Dear Liz: My son is almost 16 and has his heart set on a used luxury convertible. We have found a few that are priced at about $23,000 with about 50,000 miles. We are debating whether this is the right choice for him. The type he wants is not overpowered (it has a six-cylinder engine), has many safety features and gets decent gas mileage. He has worked hard since he was 8 in our business and has saved about half the money needed. (He invests his money and almost never spends it.) I know that if he had a nice car like this, he wouldn’t be getting the message that he is entitled to it. But is it just too much for a 16-year-old? He goes to a private high school in an affluent area, so he has seen parents buy their kids expensive luxury cars that get wrecked and then replaced only to be destroyed again. He can see that’s not the way to go. He is an excellent driver as well.
Answer: He may be an excellent driver while you’re in the car, but you have no idea yet how he’ll do once he’s turned loose with a license.
Car crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teenagers, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and the death rate for males ages 16 to 19 is twice that of females the same age. Per mile driven, teenagers are almost three times more likely than other drivers to be involved in a fatal crash. And the presence of male teen passengers increases the likelihood of risky driving behavior. Even the most responsible kid can get goaded into doing stupid things. (In fact, goading each other into doing stupid things is a defining trait of adolescence.)
This is why safety factors are key when considering cars for new drivers. Convertibles overall are safer than they used to be, but many lack some of the protective features that are more common in sedans, such as side curtain or “head protection” air bags that deploy from overhead. Some convertibles have an automatic roll bar that pops up when sensors detect an imminent crash or rollover, but most don’t.
In general, safety advocates recommend bigger, heavier vehicles with lots of safety features for teen drivers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety maintains a list of good, affordable used cars for new drivers that includes coupes, sedans, wagons, SUVs, minivans and even a few pickups — but not convertibles.
Give your son a few years of practice driving a big, dumb, uncool, underpowered vehicle. You’ll raise the odds that he’ll have many, many years ahead of him to drive the car of his dreams.