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My Advice for Detroit Carmakers

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I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place: buying a sensible car for my daughter vs. wanting her to still look "cool."

mother and daughter car shopping

Sarah Bowman: I was pretty smug for the first year of my daughter's licensed life. She drove my seven-year-old Volvo wagon, a gray-green mom car with ski racks and sleek lines that only someone who grew up in the 1970s could love. It was by no means a sexy vehicle to be spotted pulling into the high-school parking lot in. Naturally, she protested against it vehemently, naming it "the T.K." because the roof racks whistled like a tea kettle when the car hit 30 mph. But wheels are wheels, and the T.K. took her through her first year of driving -- safely.

More than a few of my daughter's friends got brand-new cars for their birthdays, some before they even turned 16. I was proud of our old-school values, especially since I didn't have to shell out extra cash for a teen car. I could tsk-tsk shamelessly when told about kids whose new wheels wound up in the shop after some gnarly fender-benders. But now that it has served a full year of teen duty, the T.K. is ready for the warehouse. Too many miles logged, too many costly parts and too much cash at the pump to justify putting the trusty old turbocharged monster through another tour of duty. So here I am, poised to buy my daughter a new car -- and finding myself woefully stuck between my old smug position and the insecurity of not having a clue what car to buy next.

Old school values lead me to gently used car with low mileage and a solid safety record. I'm checking out Hondas and Volkswagens. But they feel too much like sensible shoes, and it's kind of a bummer that after a year of good behavior (no accidents and no tickets), I can't slip my daughter behind the wheel of something fabulous. My husband says I'm trying to keep up with the Joneses as I sift through Internet listings for late-model Audi A4s (seemingly the cars of choice for fancy Westside teens). We have a sturdy Honda Civic sedan all picked out; it comes in a pretty blue and has a great stereo system. Will that make my daughter's heart skip a beat? Or will she just grimace lovingly, name it something silly (like "Blueberry") and start campaigning for a Blackberry for her birthday?

The truth behind all of this angst is that whatever car we get will be the car that takes her out of our driveway and into the world. Symbolically, it'll always be her "first car" (she'll conveniently forget the poor T.K.) -- so, like any significant gift, I want it to be perfect. Something with a low owner cost, but enough street cred to make that swing into the school parking lot a good feeling every morning. There isn't really a car out there that fits this description; the Prius might do the trick, but who would put their child in a recalled runaway, even if 40 mpg is pretty darn sweet? Besides, my 14-year-old, a boy who will soon inherit this car, informed me that the Prius is totally uncool. So that's my message to the design gurus at GM: If you can figure out this conundrum, you'll have mothers lining up with their checkbooks. It might just solve your cash-flow problem, too.

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10 comments so far | Post a comment now
Ultimotive February 15, 2010, 12:49 PM

Get her a cheap Japanese car with a roof rack - then she can pretty well anywhere she pleases .. and it’ll last forever!

renee February 15, 2010, 1:05 PM

if its actually going to be your car for her to use but what YOU want.if she wants something special tell her get a job and save her money and buy her own car,like she really should.

smoore February 15, 2010, 3:25 PM

when i got my 1988 nissan sentra(of course it was red, they all were)in 1995 i was more than excited. My husban and i have been planning fo this for 3 years. my 13 year old knows the 2006 nissan altima(of course its black, they all are)im driving will be hers in 3 years. it will be long paid for and we will know its history. i work i deserve the new car.

b February 15, 2010, 4:33 PM

you are keeping up with the joneses, and teaching your daughter to be an ingrate. how about you teach her to be grateful for what she gets, and that when she works hard and earns the money, she can get what she really wants and give her old one to her daughter someday.

Anonymous February 15, 2010, 6:41 PM

I have a 2003 Ford Taurus. It is a “mom” car. But it gets me from point a to point b and has pretty good gas mileage. I never expected to have a car at 16 but I did. So I would go with a Ford. They are trustworthy.

tennmom February 15, 2010, 7:04 PM

Before senior year when my parents bought me a Z28, I “suffered” while driving their 78 Mercury Grand Marquis (sp?). It was light yellow, but packed a 454 & was always the first of my friend’s cars to make it up the steep icy hill we had to deal with to get to school in the winter. It was also the only car to have auto windows & auto adjustable seats.
My older girl will have to “suffer” through her Dad’s 06 Dodge Charger. Poor thing!

Robin February 15, 2010, 8:13 PM

I’d stay away from the Hondas and Volkswagons, the Honda Civic is the only car I’ve ever gotten carsick driving. I have a 2007 Hyundai Sonata and I love it. It’s a nice looking sedan, nothing fancy, good gas mileage. It drives very smoothly and astonishingly quietly. You also can’t beat the price on them.

When I was a teen I was driving a Pontiac Grand Am, also nice, but now discontinued.

Anonymous February 16, 2010, 3:30 PM

Buy American you fools!

Sara March 20, 2010, 12:14 AM

Wow, that’s your advice for us in Detroit? You’ve never bought a domestic car for your daughter, and aren’t really considering it. You did, however, mention getting a Prius, which seem to be killing people. Good work. Our Ford never killed anyone on it’s own! How about you teach your daughter to appreciate American made goods before you don’t have that choice anymore.

Eve Pearce December 23, 2010, 4:47 AM

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