Learning to drive is one of the most eagerly anticipated rites of passage for any young adult. Freedom, fun and adventure are all finally within reach and getting the keys to your first car is something you’ll never forget.
Choosing the right first car is vital. The statistics are scary: P-platers are the highest risk group when it comes to road crashes, particularly in the first six months.
One of the biggest mistakes a parent can make is presenting their child with a bomb of a first car. If P-platers are most likely to be involved in a crash, facilitating the acquisition of a cheaper car with fewer safety features isn’t recommended.
Of course budget is a consideration, so the aim is to get the safest car you and your teenager can afford. The benefits of buying new include updated safety features, technologically advanced design including crumple zones and technology designed to reduce distractions - things many older second-hand cars typically don’t have.
There are loads of options depending on your budget and preferences, so we decided to take four of the best city cars for P-Platers out to a Driver Dynamics training day to let a bunch of teenagers and their parents get behind the wheel and tell us what they think.
Each car was selected for a specific reason, with a factor that makes it stand out from the crowd. But to keep the playing field level, they were all automatics, all were fitted with anti-lock braking system (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC), and all have a five-star safety rating. Keeping budgets in mind, each model is available to drive-away in their entry-level forms for under $20,000.
The Kia Rio S comes with great warranty coverage and is one of the cheapest in its class. The Suzuki Swift GL Navigator has sat-nav as standard and extra safety features including a knee airbag. The Mazda 2 Maxx Sport is one of the most popular in this segment and has a sporty edge to it. The Fiat 500 Lounge is style-focused with a unique interior design, and in it’s base form it’s one of the cheapest small cars.
Our volunteer testers were 17-year-old red P-plater Josh Morgan and his dad Cameron, 16-year-old L-plater Luke Bleasdale and his father Ian, 16-year-old L-plater Jacob Jeskie and dad Steve, and 19-year-old green P-plater Anita Iscru.
After rounding up our four guinea pigs, we let them and their respective co-drivers loose with the cars.
The Rio was one of the favourites among our test group, for its roominess (despite being a three-door variant), visibility and ergonomics. One of our parents, Steve, was impressed.
"The windows are a lot longer, there's plenty of leg room, a big windscreen so you can see out of it more. A lot more visibility," he said.
Anita was also comfortable in the Rio.
"I like it because it's a good size. Even on the freeway you won't get as intimidated by the bigger trucks and cars," she said.
Jacob was unable to decide on a favourite.
"I like this one, but also the Suzuki," he said.
Until the end of the 2013/14 financial year you can get your hands on the Kia Rio S 1.4-litre three-door manual for $13,490 drive-away, or $15,490 for the auto. The Rio has superior ownership credentials in the class; if you sign on the dotted line you're covered by a five-year unlimited kilometre warranty and five-year capped-price servicing. However it isn't the most economical (though also not the worst here) when it comes to fuel use, drinking a claimed 6.3L/100km.
The five-seater impressed with its wide windows, passenger room and tech. It has an MP3 compatible CD player, four speakers, virtual surround sound, USB with iPod connectivity, steering wheel audio controls, Bluetooth connectivity, and was the only one with speed dependent volume control (SDVC). This feature will raise the audio levels as the speed of the vehicle increases, then lower the volume as it slows, reducing volume control fiddle frequency and helping less experienced drivers keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.
The Swift was also popular with our young drivers; it was Anita's favourite car, she particularly liked its spaciousness and its features.
"It's got a touchscreen, it's got voice control, it's got ABS brakes and it's pretty spacious compared to the other cars," she said. "I wouldn't mind to start off with this."
Josh liked the way it felt in the driver seat.
"Plenty of room, very comfortable inside and a good view of the road," he said.
It has a total of seven airbags including the driver's side knee airbag, voice command and a 6.1-inch touch screen to run sat-nav, Bluetooth audio streaming, MP3 capability, CD player and four speakers, plus there's cruise control.
Suzuki offers a three-year/100,000km warranty and it has a claimed fuel combined fuel consumption of 5.5L/100km. The GL Navigator is on sale till the end of May - drive-away in a manual for $16,490.
Mazda is set to release a new Mazda 2 in late 2014, but the current one remains a strong seller in the city car segment and our sample teens had their theories as to why.
“To be honest I just like basic, so that’s good enough for me," Luke said.
He was happy with a simple sound system, saying it helps reduce distractions but had his reservations.
“Bit small for me but it’s a good layout, I’ll give it that," he said.
The Maxx Sport has four speakers and a CD player with MP3 playback, though you would have to cough up more cash for the otherwise industry-standard Bluetooth on top of the $17,990 drive-away price tag for a manual version. But it does have the second best warranty of our group, three-year unlimited kilometre coverage - and metallic paint won't cost you extra.
The 2 has cruise control and an adaptable boot floor. It boasts the biggest engine of our bunch, a 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol and is the thirstiest going through a claimed 6.8L/100km. It's sporty touches include fog lamps and alloy wheels.
Cameron was intrigued by it's look: “Very interesting design," he said.
Steve wasn't sold, concerned about visibility if you don't use your mirrors: “A lot of blind spots, when you look out there’s serious blind spots," he said.
But there was an upside for Steve: “For it’s size there’s a lot of room in here."
Like the Swift it has a knee airbag but its curtain 'bags only extend to the door pillar. It's covered by Fiat's three-year/150,000km warranty. Though we had the top-spec Lounge variant on the day, right now you can get the 500 Pop from just $15,000 drive-away.
Interestingly the Lounge variant we had is off-limits to P-platers because of it's turbocharged engine. Yes, that tiny little car with a two-cylinder engine is a no-no. For now, P-platers would have to buy either the Pop or the 500S.
The regulations are about to undergo an overhaul, thankfully. Austroads has approved a new policy that isn't based on the engine's number of cylinders or whether the engine is turbocharged or supercharged. New legislation based on power-to-mass ratio is expected to be rolled out, but until then the only option is to apply for an exemption.
If you're in the market for a new small car you're spoilt for choice. This is a snapshot of four of the cars we'd recommend for new drivers, but there are plenty more worth considering.
Take a look at our city car comparison if you like to zip around in tiny cars.