A Dad's Dilemma... A Car for a 16 Year Old: Balancing Price and Safety
October 16, 2014 3:47 PM   Subscribe

So, my sweet little girl is about to turn 16 and we've started doing a little car shopping - for a Subaru. My mechanic (a SubaruGuru who I trust implicitly) made me aware of a hyper-meticulously maintained 1996 Subaru Legacy wagon with only 88K miles and in mint condition. Drove it, and it's true, it's an excellent car for it's age. Price is very affordable for us too, at a time when we don't need a lot of extra expense. I'm ready to go... but...

I'm waffling over general safety. This '96 has AWD, ABS brakes and driver/passenger airbags. Starting in 06 (I think), Soobie started putting side airbags in their models. Of course I want my girl to have the safest car in the universe... but I'm struggling. The new models (2006+) are a financial stretch for us, and even paying more, we'd have to go with a car that has considerably more miles, up to 120K miles or more. That's just how the prices are breaking. And we will likely not have the 1-owner, 1-mechanic seal-of-approval that the '96 has.

She would rarely be doing much other than a 10 minute drive to school and trips around the area. Not a lot of intense or high speed highway driving.

The older Soobie drives great, but it is a bit lower to the ground - perhaps making the driver more vulnerable to impact (?). I've looked at all kinds of car safety data online, and certainly newer cars are safer. That's been the trend as long as cars have been around.

So where do I draw the line? Is there a viable comparison that can be drawn here?
posted by ecorrocio to Travel & Transportation (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
According to the Insurance Institute (quoting federal numbers), in the united states, there is roughly one traffic death per hundred million miles driven. The car has a good set of safety features and, with lower mileage, unlikely to break down and leave her stranded somewhere. The probability that the additional safety features of a newer car would make any difference are very low.
posted by metahawk at 3:58 PM on October 16, 2014 [14 favorites]

I would buy the 96 wagon. It's low mileage, it's a safe car, your trusted mechanic recommends it.

Most crashes are rear-endings. Are there really bad intersections where she'd be t-boned and the side airbags will matter?

Lower to the ground is good for avoiding rollovers. To really matter for driver impacts (as you seem to be) in car-vs-SUV-or-truck, you have to get a tall car, and then you risk rollovers.

Also, teenagers tend to crash cars. Go for the cheap, safe one. (Oh, and the insurance will be more on a newer car, too.)
posted by Ms Vegetable at 4:02 PM on October 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Oh boy, this is exactly the same situation I was in at 16, except my car was a Rav4. My dad had the same airbag concerns but the car was perfect otherwise. We got it. It has been the perfect car for me. I'm still driving it.

For us what it came down to was that I had huge restrictions (dad-imposed) on my driving for the first 6 months I had the car (where I could drive, when I could drive, how far I could drive, who I could have in the car, if I could have the radio on), plus I had to take driver's ed (not required where I lived), plus I was threatened with having 0 car if I was ever found to be driving recklessly. In a way my dad considered reckless. My dad considers driving +1 mph speed limit reckless. All this AND I had to pay for 80% of the cost of my own car.

Was it extreme? Yeah. Was it overkill? Yeah probably. But it did keep me off the road during the most dangerous times/conditions until I had already established myself as a responsible and defensive driver and it gave me a tremendous amount of ownership over my own vehicle, which made me more protective and careful than my peers.

My point is, you can only protect your kid so much. Set some boundaries, help her make safe choices, make sure she's prepared. This sounds like a great starter car. I think you should go for it.
posted by phunniemee at 4:03 PM on October 16, 2014 [10 favorites]

I say get the '96, it's a known decent vehicle and it's affordable.

What you DON'T want to get is something with a lot of 'cool', for lack of a better term --- no flashy red sportscars, in other words. If she's just driving locally, she doesn't need a powerful speedster, she needs reliability.

And I say this as someone who, at age 16, was happily driving a 14-year-old Ford Falcon: it's the freedom that'll count, not cool.
posted by easily confused at 4:03 PM on October 16, 2014

Most of us that drove 1996 cars live to tell about it (my first car was a 1995 Escort).

Sure side air bags are great. But why stop there, what stops you from going further and getting an even newer car with traction control? Traction control is a far more useful safety feature for an inexperienced teenage driver.

