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Your First Car

Can your first new car be safe, reliable and cool?

By Bill Roebuck

2007 Kia Rio5 EXIs it finally time for a new car? Maybe you've been driving around in an old beater. It's certainly an economical solution, but is it safe? And when you take into account insurance and fuel economy, is it cost-effective?

If you're considering putting yourself into brand new wheels for the first time, there are several issues to take into consideration. First -- if you're a younger driver -- there's the cool factor, but that must be tempered with a dose of reality. Many cars that appeal to younger drivers come with sticker shock, but that doesn't have to be the case today, thanks to the growth in good-looking, economical compacts and subcompacts.

Of course, you'll also want to keep a rein on operating costs. That means finding wheels with good reliability and great gas mileage. As well, you'll want a car with modern safety features and reasonable insurance costs.

A recent survey by Opinion Research Corp. in the U.S. of students who drove to school showed the major factors for them in choosing a car to drive are: style and coolness (66%), safety and reliability (61%), age and mileage (53%), make and model (53%), price (52%) and fuel efficiency (50%).

Safety and reliability are important factors, yet price and fuel efficiency are key measures.

There are several online sources to find out which cars meet these criteria. For reliability, check Consumer Reports magazine, which tracks ratings from thousands of drivers for its Annual Auto Issue each April. You also can find results at www.consumerreports.org.

Another reliability resource comes from J.D. Power & Associates, which surveys the impressions of vehicle owners at various time periods after a vehicle acquisition. Survey results can be found at www.jdpower.com. The company also produces an annual Vehicle Dependability Study of the most reliable vehicles over the past three years.

Canadian references include the Lemon-Aid new and used car and truck guides by Phil Edmonston, information on which can be found at www.lemonaidcars.com.

Also useful are Strategic Vision's studies, including its Total Value Awards and Total Quality Awards. Its surveys can be read at www.strategicvision.com. The Total Value Index measures a new owner's sense of value in their vehicle by factoring all economic issues (including purchase/lease incentives) against the quality of the ownership experience.

For fuel economy comparisons, you need look no further than the annual Fuel Consumption Guide published by Natural Resources Canada. It's available free from vehicle licensing offices, auto dealerships, the CAA, online at www.vehicles.gc.ca. or by calling 1-800-387-2000.

To find out about insurance ratings for various models, see the Insurance Bureau of Canada website at www.ibc.ca. If a model has a bad accident or theft record, it could be more expensive to insure. Search this site for the brochure “How Cars Measure Up” to learn how theft, collision and other claims affect the cost of auto insurance.

To determine insurance costs on specific models you are considering, you can also use an online insurance quoting service such as www.insurancehotline.com.

To find out which cars are safest, there are two safe bets for reliable information.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is an independent, U.S.-based, non-profit research and communications organization funded by auto insurance companies. A major part of the IIHS testing program is the crashworthiness evaluations of new passenger vehicles.

The principal component of each vehicle's rating is its performance in a 40-mph frontal offset crash test. This test is a good measure of a vehicle's structural design. The IIHS website at www.safercar.gov also features results of low-speed (bumper) crash tests, side-impact tests and head restraint tests.

Similarly, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, provides consumers with a measure of the relative safety potential of vehicles in crashes. It produces frontal- and side-crash test results on most makes and models, which can be read at www.iihs.org.

Armed with this kind of research, you'll be well on your way to finding an economical, safe, reliable, fuel-efficient vehicle for your first car. With any luck, it'll be cool as well.

Bill Roebuck is the Editor of CarTest! ©2007

Posted Jan. 15, 2007