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What Should Junior Drive?


One of the most asked questions of “car” people, second to “What kind of car should I buy?” and “How much do you think x will cost to fix?” is, “What would be the best car to buy for my [new driver] kid?” And I have a standard list of cars I cut and paste and send to people, and they just go buy Camrys anyway. The tables, however, have turned, and I’m faced with a child (yes, CHILD) who is at 18 months until she can legally qualify to get a driver’s license. And who, like her dad, can’t wait.

Same kid, much later….!

So there I was, minding my own business, when all of a sudden my cute little firstborn was in high school. WTF? Anyway, she’s always been a bit of a car girl, even though she’s not really a tomboy. She just likes cars, and the right ones, if I do say so myself. The conversation escalated to the next level last Christmas vacation, when, one afternoon with nothing better to do in southeastern Connecticut, I took her to an empty parking for her first behind-the-wheel experience. Reckless? Perhaps, but it was a pretty wide open space, and I really didn’t care for the car, so no harm, no foul. Needless to say, despite my having to repeatedly tell her to go faster (!) she loved it.


And that’s when the conversation turned. “What kind of car can I drive when I get my license?” was the question I should have anticipated, but did not. Unprepared, I gave my typical response; Miata. Which, as any good Car Geek knows, is the answer to any number of automotive questions. It’s fun, reliable, and for the safety Nazis out there comes with airbags and can be had with anti-lock brakes. And they’re cheap. Solid recommendation, right? She was elated and already surfing eBay when I casually mentioned the conversation to her mother, who responded in kind with “OH, HELL NO!”


I argued that she’d only be able to take one passenger at a time, that it was far safer than anything either of us drove when we were that age, that her friends wouldn’t be able to drive it because OF COURSE it would be a stick shift, and that it really wasn’t fast enough to get her into any real trouble. The (prevailing) counter-argument was not one of what she would do, but rather about how everyone and their mother around where we live drives an SUV, including all of the young new drivers. The concern was not our daughter, but the texting, chatting, ninnies in their steamrollers that wouldn’t notice running over a Miata any more than they would a speed bump.

I hate when she makes sense.

CL Landing

The very next thing I did was tell #1 daughter, thus bursting her bubble with my implied condemnation to automotive purgatory. As a means to save a little cool car guy dad face, I told her to look on Craigslist,, and other classified sites and come back to me with cars fitting the following criteria:

1. No sports cars.

2. Airbags and anti-lock brakes.

3. Less then $5,000.

4. NOT a Camry (this one wasn’t much of a struggle, and in fact she went one further and said, “And no Priuses, either. Eew.” I have trained her well!).

5. Something we can work on together.

That last point was particularly important to me. Just because she’s a girl doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be able to change a tire, her oil, brakes, and so on. I did those things with my dad and earned the right to pay someone else to do it. And so should she. Granted, she HAS already started her training…


And so the links started flowing, and we started a vigorous game of “What’s Wrong with this Car?” wherein I would flag concerns in the text or photos in a listing, and then challenge her to find them. She’s downright expert at spotting paint mismatch now, and is getting better at identifying those red flag statements, like “AC needs a charge” or “no leaks that I know of” and the like. The cars were interesting as well. She’d originally decided that she only wanted a stick shift, so I suggested cars like a Subaru WRX, Mazda Protege5, and BMW 3 Series which she did like. There were also cars I thought were neat like the Audi A4 (“ugly front end”), Saab 9-5 (“but it’s a SAAB [uttered in 5 syllables]!”), and even a Honda Civic Hybrid 5-speed like I used to drive (“But DAD, you told me that life is too short to drive a hybrid!” I hate when my own words get used against me!). But none were really worthy of going to see. She also decided that a Mini Cooper would be cool, until I told her that one of our English friends said that Minis are far too “obvious” as a young woman’s first car. Heh.

The Protoge5 seemed to be the leading candidate, as they are fun, reliable, not too small but not too big, and drive a lot like little Miata wagons. Heck, I came close to buying one when they were new. But, alas, we couldn’t find one that hadn’t been ridden hard and put away wet within three hours of us. Then again, there really was no hurry. Then one day as I was minding my own business and checking my Facebook feed, I saw a post from a member of the local Mercedes club chapter testing the waters to sell his 1994 E320 Wagon.

Now if you’re a regular TTS reader (and yes, given the frequency of our posts I use the term loosely) you know that I’m kind of a Mercedes guy, and my partner in crime drives a 1995 E320 sedan every day. We love these cars for what they are: reliable, rock solid, complex enough to be relatively modern and yet simple enough to work on yourself. Suffice it to say: I was intrigued.

I sent a note to the fellow, who told me there were already a few folks in front of me in line. “Ah, well,” I thought, with a note for him to let me know if things changed. You see, the car appeared to be in nice shape despite relatively high (212,000) miles, and moreover all of the key maintenance for these cars – wiring harness, head gasket, transmission, etc. – had been done, according to the complete records going all the way back to 1994.

A few weeks later I pinged the owner, who told me that the others in line had flaked out and he was moving me to the front of the line. I showed a picture to the child, who to my amazement lit up and said, “Oh, yeah!” about a green, 21 year-old station wagon, albeit one built like a brick shithouse and replete with all the requisite safety stuff to appease Mom. Again, I raised her right!

And so there it now sits parked in front of my house awaiting a nice day when she can finish thoroughly scouring the interior. Meanwhile, we’ve been having all kinds of fun ordering parts of eBay and Pelican Parts with the $2,150 that we didn’t spend of the original budget!

Hmm. Maybe I’ll drive it to work tomorrow. She won’t be needing for another year and a half.

6 thoughts on “What Should Junior Drive? Leave a comment

  1. Just went through this with a no 17 year old son. He wanted a wagon type car since he plays soccer and there is always a bunch of stuff to haul around. I lean toward fun cars, but he is not a “car guy” as I define the term. Ended up with a 2003 Saab 9-5 ARC Wagon 3.0T motor. Automatic which is a bummer, but okay. 120,000 miles. Pretty good body for a Minnesota car. And everything works. Heated seats, air conditioned seats, CD, sunroof, rear heated seats, leather interior, crappy tires. Paid $3,900 for it which is a bit more than what KBB claims I should pay, but within my budget (under $5,000) and I purchased it from an independent shop that has been around for many years and has a good reputation, so I figure a bit extra is okay. And it is a good car. Makes me think about just buying similar cars and driving them until they rust out or die instead of spending somehwat more dollars for newer cars. One thing that makes buying an older Saab easier is that while I can fix it myself, there is a local independent shop (solo mechanic) that is known as a Saab whisperer. His shop rate is reasonable. He won’t do work that does not need to be done. And he does good work.

    I liked the car enough that I thought about letting my son keep the 2009 Saab 93 Aero SportCombi all wheel drive car that I use when not driving my 1969 BMW 2002 or the E30 convertible, but I figured he did not need a 270 horsepower V6 turbo.

    Honda and Subaru were in the mix, but the prices on high mileage used Honda and Subaru cars are nuts, and I am not confident many of them have been all that well maintained.

    • I forgot to mention seat heaters! W124 wagons with them are relatively rare, and this one’s got them, and they work beautifully! The 9-5 is a great car – we had a 2001 wagon and really liked it. That was when I used to go through cars like toilet paper so it didn’t stay around long – one of the reasons I suggested it to her. She just couldn’t get her head around SAABs, which is too bad because they’re still neat cars, but I am thrilled with the Merc…!

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