The common perception is that millennials just aren’t into cars and driving in the same way that my generation was - or, for that matter, every generation preceding including those which predate the automobile when the only horsepower available to rebellious youths came with a saddle. Kids these days may be more apathetic to motoring at first glance, but surely the cars aren’t at fault, are they?
There are as many ways for a young driver to get their grubby little mitts on their first car as there are cars to be made firsts of. Privileged youths, the product of productive parents providing privilege for their progeny, tend to be envied by the less fortunate, to whom a brand new BMW is entirely out of the question. Enthusiasts may envy the junior gear-head blessed with gear-headed parents, in his restored JDM Celica or classic American muscle though respect may not be forthcoming from the uninitiated or poorly schooled. Meanwhile, on the wrong side of the tracks, another ambitious young amoeba will save every penny struggling to get behind the wheel of anything with four wheels, a motor and at least a hope of turning over. Deborah driving dad’s Dodge doesn’t count though, because the one altruism of the First Rides Club is that whip, those wheels, that ride better be yours.
Let’s take a look at some candidate first cars for your various types of novice driver:
Mom and Dad Slept Well While Junior Slept Alone: The Volvo Wagon
The right Volvo is always going to be a safe bet, at least for Mom and Dad, as there was a time not long ago when people would reflect, “Mercedes-Benz sells itself as the safest car on the road, but people in the know buy Volvo.” Cars from that era, bricks all, are now available on the cheap. The right Volvo will avoid everything that parents fear (namely speed or even just speedy looks) and provide everything the young driver hates (safety, reliability and slowness all wrapped up in as unattractive a package as possible). The young driver, regardless of skill level, will be safe from everything on the roads, with the exception of reasonable fuel consumption. A safe, boring and reliable Volvo can be had well within even the most frugal of first-car budgets and can be kept running forever on spares or just hopeful ambition.
The Volvo is a good step for the intermediary gearhead, too. This is the kind of car that Mom and Dad can happily meet their kid half way on, matching them dollar for dollar, and then stand back with crossed arms when the water pump blows and says, “I won’t pay for it, but I’ll show you how to fix it.” For the boyracer without a race to be had they can be found with a Turbo (but don’t tell him that it’s a low pressure unit). The budget range on a boring Volvo wagon is easily as wide as its rear glass meaning that examples can be found anywhere from a couple grand on up but if junior is looking to spend around or less than five thousand, there will be good picking. Incentives include room for all your friends (even that really fat kid with the hot sister) and all your school junk (read; a car-sized locker). Detractors include never having any kind of sex, even the solo kind because Volvo and having every greasy grease-monkey ask if you’re doing a V8 swap, and it should probably be an LS because everyone puts in a 302.
Cheap, Fast, Reliable - You can pick two: The Pocket Rocket
Cars all have their own pre-associated connotations incorporated with the image of being seen driving that particular car. For example; a sixteen year old boy behind the wheel of a Mazda Miata elicits one of two impressions – he’s either an enthusiast or a hairdresser in training. These fun, open topped little cars can be a treat for the right kind of new driver and risk-taking parent because they’re about as safe on the road as a grown lion in a daycare, that is, kids are going to get hurt.
However, if you favor the healthy longevity of your little ones yet long for something affordable there is always the Civic. Honda struck gold with the first Civic and continued stroking its cross-member like Midas rubbing one out to the tune of Cha-Ching, Cha-Ching which means that they’ve become a generational first car. Junior, maybe his Dad had one in high school or Mom had one with second-wave punk band stickers on. What this also means is that the Civic has been offered in various trim levels for decades and if you’re a real ambitious youth or parents with a passion for rice, the riciest... pardon me, raciest package is probably for you. Front-wheel drive reduces the likelihood of over-steer related fatalities and, like the Volvo, parts can be had in abundance (though it’s not as easy to replace parts on your children and the lack of safety measures in some of the earlier cars shouldn’t be quickly dismissed).
Modders (or “hot rodders” to you old folk) love these cars with such unbridled (and often aggressive) enthusiasm that a whole automotive subculture has sprung up around Civic ownership and if there’s a better way to teach your kids about community, I (as a parent) don’t know it. Now, in honest truthiness it must be acknowledged that there are many cars out there to which all of the above attributes can be ascribed including Volkswagen’s Golf, Jetta, Rabbit and something called GTI (which actually stands for, “Gym, Tan, Intercourse”. Look it up if you don't believe me.) and probably some American products, too.
