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What's a cheap first car for my teenager?

Cato, I have a good one for you and Vaughan.

I want to get my teenager a car, but I'm not willing to spend much money. I am looking for something safe and cheap. Not junky, mind you. And most important of all, it does not need to be new.

I mean, this makes sense, right? I'm buying a car for a kid - a new driver. New, used, I don't care. Just keep it under 20Gs. Half that would be even better.

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Thanks for all the good articles online.

Manny in Winnipeg

Cato: When I turned 16 and got my driver's licence, my dad lent me $250 to buy my first car - a clapped-out '63 Chevy Nova with a small block V-8 and three on the tree.

Vaughan: Oh, no. Cato is slipping into gearhead-speak as he trips down memory lane.

Cato: I have good memories of being a teenager - unlike you, whom I am certain was found abandoned in a basket on somebody's porch. Even as an infant, people could see how you'd turn out.

Vaughan: Successful and living in the present, unlike you, apparently.

Cato: I only mentioned the Nova because a) after I fixed it up, it was a hoot; with that little V-8, it was a stealth dragster. And b) it seems like a lot of parents - me among them, I confess - are willing to indulge their kids far more than my dad.

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Vaughan: Cato, I remember we shot that segment for the TV show in your old hometown. I was very impressed with that narrow highway through the hills with blind corners everywhere and the current crop of juvenile delinquents all driving like maniacs. Blood Alley, I believe you called it. I bet that '63 of yours didn't even have seatbelts.

Cato: And for that reason, let's tackle safety first.

Much of what makes the newest cars so safe - side-curtain airbags and spine-cushioning head restraints, electronic stability control and antilock braking - are not available on older (and cheaper) vehicles.

Vaughan: Yes, but Manny can still find many safe used cars, ones well-suited to new drivers. The best ones are big and slow - not unlike you, Cato.

Cato: Wins the race, my friend.

Anyway, where we're going with this reminds me of the cars I bought and played with as a kid - my friends, too. Large and mid-size family sedans and station wagons were cheap then and they're cheap now.

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Vaughan: My first car was an ancient Pontiac for exactly that reason. Stuff like that might not be worth much on the lot, but they have the size, structural strength and "heft" to protect occupants in a crash.

Cato: Now for Manny, I'd suggest looking at older luxury cars, in particular. They often have advanced safety gear - the kind of stuff basic family cars of a similar vintage don't have. Older luxury cars are often a real bargain, too.

Vaughan: First, Manny should look for a 2004 Volvo S80 2.9. Current Canadian Red Book price: $13,150.

Cato: That's retail. Wholesalers on average are buying them for $10,850.

Vaughan: Old Volvos make sense for teen drivers. The Swedes have been leaders in safety since forever. The 2004 S80 came with stability control as standard equipment, an option on my other cars back then.

Cato: Anti-skid systems use the brakes on individual wheels to counter the skid and keep the driver in control. Manny should care about this, since many teens are involved in single-vehicle accidents. A big chunk of those crack-ups are due to a loss of control. Stability control can make young drivers a lot safer.

Vaughan: And the S80's size and weight make it a good bet to protect passengers in a crash. In a serious wreck, the '04 S80 would almost surely hold up better than the safest new small car.

Cato: Next up: 1999 BMW 740iL. The Canadian Black Book says the high-end price would be $6,582, the low-end, $2,082. Depends on how many kilometres are on the ticker and what sort of shape the car is in.

Vaughan: A 7-Series Bimmer is a great car, especially at those prices, but do you really want the kid driving around in a German limo? Besides, Manny could spend several thousand dollars reconditioning one.

But I do agree that he could still end up spending less than he would on the cheapest new car.

Cato: For safety, well, the 740 has antilock brakes, side airbags and traction control to keep the rear wheels from spinning. Back in the day, the 740 was cutting-edge - loaded with technology. So Manny will need to have a technician really go over a potential buy.

Vaughan: And now one of my under-the-radar favourites: the Ford Taurus.

Cato: The Red Book says you should be able to find a 2004 Taurus wagon, a nicely loaded SE, for $5,800, perhaps less.

Vaughan: Used prices for the Taurus are often ridiculously low. But this family car has a long history of giving a good performance in crash tests. At $5,800, a 2004 Taurus wagon is less than half the price of a new economy car like the Cube.

Cato: There you go, Manny. Square advice for your kid's first car.

Jeremy Cato and Michael Vaughan are co-hosts of Car/Business, which appears Fridays at 8 p.m. on Business News Network and Saturdays at 2 p.m. on CTV.


How they compare

2004 Volvo S80

1999 BMW 740iL

2004 Ford Taurus SEL

Wheelbase (mm)




Length (mm)




Width (mm)




Height (mm)





2.9-litre, six-cylinder

4.4-litre V-8

3.0-litre V-6

Output (hp) (torque)

201 hp 207 lb-ft

282 hp 325 lb-ft

201 hp 207 lb-ft


Five-speed automatic

Five-speed automatic

Four-speed automatic

Drive system




Curb weight(kg)




Fuel economy (litres/100 km)

11.9 city 7.8 highway

13.8 city 9.2 highway

11.8 city 7.7 highway


$13,150 Canadian Red Book

$6,582 Canadian Black Book

$5,800 Canadian Red Book


Send your "What Car?" questions to Jeremy Cato and Michael Vaughan.

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About the Author
Senior writer, Globe Drive

In 25 years of covering the auto industry, Jeremy Cato has won more than two-dozen awards, including three times being named automotive journalist of the year. Jeremy was born in Montreal and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. More

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