When it comes to buying the first car for your cherished offspring, safety is usually the number-one priority for parents.
Certain brands like Volvo are synonymous with safety, but before you get to that point it’s important to establish what size and shape vehicle is going to be best.
We tend to think big SUVs are safe because having all that metal around us feels protective, and being up high gives a reassuring sense of superiority. But SUVs are over-represented in rollovers and, in handling terms, can be a handful.
A smaller car with a lower centre of gravity is going to be easier for an inexperienced driver to handle and less likely to trip them up.
In the past, small cars weren’t as crashworthy as bigger ones so people were more likely to teach their teens in a Holden Commodore than a Barina. However the modern small car is a technological wonder when it comes to safety, often achieving five-star ratings in crash tests. They are also far easier to park and manoeuvre.
The other important factor to consider is power. Giving your teen a vehicle with too much grunt is simply tempting fate, because many of them will be tempted to find out just what their right foot can achieve.
So a small car, with a high safety rating and an engine that’s more about fuel economy than 0-100km/h performance times, is the way to go.
Here are five of the best.
Just about the perfect Goldilocks size for a learner driver – not too big and not too small, just right – the Hyundai i30 offers a five-star ANCAP safety rating, thanks in part to its seven airbags (including full-length curtains, side or thorax airbags and driver’s knee).
The i30 is also big on passive safety with Electronic Stability Control (ESC). This includes Traction Control System (TCS), Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist System (BAS) and Vehicle Stability Management (VSM).
Its 1.8-litre engine is capable enough and isn’t left huffing and puffing up hills, but it’s never going to frighten anyone, either.
Hyundai offers a rear-view camera and parking sensors as standard, which will make it harder for youngster to reverse into things.
Some variants offer Apple CarPlay, which will not only thrill your teenager but it will read them their text messages. Genius!
The VW Polo (pictured below) is an excellent small car, but looking at its diminutive proportions may make you feel nervous about things like crumple zones. But fear not, because it too has a five-star ANCAP rating! And, it’s just about the cheapest way you can wrap genuine German engineering around your loved ones.
That means a full suite of safety systems (ESC, EBD, ABS), including the ingenious City Safety Braking (only available as an option) which will automatically bring the car to a complete halt if it detects you’re about to rear-end someone. The system works at speeds up to 50km/h and is a real insurance-excess saver.
With its tiny 1.2-litre engine the Polo will get to 100km/h when it’s good and ready, yet it still feels zippy enough to keep you awake.
If the Polo looks or feels too small for your peace of mind you can step up to the Golf (pictured above), which is one of the world’s most popular cars for good reason. It has a larger passenger safety cell, all the same protective gear, a beautiful interior, spacious back seats and a zesty 1.4-litre engine.
Just steer clear of the diesel options.
If safety is what you’re looking for, then you have to consider a Volvo. But the dizzying size and price of the entry-level V40 might quickly have you looking elsewhere.
You do get a lot of gear for your $37K, of course, and you could argue this Ford Focus-sized vehicle (the two cars are built on the same platform) has the perfect dimensions for a learner.
It also has all the safety gear you could ask for including technologies that Volvo invented, like Automatic Emergency Braking – it calls it City Safety, which means VW copied it – and BLIS (Blindspot Information System).
If ANCAP could give out six stars instead of five, the V40 would get them.
The 1.6-litre base engine is also reassuringly slow, in the traditional Volvo fashion. The slower you’re going, the less likely an accident will happen, hey?
If price is an issue – and let’s face it, it always is – then it’s hard to go past the Toyota Yaris, which gives you five-star safety at a price you can afford.
The Yaris may be tiny, but it’s also $5000 cheaper than the world’s most popular car, the Corolla, and you still get seven airbags.
A 1.3-litre engine makes sure your teenager won’t be racing anyone off the lights. In fact, it might not even be possible to get a speeding fine in a Yaris, short of firing it out of a cannon.
If you were living in Italy, the truly tiny Fiat 500 is definitely the car you would buy for your teenager to learn in.
This means it’s got lashings of style, a cool and funky interior and the option of a manual gearbox that’s great fun to use.
When it comes to safety they’ve somehow managed to fit seven airbags into this tiddler, so it must be like a bouncy castle inside if they all go off at once.
Remarkably, despite the fact it feels like the front of your car is at your toes and the rear just behind your shoulders, the previous 500 (a new one has just been launched, read about it here) managed a five-star ANCAP rating and Fiat is confident the new one will retain that score.
Perhaps the best thing about this cool little car is that despite offering just a 1.2-litre engine in the base model it’s fantastic fun to drive, which will make your teen want to go out and practice his or her new skills.