Reader Question: First Car for a Teenager?

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

Jamie asks: My husband and I enjoy reading your articles on LRC.  My Dad was an avid car fixer guy, he would change our oil, top off fluids, rotate the tires and do minor repairs on our old cars.  He even taught me how to change my oil and check fluids, change a tire on my first car a 1972 Nissan Centra. Our son is 13 and we live in Southern California, I’m interested in finding out what would be a decent, safe first car for him.

We’ve made a deal with my son that if he saves up half then we will help him with the other half of the price of the car.  My guess is it will be around 3-5K, can you even get a decent car for that price? Who knows.  I’ll probably have my Dad look for some in Oregon too, where he lives.

You may not have any good advice and that‘s ok.  Reading todays article just gave me nostalgia about seeing my dad work on his car and motorcycles in our garage growing up.  I’m glad he took the time to show me how to do things even though I was a girl.  I wish I could do the same for my son, but “working” on today’s cars in not really feasible as you pointed out.

My reply: Normally, it’d be easy to find a good – i.e., mechanically sound – older car for a teenager’s first car for $3k or less. But these are not normal times and – as I’m sure you’re aware – used car prices have been skyrocketing, thanks in part to the policies of the Biden Thing. In part because people are snapping up the available inventory of older cars.

That said, while it is harder to find a good used car for a low price, it is not impossible. I wrote about this a few weeks back; about a buddy of mine’s nephew, who is only a couple of years older than your son. He found a used Ford Fusion that had been owned – literally – by a little old lady, who rarely drove it and now no longer could. It had low miles and just a few dents – the result of the little old lady’s not-so-great eyesight. The point being, he watched the classifieds like a vulture and swooped in when that ad popped up. I recommend you do the same – and be ready to do the same, with cash in hand.

As far as which specific car, I will start by positing my General Rule Number One when it comes to used cars: Condition matters more than make or model – and even mileage. Even a great new car – when it was new – such as Toyota Corolla or a Honda Civic – can become a not-so-great used car, if it was not properly maintained and/or treated poorly. Conversely, a car that perhaps lacked the stellar reputation of a Honda or Toyota when it was new but which was treated well can be the better car, used.

Next rule is to avoid cars that are “sporty.” Ideally, seek out the type of car that a . . . little old lady might have liked when it was new. A boring car, like a Corolla or Civic – or Camry or Accord. You might also consider a small truck like they used to make ’em, like my ’02 Nissan Frontier and/or its Toyota equivalents. These are extremely durable – and useful – vehicles. Your son may find the bed very handy.

As a general rule, I would try to avoid any car made after – roughly – 2010 or so as the ones made before then will have fewer electronics, no LCD touchscreens. These are both failure-prone points and distraction points. I would also recommend finding him a car with a manual transmission (available in older Corollas and Civics) for two reasons. The first being the car will probably be more reliable. The second being he will be less distracted. There is a third reason, as well. He will become a better driver.

Hope this was helpful!

. . .

Got a question about cars, bikes or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in! Or email me directly at if the @!** “ask Eric” button doesn’t work!

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  1. How old does a car have to be before it is no longer required to pass a smog inspection in Cali? I’d try and get one that’s old enouigh to be able to avoid such an inspection- if that option still exists. It’s always been hard to find a functional car in CA. for $3K-$5K….and more so to find one that’ll pass the smog inspection without having to dump a LOT of money into it. Even a car that may be in good mechanical shape, if the check engine light is on….that alone will keep it from passing inspection- and since all modern cars have check engine lights- which may be lit for any ridiculous little thing that doesn’t affect driveability…but which could easily cost a few grand to fix, it’s of paramount importance to think about such things when looking for a car. (I’d NEVER live in an inspection state again, EVER!).

  2. RE: “The second being he will be less distracted.”

    Seems like sound advise. I cannot much imagine someone texting while driving a stick.

    She’s in So.Cal.,… twenty, er thirty years ago the Inland Empire & parts further East were a bonanza of rust-free finds.

    I have seen some really good deals at estate sales & estate auctions.

    Here’s one way to find them:

  3. Eric,

    You forgot to mention that a stick shift is also a ANTI-THEFT device! So few people can drive sticks these days that they’re a deterrent to theft.

    • Amen, Mark!

      It’s absolutely true. Though I am doing all I can to increase the number of teens who can drive stick. I will be instructing my niece in the art shortly…


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