A cheap Civic can be bought cheap while an expensive Civic will be brand new, thus; the budget range on a good Civic is pretty wide but so too should be the selection of cars for sale. Incentives include being cheap and affordable in every which way along with a harmless just-a-city-car image. Detractors include being a Civic guy, which is almost as bad as being a Mustang guy… speaking of which…
Because I Don’t Want a Civic and I’m Poor, I Picked a Pony: The Ford Mustang
Mustangs come in all shapes and sizes as do their owners but one of the biggest problems with owning a Mustang is that pre-association with the fraternity of douche bag bro’s who run their straight piped five liters up and down the block during the wee hours. The real danger for a first time owner, particularly when it’s their very first car, is the peer pressure to conform to their Ford-Forever, Mustang-Mandatory cult. If, however, the owner in question has the individuality to fly in the face of expectation and the determination to give zero fucks about what other people think of the car, a Mustang is a great option for a first timer. A true gear head family can spend hours poring over the minutia of Mustang madness, father and son whiling away the weekends getting that barn found 67’ fastback back to fast. Fox-bodied Mustangs are easy enough to pick up for a few grand in good knick and can be worked on, or worked over, for just a few bucks.
The “pony for your little princess” proposition has been played-out with proliferation from one platform to the next making V6 powered automatics with rag-tops a popular choice among a particular set and presses on presently with papa’s purchasing pretty ponies for their princesses into the present. There is a Mustang for literally every budget even if it’s fairly unlikely that Junior will be bidding big at Barrett for a classic, numbers matching car. True, even with a V6, a Mustang can be costly when it comes to keeping the tank full and regardless of the spec there will always be an urge to go as fast as the car looks and its detractors include these points among others but a clear incentive for the Mustang as a first car is this – it is the worst of the best choices, and there’s something special about that.
My Predecessor Was A Risk Taker But I Am Not: The Chrysler K-Car
If you don’t like driving, and you want it to show while costing you virtually nothing there’s a K-car for you. If you spend more than a thousand dollars, you’re a sucker – spend a couple hundred and drive it until it dies, repeat like shampooing. Incentives include; cheap and replaceable as a Bic lighter. Detractors; it might kill you and every moment behind the wheel will be as exciting as plain yogurt. Moving right along…
The Car for Everyone except poor people: The BMW 3-Series
Imagine – a high school parking lot filled with student and teacher owned BMW 3 Series… all six of them parked across more than a dozen spaces meaning no one else can get in. But there’s no joking around when it comes to BMW ownership because if you thought your teen was difficult to understand now with the modern slang and their constant texting just wait until your young driver is talking chassis and engine codes. That being made clear, there is pretty much a 3-series BMW for every taste above a certain, moderate budget. Not unlike the boring Volvo, they can be had as wagons too if slightly less boring a package. Two doors or four, take your pick. Of course there’s also a selection of engines to pick from. Manual or automatic, both can be had but parents who love their children insist on manuals. They can be found molested and modified, abused by families or modest income business men, but a nice, clean example with reasonable kilometers (or miles, for you Imperialist monsters) isn’t impossible to find and well worth the search. A parent with an interest in motoring looking to share that interest with their offspring might consider a BMW 3-Series as they have an uncanny ability to develop lasting relationships with their owners evidenced by, if nothing else, the amount of money and time young people will spend keeping their BMWs running.
As with most of the entries in this list, there are organizations dedicated to sharing the love and interest in 3-series with other 3-series fans and the modding culture is strong with this driving force. Upper class, high-income-family-attended schools will often have student parking areas full of E46’s and E90’s with the not-uncommon current 3-series but it’s just as common to see an older E30 or E36 parked in middle class student parking. For the petrol head, there will always be the M3; sportiest of 3-series, but these command considerable prices regardless of generation. If you see a sixteen-year old running around in a spotless E30 M3, that teen either has commendable determination and follow-through, a parent with excellent motoring tastes or a screwdriver wedged into the steering column. In terms of budgetary concerns, the 3-series starts at a few to five grand (for one really worth driving) and ends somewhere near the upper stratosphere with a top-of-the-spec M3. Incentives include; it’s a BMW, dummy. Detractors include; it’s still a BMW, dummy.
The truth is that just about any car can be a great first car because it’s not really about the car at all. Something adults forget when we look back at our first cars through lenses of nostalgia is that it was never about the car, it was about the idea of the car and everything incorporated in that idea but mostly, it was about freedom. That’s why I’ve chosen the five cars in my list, including the K-cars, because every one of them has the ability to prove, in its most mundane and beige package that what really mattered most was the ability to say, “This is truly mine and it can take me anywhere.”
My first car was a Foxbody Mustang, but it wasn’t the first car I drove with regularity because that honor was left to a 1977 Volkswagen van with a four speed and more kilometers on it than exist between the Earth and the nearest Earth-bound asteroid. To shift, you needed a passport. The clutch throw was as long as most people’s legs. Instead of a steering wheel, it had a steering amphitheatre straight off of a bus and power steering wasn’t even a thought during the design process. When I say that it was onerous, I’m being kind. That bus, it’d taken my mother and me across Canada and back and had been converted inside more often than Joan Rivers on the outside and it was preceded by a string of barely reliable, forgettable cars in which my mom had carted me across most of the country.
If there's one thing this experience has taught me it is that the blame for automotive apathy doesn’t lie with the cars but can be found in the homes of parents who failed to encourage the idea that freedom could be found on four wheels, or two. I loved my Mustang and it taught me to love cars but it was a crappy VW toaster that taught me to love driving.
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