I wouldn't consider side air bags as the must-have feature. I would either go without this feature or go all-in and get traction control. And since price is prohibitive on traction control ... well, there's your answer. Odds are your kid will be just fine.
posted by crazycanuck at 4:20 PM on October 16, 2014

The car sounds like a good and reliable car. If you are worried about your daughter being stranded somewhere, why not get her a Triple A membership or add her to yours if you have one? I love knowing that if I get a flat or need my car towed, I can call Triple A and not have to worry.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 4:26 PM on October 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Sounds like a perfectly safe car. I don't understand the concern?
posted by J. Wilson at 4:37 PM on October 16, 2014

Buy the '96. It's highly unlikely she'll ever benefit from the side airbags, but she'll absolutely benefit from a real-world lesson in financial prudence.
posted by headnsouth at 4:42 PM on October 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Having crashed an even older Subaru wagon (into a moose, at highway speed, for one...), I say go for it! Even the police officer was impressed at how well the car stood up to a significant impact (I had minor injuries and vehicle was driveable to the dealership!) Sounds like a very good choice of vehicle for a new driver; not too sporty, not too tiny and likely sturdier than many newer choices.
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 4:45 PM on October 16, 2014

My 16 year old daughter just got her license, and if I were in your shoes I would totally get her the 96. Back in 98 when babygood was born, I had that exact same car--it's perfectly safe and solid and dependable. Good luck with the teenage driver!
posted by chaoticgood at 4:52 PM on October 16, 2014

The older Soobie drives great, but it is a bit lower to the ground - perhaps making the driver more vulnerable to impact (?).

This isn't so much as what changed in the mid-late 90s on cars as much as it's where the door stops and the window starts. That generation of subaru was fairly pragmatic on this, i can barely rest my arm comfortably on the top of the door with the window open, and i'm 6'2. My arm is basically in a "bird in flight" sort of position at that point. This communicates that the crash bars, and general door structure are coming up quite high on your body.

That generation of legacy and forester were very highly rated for safety at the time, and even as a used car into the early 2000s by consumer reports and many others. My parents bought one because of that, their shortlist was the legacy and the forester. Shit, when i was in high school one of those types of magazines did a roundup writeup of the best cars to get your high school kid, and it was on there.(which my mom would not leave me alone about, ranting about how they should get me another car and my grandpas 1980s toyota i had inherited was wayyyy too unsafe)

Also totally anecdotal, but since i live in the PNW where everyone has these damn cars, i know several young idiots who have totaled them. Both 100% walked away and didn't even need to get checked out at the hospital.

Another random detail is that my parents bought theirs in 2002~ with similar mileage. It now has 230k miles, and i'll likely inherit it when they get a new car at some point soon. She could probably drive this legacy all through college until she gets a Serious Adult Job and wants a cooler car, and then you could probably get it back if you wanted it and keep driving it.

These are basically the cars that picked up the torch of the volvo 240. They're safe, reliable, boring, and easy to drive. Their only real downside is meh gas mileage, and they have better than bluebook or expected resale value at least where i live. If you're getting a sweetheart deal on one, you're likely really getting a deal. A car like that, with that low of miles would likely sell for almost as much as an 03-05 econobox from another brand.(note: i regularly witnessed this with very low miles/nice subarus compared to other brands when i was car shopping earlier this year)

I can't actually come up with any strikes against this idea. The only one i could BS up in my head was that it's a larger car, and harder to learn how to park. The flipside of this is that it will teach you how to park properly which is an under-taught skill right now as far as i can tell from how few of my early-mid 20s friends can fucking park at all. If you can parallel park a legacy wagon, you can parallel park anything and will do a lot better with stuff like driving a uhaul. They have great visibility too.

I guess i don't really have a total thesis here, but i think you should do it. To the point that i wish you weren't in colorado, because i would buy the damn thing if it was near me and you didn't want it.
posted by emptythought at 4:56 PM on October 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

As someone who drove an over 18-year-old car as a teenager, I say go for it. It sounds like it's in a lot better condition than my car was when I got it.

The dinger when you left the lights on were standard by '96, right? That was really the biggest car problem I had at that age.
posted by ckape at 4:59 PM on October 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd buy that in a heartbeat. Sounds like a great deal.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:58 PM on October 16, 2014

Now is a great time to teach your daughter to live within her means by buying her a car that you can afford. If it helps, I saw a news report a million years ago that air bags were designed for average size men and are not that great for small women. I've been terrified of airbags since. So, less may be better?
posted by myselfasme at 6:04 PM on October 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I drove a car that was made the year I was born. My grandfather did all the maintenance which saved thousand upon thousand of dollars and I drove that car until I was 25. We would have kept it but I had moved across country and couldn't get it to paw paw for repairs.
Having a mechanic who knows your vehicle is seriously a life saver. My grandparents probably saved the cost of another car. Also the insurance was cheep!
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:13 PM on October 16, 2014

Ring up another fan of the older Subie. Definitely understand the impulse to go with the safest possible thing but you can't wrap her in bubble wrap! Make sure the tires are great and the brakes are kept very well maintained and she'll be safe as houses.
posted by ftm at 6:29 PM on October 16, 2014

Besides the vehicle engineering there is another angle to keep the kid safe besides the obvious no drinking, no texting, use your damn seat belt and perhaps a GDL.

