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How to pick a new car for a graduate

Spring is in the air and young graduates’ thoughts are turning to new cars. Here are some pointers for those buying a car for a new grad, and our recommendations for seven of the best cars on the market right now. By Dan Carney.
Cars like Honda’s Civic Si are popular with younger drivers and also have electronic stability control, which the NHTSA says saves thousands of lives a year.
Cars like Honda’s Civic Si are popular with younger drivers and also have electronic stability control, which the NHTSA says saves thousands of lives a year.Honda

Spring is in the air and young graduates’ thoughts are turning to new cars. After years of driving that starving student junk heap, it’s finally time for something new. Maybe mom and dad will spring for it as a gift or, if not, maybe they’ll cosign the loan, or pony up the down payment.

If the folks are chipping in, they’ll also probably want to steer their child’s new car selection. An anxious young driver is likely to have different priorities for this purchase than their parents, so it’s important to emphasize practical realities over whimsical fantasies. As a parent it’s your job to spoil the fun with something that is safe, reliable and a good value.

A macho new 4x4 might lend just the right active-outdoorsy air and have impeccable rock-crawling credentials, but few drivers actually do much of that. And some of us might imagine the only suitable vehicle for a graduate would be a crimson Alfa Romeo roadster like Dustin Hoffman’s in “The Graduate,” but there are better choices out there.

For getting to work in a vehicle with some weekend flexibility, a lower-slung crossover SUVs is good choice notes David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports’ Auto Test Center.

“If you want to be able to go camping, something like that would be an excellent choice,” he said.

Graduates are young, still not terribly experienced drivers and given to more frequent lapses in judgment than the rest of us, so safety has to be an important consideration when choosing a car. (“Grown-ups” make mistakes too, of course — somebody bought all those Pontiac Azteks).

Today, vehicle safety means more than just a car that protects crash test dummies when they’re smashed spectacularly against a barrier, although that’s an important component. Graduates aren’t dummies, no matter which school they graduated from, so they can usually avoid a collision if they have the right tools.

So it’s important to put them in a car that has electronic stability control, or ESC — a computerized guardian angel that takes control when a driver errs and keeps a car pointing forward and (hopefully) under control. ESC uses sensors to detect when a car is sliding and intervenes by reducing engine power and selectively applying brake force to the wheels to halt its slide.

Some cars incorporate antilock brakes and traction control, but those older technologies fall well short of full ESC and should not be considered adequate substitutes. Research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows ESC can reduce the incidence of single-car crashes by 34 percent when installed in a passenger car and can cut the incidence of single-vehicle crashes by an amazing 59 percent when used in a more top-heavy, trickier-to-handle sport utility vehicle.

Don’t buy any new car that does not have ESC. The NHTSA predicts the technology could save between 5,300 and 9,600 lives every year and has mandated ESC for all new cars by 2012.

Many cars offer stability control today, but unfortunately the technology is more common in cars that are expensive for grads and their parents. And manufacturers only offer it as part of a high-end option package in many of the more affordable models — that can make the car more expensive than premium models that have ESC as standard. You can see a list of model year 2007 cars equipped with ESC here.

Car crashes will still occur, of course, so we’ve worked up a list of eligible candidates for good graduate cars with the proviso that they score a “good” rating on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s front and side crash tests. 

There are many excellent and fun-to-drive cars that for one reason or other fail to make the cut in these tests. In some instances, the IIHS may not have tested the car with side air bags if those were optional (the manufacturer has to pay for the additional test when the bags aren’t standard). In other cases, cars do not offer ESC, which disqualifies them even if they have scored well on a test.

We also scoured the Consumer Reports reliability ratings for our list of the best graduate cars, excluding any cars that scored below average in predicted reliability. And you need to be able to get into these cars for around $25,000, so vehicles like the Subaru Forester that meet our criteria, but only offer stability control with equipment packages that drive the price to nearer $30,000, are excluded.

These criteria whittled our list down to just seven: The Audi A3, the Ford Edge, Honda’s Civic Si and the CRV, the Subaru Outback 2.5i Toyota’s RAV4 and the Prius (see link below for a slide show of our recommendations for the seven of the best cars on the market).

The Ford Taurus (ESC only on the 2008 Taurus, not the 2007 Five Hundred) and the Ford Taurus X (ESC on the 2008 Taurus X only and not on the 2007 Freestyle) also met all of our established criteria, but we judged these cars too unexciting for a new grad — they look like the parents picked them out. The same goes for the Honda Accord (ESC only on V6 models), the Subaru Legacy 2.5i LTD and the Toyota Camry.

If your favorite car is absent, then it missed the cut because it lacks ESC, failed to score a “good” or hasn’t been tested by IIHS. Or it may have scored below average, or hasn’t yet compiled a reliability record for Consumer Reports to judge.

The list doesn’t include many small cars. While it’s popularly thought that a smaller car is best for a graduate, it’s worth noting that the larger cars that might feature on parents’ lists are probably safer in the event of a crash, according to IIHS spokesman Russ Rader.

“In a crash between a heavy vehicle and a lighter vehicle, the forces are higher in the lighter vehicle,” Rader said. “But you don’t have to buy a tank to get safety,” he added. “As you add weight to heavier vehicles, the safety benefits gradually diminish.”