How to Choose Your First Car

Mazda -323

By Dr John Wright

Safety should be a major priority when selecting a first car. It is in the early years of driving that one is more likely to be involved in a crash. The problem for some younger drivers is that the safe cars their parents like might not be deemed sufficiently cool. Never mind, it's usually nothing that a smart set of wheels, a lowering job and a bigger exhaust outlet won't fix.

Finding a safe and affordable first car

Many cars made before 1990 no longer have much commercial value. But some of them are still among the safest vehicles on the road. I'm thinking of brands such as Mercedes-Benz and Volvo. Move into the 1990s and airbags are more common.

If a single vehicle collides with an immovable object such as a tree or concrete barrier, the size and mass of that vehicle have little relevance to the outcome. But if two cars collide, then as a general rule the one with more mass wins out. This is a good reason for choosing a larger car.

Buying your first car for $5,000

Let's start with a budget of $5000. For that sum you can now buy an early model Lexus ES300 from the mid-'90s. This is a high quality front-wheel drive, 3.0 litre V6 sedan running through a four speed automatic transmission, delivering good performance (zero to 100 km/h in 10 seconds) and excellent economy (less than nine litres per 100 kilometres on the open road). Anti-lock brakes and a driver's airbag are standard features. From August 1993 the ES300 also got a passenger's airbag. Although this midsize Lexus is a trifle bland in the visual department, if you kit it out with a neat set of wheels with matching low profile tyres, it looks quite decent.

If the driver of this first car is mad about either Fords or Holdens then cars made after about 1994 are worth considering. Neither a Falcon nor Commodore can match the safety credentials of a same-age Mercedes, BMW, Volvo or Saab, but the presence of an airbag is a major advantage. Fuel economy on these models is quite good and overall running costs are low.

The Mercedes-Benz 180E of 1992 does not have an airbag but it is a very strong car in the firm's tradition. You can now buy a tidy enough example for $5000. In these more enlightened times, it does not make sense to choose a first car purely on the cuteness or sexiness factor. When I started driving, the old Volkswagen Beetle was a popular choice. Think about it for a moment – a penchant for oversteer with the risk of rolling, a fuel tank in front of the driver's knees, a lack of stability in crosswinds, no power to speak of. That sounds like (and often was) a recipe for disaster. No, leave the old Beetles for the old geezers and don't think about buying one for your child.

First car budget of $10,000

If the budget runs to $10,000 you can buy a pretty respectable car. The choice of VT and even VX Commodores is huge and all of these have multiple airbags. Falcons of this era do not have side airbags. Either car is reasonably solid, handles and stops well and would make an excellent first car. So would a late model Mitsubishi Magna or Toyota Camry, boring as they may seem. How about a Magna Sport or VRX?

Smaller vehicles worth a look are the Holden Astra (universally judged to be cool), Toyota Corolla (not universally judged to be cool but ultra reliable) and the Mazda 323/Ford Laser twins.

Before buying check out the price of insurance. If you cannot afford to cover your car comprehensively, then you cannot afford the car.

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