It used to be the bigger the better, but nowadays safety features and fuel economy are key features to look for
When you write about the auto industry for enough years, you learn there are a handful of perennial questions you will get from readers, the same ones that pop up over and over again. Sure, there are more queries around hybrids lately, and some people demanding more round-a-bouts and some demanding fewer, but my top three have remained: should I use regular oil or synthetic, why do idiots hog the passing lane, and what’s the best used car to buy for my kid who is going away to college?
The first question can be answered in your owner’s manual, not even Kreskin knows why those idiots can’t get out of the passing lane, but the used car question? That one is fun.
There are still some tendrils of old school thinking that show through, especially when it’s a grandparent asking the question. Bigger must be safer, right? I mean, my parents sent me off to school in a 1976 flaming orange AMC Matador wagon, and despite the hole in the passenger side floor and the fact I had to call for a boost most nights, it was perfect. My parents imagined me safely ensconced in a tank. They didn’t know it essentially made me a taxi service, as I happily ferried all of my friends around. I’m sure my parents didn’t realized they were creating a clown car, but there is nobody as inventive as university kids when it comes to doing dumb things with cars.
Which brings me to my first rule of Which Car Should I Get My Kid. No matter how hard you think you’ve covered all the bases, they will come up with new ways to make you crazy. The condition of that vehicle is about to test your patience. Here are a few more rules:
Bigger is not necessarily better You may be anticipating your student on the highway traipsing back home for holidays, but in reality, that car is probably going to be used in a more urban setting. Think packed parking lots, jaunts for groceries, or half the residence floor cramming in to head out for the evening. With the versatility provided by even compact cars these days, your student can maximize cargo space without having to wedge a barge into tight parking spaces. If your student is commuting daily, fuel economy will be important. Having said that, understand no matter what size vehicle you get, it will come home with door dings on the outside and garbage up to the windows on the inside.
You’re probably gonna need a bigger budget Today’s cars are built better and last longer. You are not going to get a three-year-old car for a few thousand dollars. The upside is there are some great cars out there that are eight-years-old and have lots of life left in them. Consider using a Certified Used Car seller for added protection, but if you buy privately, make sure any purchase you’re considering has the okay of a good mechanic as well as a seller’s package.
Determine true need If you’re only thinking about slogging a roomful of furniture into student housing, you might be overlooking the fact it’s easier, safer and cheaper to do that trip twice a year with a rental. Instead, consider the true day to day needs of your student. That smaller car will make more sense.
Get good information This may seem like a no-brainer, but the used car world can be overwhelming. Check places like Driving.ca for reviews, and plenty of classifieds for a general guide on prices. I also wouldn’t buy anything without checking online with sites such as Consumer Reports or an actual copy of the Lemon-Aid Car Guide, put out annually by the Automobile Protection Association (APA) (full disclosure: I work with the APA, and they produce my TV show, the Lemon Aid Car Show). You may be sidling up to a great deal for your kid, but these guides will tell you how the vehicle has fared over its lifespan and if the mileage means it’s time to ask about the timing belt.
Maintaining a long distance relationship This is how you will now be dealing with that vehicle. You’re probably used to have a hands-on approach to things like tire rotations, oil changes and sorting out that funny grinding noise. Accept that your student, busily immersed in school away from home, will be less fastidious about upkeep. Make sure it has decent tires, switch them to winters at Thanksgiving, and put an extra washer fluid jug in the trunk. I’m aware if a kid is old enough to be away at school they’re old enough to maintain a vehicle. I’m also aware if this is a first car, there will be a learning curve and it will take place in a new city. If the oil change interval is close, let your student know that a quickie oil change at a franchise is fine, but not to okay any of the upsells that will inevitably be tried. Make an appointment with your own mechanic when you know the car will be home.
Check insurance first Check with your broker to ascertain how the vehicle will be insured because this will have implications on what car fits your price bracket. If your kid has successfully talked you out of a ten year old Caravan (lovely tanks, those, in spite of having to replace so many brakes), don’t let them lead you into a two-seater slingshot. Newer cars are often cheaper to insure because they have so many safety features. Where we were once conditioned to see size as being the relevant safety feature in a crash, now we know its airbags and collision avoidance. Weigh those things carefully.
As for the actual cars? I’m frequently surprised at which cars turn out to be the workhorses in some households. I had a ’94 Chrysler Intrepid from my late mother and that thing ran forever. I’m a Hyundai fan in recent years, and I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if my first new vehicle, a 1984 Dodge minivan, is still on the road somewhere, that thing performed so well.
Readers? Your turn. What’s the best low-maintenance, sturdy vehicle you’ve ever owned?