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The Dreaded Question

Why I can't stand when people ask me what car to buy for their kid, and why it shouldn't be an SUV (especially not a Nissan CrossCabriolet).

8w ago

While spending a weekend on the Cape with a friend and their family I was minding my own business when I overheard the phrase that always perks my ears. “Oh! Zach is into cars!” Immediately I started organizing answers to questions like, “What’s your dream car?”, “What are you driving?”, “What modifications have you done so far?” In my mind I laid out spec sheets, dyno charts, and auto journalist cliches such as “it handles like it’s on rails.” Fully prepared, I headed to the father-son duo, looking forward to an engaging conversation on a topic which I honestly don’t get to talk about very often. Usually the closest I get is my sister telling me how great her hybrid’s mileage is. Riveting (sorry Gabby). When I arrived on the scene I was greeted with the question, “What should I buy for my son’s first car?” My heart sinks. I know it’s already over. I close my folder of petrol head goodies and instead opened up a mental Consumer Reports webpage and prepared a spread of reasonably priced snooze-mobiles. But naively I still held onto a bit of hope, so I looked to the son and said, “Well, what do you want?” I got a fairly average high school boy’s answer, “I'd like a Jeep.” Nothing wrong with Jeeps, I'm just not really interested in them so subsequently don’t actually know much about them beyond the fact that they roll over a lot and sometimes lack doors. But he said he liked off-roading and wanted a car that could do that, so in his case a Jeep probably did make sense. However with a little bit of digging I found out he’d never really gone mudding before (it probably shouldn’t have taken a detective to figure that out since he'd only just received his driver’s permit), so it didn’t make much sense for that to have a huge influence on the car he would end up purchasing.

After chatting a bit more I learned what he really was after was a date with that irresistible mistress named “Speed.” Perfect, I could work with that. I quickly reviewed market prices for cheap 0-60's, considering the usual suspects: Volkswagen GTI, Focus ST, Subaru WRX, and the like. Fortunately for this budding car enthusiast, acceleration can be had pretty easily, especially when your parents are lending a hand. Perhaps there was still hope yet. But soon I had to turn back to reality, also known as the father, to get an idea of what was actually going to happen, and the answer wasn’t at all surprising. They wanted an all-wheel-drive, small SUV. This for a high school student who commutes a couple miles to school alone, with only a backpack as his luggage. It doesn’t make sense, but sadly it’s par for the course. Admittedly they had pretty good choices, the Subaru Forester and Mazda CX-5 being top contenders. And wanting to have a vehicle equipped with AWD for a beginner driver in New England is understandable as getting stuck in deep snow is both stressful and easy for them. But an SUV? I mean come on, couldn’t we be a bit more logical?

Car and Driver

Car and Driver

I doubt I’m the only one, but I truly question whether or not a new driver should be given a massive car. I know the main argument is that a large SUV provides them with a survival cell that could help them make it through a crash, but shouldn’t we be looking for vehicles that keep them from getting into wrecks in the first place?

Although a large vehicle can keep its contents intact in the event of an accident, it makes things much less safe for everybody else on the road. This is because student drivers are already particularly prone to hitting things both stationary and moving. My high school’s parking lot had so many fender benders, it may as well have been a bumper car attraction at an amusement park. And of course, for the most part it’s not other people running into a new driver, it’s the other way around. As they panic and forget which pedal is which, and try to remember what side of the road they should be driving on, they are absolutely going to curb their wheels as they pull out of the Dunkin Donuts parking lot. And they will almost certainly scrape the family car against the mailbox as they pull into the driveway at 11:59 PM, just early enough to make curfew, but just late enough that they happen to be especially exhausted and careless. Add a large car to the new driver equation, and they’ll be ramming people off the highway as they pinball from side to side between the lanes. As a new driver they don’t yet know how to gauge the dimensions of a vehicle, and providing them with one that has such a big footprint just makes it more difficult to keep their wheels where they need to be.

Furthermore, one of the greatest risks to a young driver is distraction. This can come in many forms: fiddling with the air conditioning, answering texts, and of course, having a lot of passengers. If you give them an SUV that could rival a Deuce and a Half troop transport they will undoubtedly be shipping all the "boys" all across town with rap music blasting and vape smoke billowing out of every lung and window available. This will not only result in addiction, but also collisions as each of their six friends jockey for attention from the driver, taking focus away from where it should be, the road. If you were to give them something smaller like a hatchback or a *gasp* two-door coupe, they would not have to put up with the distractions and dangers that come with driving an oversized clown car. Obviously this might mean they’d have to drive in convoy with the rest of their friends which isn’t great for the environment, but neither are wrecked cars along the street.

Car and Driver

Car and Driver

Now I’m not saying you should buy every teenager an MX-5. If that was the case, no car enthusiasts would be able to afford the insurance for one. And I’ll put my hands up here and admit that a Miata might actually be too small for a lot of people. However you also shouldn’t go the direction of my friend’s dad who decided to buy his daughters a Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet. Yes, that legendary convertible SUV that’s both useless as an SUV, and hideous as a convertible. I think he was going for a balance between a vehicle that was large and safe, and a vehicle that fits my coupe argument above. But unfortunately, the end product was just a ridiculous lump with four wheels sitting in his driveway. However, considering the fact that their other option was a VW Beetle, I have to question that family’s general sanity, or at the very least their desire to buy a “normal” car. But had they really never heard of a 3-Door Golf? Regardless, the deed had been done and in some ways I respect how bold the move was. It was so bold I think it’s one of only three CrossCabriolet's I’ve ever seen in my life. Being fair to the Nissan I did drive it once and found it amusing as a novelty, although this was possibly only because it was the first time I had driven a convertible (sheltered life I know). Unfortunately, the whole stunt sort’ve flopped as the “SUV” was a failure not only commercially, but also for the father’s goals. First of all, the Murano didn’t actually have a lot of practicality. The front seats were comfortable enough, but the back seats were extremely annoying to get into, which isn’t a great feature for an automobile in the SUV class. Storage room was also compromised because when you drove it with the roof down, as a convertible should be driven, you sacrificed a considerable amount of trunk space stowing away the roof. And furthermore, the whole point of its purchase was negated because the 2+2 drop top was still used to chauffeur a ton of people around since it had the appearance of an SUV. If they were smart about it, the family would have just bought the CrossCabriolet GT-R V-Spec with a roll cage, rear seat delete, and adjustable coilovers, no one would have wanted to ride in that (if that actually exists somewhere please delete me from the matrix now).

Car and Driver

Car and Driver

Buying an SUV as a single adult makes little sense already, but to give a child an SUV makes even less. Not only is the extra space left unutilized, but it also makes them more dangerous to everyone else. It’s like buying your kid a Barrett .50 Caliber Rifle as their first firearm. It’s too much for them to handle, and if they accidentally shoot it off you’ll have to replace every wall in your home as well those in the houses downrange for the next three blocks. Simply based on inertia, the consequences of making a mistake in a 5000lb vehicle are far greater than those of making a mistake in one that only weighs 2500lbs. I finished the conversation with the family by saying the Forester would be extremely safe with good visibility, and that the CX-5 had an excellent interior and leads the segment in handling. I also added that if all they needed was a car with a taller ride height, I would take a good look at the Subaru Crosstrek instead. He seemed to think that was a decent idea but I’m sure they’ll still end up with something like a Ford Explorer. I write this not just to complain about the ridiculous notion that an SUV is a good first car, but also to give myself a hearty reminder never to engage with someone who's asking what they should buy for a new driver. The answer is always regrettably, SUV.

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