts or chains to worry about. Unfortunately the bodies quickly melted away at the first hint of salted roads.

        • According to the research that I did, ALL Subaru engines pre-2011 have this problem. Supposedly they fixed it in the 2011++ models by adding an external pipe to carry coolant between the block and head thus eliminating any coolant touching the head gasket.

          I personally know of two Subarus (2004 and 2010) that had this problem. The 2004 was diagnosed by a dealer mechanic (very convenient) and the 2010 would for some reason eat up all its oil in a short time on a random basis. The dipstick level would be fine for weeks and then it would suddenly go dry and start rattling.

          After researching the issue online, I advised both ladies to trade them off as fast as possible. Of course, they both went and bought yet ANOTHER Subaru!

          We had a Ninety-something AWD Legacy wagon for our daughters to drive to school, and it was nothing but a money-pit from the day after they brought it home from the stealer-dealer.

          Then of course there is the whole eco-femi-Nazi image associated with the brand …

    • Subaru motors are easy to remove. With the the standard rwd bias layout there is only one mount on the fire wall and one lower engine mount. Compared to a fwd car these things are simple to remove and get to. The block is huge but all aluminum. You can pull it out fairly quickly. I got my turbocharged wrx motor out in 2 hours but the first time it took me 6 as i methodically organized the screws and piece so i could put it back together. Without a turbo you can probably remove the motor in 1 hour after experience not having to worry about the turbo’s plumbing and intercooler. All subarus with the 2.5 motor and manual trans are exactly the same layout. Replacing the head gasket won’t be difficult or problematic as long as the engine has never over heated.

  2. If you can find one, a 1990s-vintage Jeep Cherokee with manual transmission and 2.5L 4-cylinder engine would probably fit the bill.

    • Agree!

      I actually found one for sale and almost bought it, but it was pretty rough for $1800 and a two door which was not as suited for our purposes.

    • Hi Heath,

      While I love the Miata – and it’s a very durable car – it’s a bad choice for a teenager’s first car, for all the obvious reasons. It will cost a fortune to insure (a teenager) for openers – and it is much more likely the kid will get into trouble with it, if only because he will be much more of a target (for AGWs) in it.

      Also, it is a totally impractical car for dealing with unpaved dirt/gravel country roads – a criteria in this case – and as a two seater, very limited for other than commuting and having fun in.

      • all that is perfectly true but screw it you only live once its not particularly quick. the insurance is going to pricey no matter what car he has and cops are going to cop.

        • Hi Heath,

          It’s not a question of the Miata’s quickness. It is a question of insurance being unaffordable on a car like the Miata – for a teenaged driver.

          The average cost of a policy for a 16-17-year-old driver is $250 per month. This assumes a car with a low “risk profile” (as the insurance mafia styles it). An older Camry or Malibu; something along those lines.

          For a sports/performance car, premiums would be much higher.

          They vary significantly according to the type of car insured – as well as who’s driving it. A teenager + sports car? Forget about it.

          Very few teens can afford to pay even $250/month for insurance. Which means unless their parents can – and are willing – they can’t (legally) drive.

          So, it’a deal-breaker.

          On “cops are going to cop”:

          I have the perspective of someone who has been test driving new cars (all types) for more than 25 years now. And I assure you I get more attention (and less mercy) whenI am driving anything “sporty.” A teenager in a Miata (or Camaro or anything along those lines) is going to be given the Fifth Degree by any AGW who stops him and he will be much more likely to be stopped merely by dint of driving a car that AGWs tend to focus on when eyeing a pack of traffic.

          Finally, this kid needs a vehicle that can be driven on country gravel/dirt roads. That eliminates the Miata and anything similar right off the bat.


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