Sunday, September 14, 2003

Parents dig deep for teens' first wheels

Boomers' kids driving well

By Amy Baldwin
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - While baby boomer parents are putting money aside for college tuition, some are taking on another big expense: buying cars for their teenagers.

Although many parents opt for used vehicles for their children, others increasingly are spending $20,000 or more to give their kids brand-new cars. And teens are getting those cars at an earlier age than past generations did.

"You would be amazed by what high school students are driving these days. New. New. It's amazing," said Ann Lindblad, 50.

The Rutland, Mass., mom acknowledges that she got off easy, outfitting her three sons in two used cars.

Many baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, didn't get cars until they went off to college or even later, when they started their first jobs. Lindblad didn't get a car until she was nearly out of college; her parents helped her buy a new Toyota Corolla, which back in the mid-1970s cost $2,700.

These days, many parents find that their children have a good case for getting their own sets of wheels, often as soon as they pass their driving tests. As high schoolers, many teens are involved in several after-school activities and have jobs. Teens' parents have little time to chauffeur them around, and often decide to buy their kids cars.

September and June are the two big months when parents buy their children cars, timing the purchases to the back-to-school season and high school or college graduations.

"Parents and teens obviously have vastly different priorities. Teens want something that will help their image and increase their esteem in the social world, and that is something new. ... Parents want something they can afford and they want something that is reliable" and safe, said Rob Callender, senior trends manager at Teenage Research.

The number of teens who can brag about having new wheels is rising, according to Teenage Research Unlimited, a market research firm. This year, 9 percent of teens ages 16-17 have new cars and 11 percent of teens ages 18-19 do, up from 1 percent and 5 percent, respectively, in 1999.

Teenage Research does not break down how the teens acquired their cars, meaning whether parents paid or helped their children or if teens financed their vehicles on their own. It also does not track the brands of cars teens are driving.

Derek Schauer is one of the luckier young drivers. His parents, Carol and Skipp Schauer, both 53, of suburban Dallas, bought him a new Jeep Cherokee when he turned 16.

"It made it a lot easier with all the transportation to activities. He played golf, and it wasn't like the golf course was at the school. He had to get there and get home," said Carol Schauer, who works as a professional fund-raiser.

Last year, the Schauers bought Derek his second car, a new Volkswagen Jetta, for his 21st birthday. This decision was also based on practicality - Derek drives to and from Florida State University, where he is a business student, several times a year.

"He is the one who originally suggested the Jetta. He wanted the better gas mileage and the smaller size for easier parking on campus," said Carol Schauer, adding that her son also thought the Jetta was cool looking. "We felt more comfortable having him in something new for driving those long distances" between home and Tallahassee, Fla.

The Schauers will make the car payments and pay for insurance until Derek graduates from college.

"When he graduates, they are his," said Schauer, who drives a BMW.

Top cars for new drivers

Consumer Reports magazine recommends five cars - two used, and three new - for parents in the market for vehicles for their teenage drivers. Here's a look at those suggestions along with explanations of what makes them hip to teens and attractive to parents, according to Consumer Reports:

Among used autos:

• Acura Integra: The plus for teens is that it is a "nice-looking" car that is also available as a sporty coupe. As for parents, the Integra is consistently rated by the magazine as one of the best used cars, for reliability, safety and gas mileage.

• Mazda Protege: Teens appreciate the Protege for its small size but spacious trunk, which is useful for carting stuff to and from home. Parents dig the reasonable price. Consumer Reports said the suggested used-car price for the 1995 Protege is between $6,000 and $8,000.

For new cars:

• Honda Civic: Teens like the fact that the Civic is easy to handle and is roomy for its size. Parents appreciate that the Civic has excellent crash-test results.

• Volkswagen Jetta: Teens deem the Jetta to be cool looking and comfy. Parents like that it comes with a host of standard safety features.

• Subaru Impreza: Teens think the Impreza is fun to drive, while parents find it's reliable and doesn't require frequent trips to the shop.

The Associated Press

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