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When John Ulczycki's six children got their driver's licenses in the 2000s, they drove their grandmother's boring Buick or some car nearly as embarrassing.
They seldom even wanted to drive, much less speed, says the vice president at the National Safety Council, a safe driving advocacy group.
The teens often wanted to drive their mother's far sportier Hyundai Tiburon, but the couple knew that would be a mistake. It was hardly a sports car, but Ulczycki knew the car's sporty styling would bring out the cowboy in them, even without a high-powered engine.
"Big, slow and ugly." That's what parents should keep in mind when considering what car to give or buy a new teen driver, says Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
There's another big consideration these days - whether the vehicle is new enough to have the latest safety features, if such considerations are within your budget. Grandma's car might not cut it anymore.
Cars more than five years old may be too old if you really want to protect the person most likely to crash: a teen driver. That may mean driving that "beater" car yourself.
Here are the most important safety features for a teen's car:
• Electronic stability control. This feature uses braking and engine power to bring a car back under control. It's particularly important for teens, because they tend to overcorrect when they start to lose control of their vehicles, which often happens when they're driving too fast.
Automakers were required to start installing stability control on cars with the 2009 model year, and all 2012 models had to have the feature. It was already quite common by the time the government required it. Even some 10-year-old used luxury cars have stability control.
• Side air bags. Teens are among the most likely to get themselves involved in what's known as a single-vehicle, run-off-the-road crash. These aren't the most common crashes, but they are among the deadliest, because they often lead to rollovers. Side-impact air bags are a must, but side-curtain bags are, too, as they help protect the head if the car flips over.
• Front-collision warning or mitigation. Frontal collisions may not be the most deadly, but they are a type that teens are likely to get into. This feature uses sensors to detect other vehicles a driver may not see, then warns - and in some cars, brakes - when a crash is imminent. Volvo, for example, offered this feature in 2010 on its XC60, then put it on most of its 2011 models.
Be sure a car is current on safety, but also remember Lund's rules:
• Big. An online search for "best cars for teens" will turn up several lists, including suggestions for small, inexpensive models. While the price tags and fuel economy of such cars are appealing, the size should steer smart shoppers away, Lund and Ulczycki say. Stick to midsize cars or larger.
Compact and smaller cars "just offer less protection to their occupants," says Lund. "It gets worse pretty quickly as you go smaller."
• Slow. These days, it's almost impossible to buy a car that doesn't have at least 200 horsepower, even a plain old midsize sedan. That makes it hard to set a horsepower limit for a teen's car. But experts warn to at least stay away from high-performance models that can bring out the worst in drivers.
"Parents have to realize the kind of car you're driving tends to elicit certain driving behavior," says Lund. "If it can go faster, it tends to be driven faster."
• Ugly. When it came to Ulczycki's kids, Grandma's car "didn't look like it wanted to go fast. They didn't have the rush driving that Buick Skylark," he says. It may not have been ugly, but it didn't have the sexy, aggressive stance of a sportier car.
Safety also goes beyond a car's features, size and style. Crash test ratings and Consumer Reports' reliability ratings should also be consulted. Such data can be found at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Safercar.gov, at the insurance industry's IIHS.org and at ConsumerReports.org.
Jayne O'Donnell , USA TODAY