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DRIVING AMBITION KIDS WANT THE SEXY WHEELS, BUT PARENTS ARE MORE INVESTED IN SAFETY FEATURES, MAINTENANCE AND INSURANCE COSTS.

Byline: Evan Pondel Staff Writer

Cassie Wohlfarth, 15, is already looking forward to the end of summer.

Not because of the sweltering heat she knows all too well, living in Valencia. It's the prospect of her first car as soon as she has her driver's license this September.

``I like the Civic hybrid. It's the only hybrid that looks like a regular car,'' said Wohlfarth, who plans to scrounge up gas money moonlighting as a baby-sitter.

Wohlfarth's parents, however, have their minds set on spending about $4,000 on a used car.

Teenagers throughout Southern California are facing a similar scenario as graduations and the summer months mark a popular time to buy a car. To do that, new drivers and their parents will visit used car lots, Web sites and the newspaper classifieds in search of their first car. But the real challenge - aside from pleasing the driver - is approaching the purchase without getting stung by sticker shock and soaring insurance premiums.

In a 2004 survey of parents who bought new or used cars for their kids, about half said cost was the most important factor. Approximately 40 percent brought up safety concerns, and fewer than 10 percent mentioned the size of a car being important, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The study also concluded that the death rate per registered vehicle is about twice as high in small cars as in large cars.

``It seems pretty obvious that parents need to think about safety over sexy,'' said Pete Moraga, spokesman for the Insurance Information Network. ``But that doesn't always happen as frequently as we'd like.''

Among the IIHS's top four recommendations for a teenager in search of a car:

--Look for newer vehicles with state-of-the-art safety features.

--Avoid sport utility vehicles because they are more likely to be involved in rollover accidents.

--Shop for sedans, which are lower to the ground and have a wider wheelbase.

--Stay away from high-performance vehicles, a common culprit when it comes to reckless driving.

The problem is that the safety of a sedan doesn't always equate to savings on an insurance premium. An 18-year-old who purchases a 2005 Buick LeSabre - which received the highest safety rating from IIHS - can expect an annual premium of more than $2,800, according to Geico's online quote service. So that means parents have to do a little homework to strike a balance between safety and cost, which often takes the form of a used car.

``You may end up buying a tank,'' said Liz Neblett, spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who fondly recalls the first car she drove - a 1946 Dodge. ``But you also want a used vehicle that isn't so old that it doesn't have the latest features.''

Elieser Hernandez, 18, can certainly relate. His 1984 Mitsubishi truck - dubbed ``Maria'' - doesn't have air bags. The back left taillight is broken and has been replaced with a red Pringles can.

``I need someone to pimp my ride,'' said the senior at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, borrowing a phrase from a popular car-makeover show on MTV.

Despite the truck's age, the cost of insurance is not too steep for Hernandez. With a job that pays $7.50 an hour, he can afford his $30 a month share for coverage. ``My dad covers the rest,'' which comes close to $80.

Jennifer Zalokar, brand manager at 21st Century Insurance Co., said the cost of insurance could be even less expensive if a teenager has his or her own policy.

``If the kids have fewer assets, they are likely to need a lower limit,'' said Zalokar, whose first car was a late 1970s Chevy Impala. ``But even more important, I'd encourage parents to get their kids involved and learn what goes into different policies.''

Most insurance companies offer good-student discounts, which can knock as much as 10 percent to 15 percent off a premium. Companies also allow college students to sign on to their parent's policy when they are home for break. Zalokar said despite these discounts, buyers should use caution when insuring used cars because the absence of present-day safety standards can raise the price.

Tom Bruno was an insurance premium away from handing his son the keys to a dark blue 1968 El Camino as a high school graduation gift.

``Oh, Beau had his eye on that baby for a long time,'' said Bruno, 50, who keeps the car in his garage. ``But the cost of insurance would have dropped me dead.''

So Bruno ditched the idea, and decided to buy his honors-student son a 2002 Chevrolet Prizm for just under $8,000. Sure, the car isn't as sexy as a muscle-bound El Camino. But the price was appealing and Bruno will save nearly $85 a month on insurance.

``The car's got everything Beau needs: air bags, air conditioning, a reliable warranty,'' said Bruno, who noted that his job as sales manager of Crest Chevrolet in San Bernardino helped narrow the decision.

But not all new cars have the same safety features. Considering vehicle crashes are the No. 1 cause of death among Americans 15 to 20 years old, David Champion, director of automobile testing at Consumer Reports magazine, says the ideal car for a teenager would have anti-lock brakes, front and side air bags, stability control and good crash-test results.

The average price of a car with all those features runs in excess of $20,000. ``But parents should ask themselves how much time and money they have spent to raise their kids. It's a phenomenal amount,'' Champion said. ``And you want to protect your kids as best as possible.''

Mark McCready, director of pricing strategy and a market analyst with El Segundo-based CarsDirect.com, says setting a budget is important both for the cost of a car and the upkeep that will be required.

``You have to think about how much gasoline is going to cost, or rotating the tires. And then the parent should sit down with their teenager to decide on a car.''

As for Cassie Wohlfarth, she knows a new hybrid is likely out of reach. But more important than the make and model of a car, ``I'll just be looking forward to being able to go wherever I want.''

Evan Pondel, (818) 713-3662

evan.pondel(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) Birmingham High senior Elieser Hernandez drives a 1984 Mitsubishi truck that has seen better days but gets him where he needs to go.

Evan Yee/Staff Photographer

(2 -- color) Cassie Wohlfarth of Valencia looks longingly at a brochure for the Honda hybrid Civic, which she calls her dream car.

Tom Mendoza/Staff Photographer
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 5, 2005
Words:1114
Previous Article:THIS CITY BELONGS TO CARROLL.
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