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 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 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.
Used cars are still the most common among teenagers with 36 percent of those 16-17 and 47 percent of those 18-19 driving them, according to Teenage Research. Those figures are also significantly higher than those of 1999, when 14 percent of teens 16-17 had used cars and 12 percent of those 18-19 did.
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 fundraiser.
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.
Some parents hold off buying vehicles exclusively for their teenagers; they have a third car that teens are allowed to use, often sharing with siblings. Other teens have to rely on friends with cars to get to band practice and football games.
Consumer Reports magazine recommends that parents in the market for a car for their teen go the used route.
"A used car is usually the best for a first vehicle. It's cheaper to buy and insure, and will depreciate more slowly than a new car," said Rik Paul, the magazine's automotive editor.
Ann and Peter Linblad opted for a used car for their three sons. At first, the older boys shared the family's third car - a 1995 Ford Windstar.
Then about two years ago, the Lindblads paid $9,000 for a 1995 Subaru Legacy wagon for Andy, 20, to drive to Middlebury College in Vermont. This year brother Matt, 18, will join Andy at Middlebury, and the two will share the wagon.
"At first, we didn't think a car would be necessary, but with the going and coming on the bus, it became something we thought would make sense," said Ann Linblad, who works in communications for the American Cancer Society.
The youngest of the Lindblads, Scott, who at 16 has his learner's permit, will inherit the Windstar.
Ann Lindblad appreciates one practical side to outfitting her kids in used cars - it keeps their expectations in check.
"It may skew reality if you get a really wonderful car for your very first car," she said. "How can you afford to have that later on?"
Consumer Reports magazine recommends 5 cars for teen 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.
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