The less passengers of their cohort in the car the safer they all are. Link. You likely knew this but I think it bears inclusion in this thread.
posted by vapidave at 7:19 PM on October 16, 2014

I'm definitely not advising you to spend money that you don't have. But in my own life, I made the choice to only drive cars recent enough to meet current safety standards. Currently that's traction and stability control, side airbags, etc.; in a few years it will have moved on. It keeps my transportation budget higher and probably does not make a statistically significant improvement to my safety, but I can afford it and it makes me happier. I see a lot of accidents and several people I know have lost family members to accidents in the last few years, so I'm willing to pay the price for peace of mind.

My insurance agent has always been happy to spend the time to discuss rates for different cars and why one is higher or lower, which can be a window into trying to compare what are very low risks. Cars of the same year are easy to compare, but it is harder to find relevant safety rankings of different car generations.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:44 PM on October 16, 2014

I won't get in to specifics, but I've recently seen the unhappy result of the impact of a 2010 Subaru front end with a tree, and it was not pretty. On the other hand, my parents used to have a Subaru of the older vintage you are contemplating getting and I considered that a really solid and safe car. Newer is not always better, even with the side airbags.

As someone pointed out, getting your daughter into good safety habits is just as important as what car you get. Wearing seatbelts, no texting, knowing how to drive in wet weather, etc., these are vital habits and skills to teach.

My niece was a passenger in a car full of kids that lost control and rolled over, and the police were amazed and pleased that all the passengers were wearing their seatbelts. They all walked away unscratched from that accident, which would not have been the case if they had not all be wearing their seatbelts.
posted by gudrun at 9:19 PM on October 16, 2014

One totally unorthodox word of warning: if your daughter feels that her car is safe, good in snow, etc., then she'll be more likely to go out in the snow, and her friends will ask her to drive whenever the weather is dicey.

If you buy her a summer car (convertible, roadster) she's much more likely to stay home when the weather is questionable. A two-seater minimizes the number of distracting passengers she can have. A nimble vehicle is less likely to get in an accident in the first place. She won't be asked to help her friends move things, haul things, put a surf board on top, that sort of thing. In other words, the less practical the car, the less she'll drive at all, and that is the number one way to protect her: keep her off the road entirely.

This sounds counterintuitive, but it is my belief that getting her to recognize the limits of her ability to get through dangerous or borderline situations is an essential part of teaching good sense. Giving her the tools to get through things by relying on technology teachers her to trust the car, rather than to say, "You know, maybe I don't need to go to the mall today."
posted by Capri at 10:01 PM on October 16, 2014

Just because there are safer cars now doesn't mean the car, considered safe in 1996, is unsafe. It's still a safe car.

But the real measure of safety is how she operates the car. You can't control what others do. You can influence how she drives. Focus on that.
posted by inturnaround at 12:39 AM on October 17, 2014

Buy the '96 Subaru. In terms of car safety the biggest component is the driver. Minimize the risk by encouraging your daughter to drive safely not by buying a newer models that would be marginally safer only in the event of a crash.

Given the financial constraints a relatively low mileage well maintained older car is going to be a much better purchase than a high mileage newer one that might be more prone to break down.
posted by electricinca at 3:00 AM on October 17, 2014

When I was her age, after i got the whole driving thing down, I was (and still am) much more afraid of my car breaking down in bumfuck and being abandoned / killed by a highway prowling psychokiller than I am of dieing in a crash (i drive defensively and avoid people who are driving and on the phone, swerving, weaving, etc). Go for reliability at a good price point. I don't think the airbags are worth the financial stretch, but I also had to buy my own car so she might want them if you're footing the bill.
posted by WeekendJen at 5:41 AM on October 17, 2014

I would totally do it. Your mechanic is cool with it, the model/year are good, it has all the necessary safety features, it is a tank (I drove a Forester) and no lie, it is not a vehicle that telegraphs, "hot rod" so people are less inclined to challenge it for the ego. As soon as my Honda Pilot is done, I am so going back to Subaru.
posted by jadepearl at 5:52 AM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would say to go for the cheaper car. Teenagers are most likely to get into fender benders, so the older vehicle will hurt less when she (almost inevitably) backs out of the garage with the car door open and whacks the side of the garage, or accidentally starts backing up at the gas station into the giant RV parked behind her, or takes a turn a little too fast and ends up in the ditch three houses down from your house (all me, all within the first two years of me driving).

If you still really want the newer vehicle but the price is too high, can she get a part-time job and help save up for the extra price? That would give her more ownership of the vehicle, too!
posted by jillithd at 7:52 AM on October 17, 2014

The difference between e.g. '70s safety and '90s safety is much bigger than the distance between '90s safety and the modern kind. Get the '96.

Like, I'm a grown man with a decent job, and I'm thinking, 'hey, mechanic-approved one-owner '90s Subaru? Never mind the kid, I might want to buy that thing for myself.'
posted by box at 5:54 PM on October 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hmm. Maybe you should buy the Subie and then let her drive your car.
posted by box at 5:59 PM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

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