- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2003

NEW YORK — Baby-boomer parents are taking on another big expense: buying cars for their teenagers.

Although many parents opt for used vehicles for their children, others increasingly are spending $20,000 or more to give their offspring brand-new cars. And teens are getting those cars at an earlier age than did past generations.

These days, many parents find that their children have a good case for getting their own set of wheels, often as soon as they pass their driving tests. As high schoolers, many teens are involved in several after-school activities and have jobs. Teens’ parents have little time to chauffeur them around, and often decide to buy their children cars.

“With the family being drawn in different directions, [parents] don’t always have the opportunity to be the shuttle bus,” said Charlene Perry, sales manager at Wes Greenway’s Alexandria Volkswagen. “It’s becoming more of a necessity because of our lifestyles.”

David Perrin, general sales manager at Ted Britt Ford in Fairfax, plans to buy his daughter, Kristina, a car when she turns 16 in January. And it’s not because he’s in the business.

“It’s easier,” he said. “They just have so many things they need to do [after school].”

Kristina already needs rides from high school after crew practice, other school events and to her part-time job at the dealership. And in two years, she’ll need a car for college, Mr. Perrin adds.

“I won’t have to depend on anyone else to do what I want to do,” said Kristina, who will get her license in April.

Kristina wants either a Volkswagen Golf or Ford Focus in black or white. Mr. Perrin has decided on a 1- or 2-year-old Focus, which costs between $8,000 and $10,000. Kristina will be expected to contribute to the insurance payments only.

And Mr. Perrin is already looking ahead five years when he plans to buy his now 11-year-old gymnast daughter a car when she gets her license.

Parents of teens, and teens themselves, bought more than 7 million vehicles last year, according to CNW Research, a market research firm in Oregon.

September and June are two of the big months when parents buy their children cars, timing the purchases to the back-to-school season and high school or college graduations.

“Parents and teens obviously have vastly different priorities. Teens want something that will help their image and increase their esteem in the social world, and that is something new. … Parents want something they can afford and they want something that is reliable” and safe, said Rob Callender, senior trends manager at Teenage Research Unlimited, a market-research firm.

Mr. Perrin agrees.

“Parents are looking for something safe, reliable and cost-effective,” he said.

He says many parents are willing to pay $15,000 to $20,000 for a third car for their children. He’s seen many more parents at the dealership shopping for their children than even five or 10 years ago.

The number of teens who can brag about having new wheels is rising, according to Teenage Research. This year, 9 percent of teens ages 16 or 17 have new cars and 11 percent of teens ages 18 or 19 do, up from 1 percent and 5 percent, respectively, in 1999.

Used cars are still the most common among teenagers with 36 percent of those 16 or 17 and 47 percent of those 18 or 19 driving them, according to Teenage Research. Those figures are also significantly higher than those of 1999, when 14 percent of teens 16 or 17 had used cars and 12 percent of those 18 or 19 did.

Teenage Research does not break down how the teens acquired their cars, meaning whether parents paid or helped their children or if teens financed their vehicles on their own. It also does not track the brands of cars teens are driving.

Derek Schauer is one of the luckier young drivers. His parents, Carol and Skipp Schauer, both 53, of suburban Dallas, bought him a new Jeep Cherokee when he turned 16.

“It made it a lot easier with all the transportation to activities. He played golf and it wasn’t like the golf course was at the school. He had to get there and get home,” said Mrs. Schauer, who works as a professional fund-raiser.

Last year, the Schauers bought Derek his second car, a new Volkswagen Jetta, for his 21st birthday. This decision was also based on practicality — Derek drives to and from Florida State University, where he is a business student, several times a year.

“He is the one who originally suggested the Jetta. He wanted the better gas mileage and the smaller size for easier parking on campus,” said Mrs. Schauer, adding that her son also thought the Jetta was cool-looking. “We felt more comfortable having him in something new for driving those long distances” between home and Tallahassee, Fla.

The Schauers will make the car payments and pay for insurance until Derek graduates from college.

“When he graduates, they are his,” said Mrs. Schauer, who drives a BMW.

Some parents hold off buying vehicles exclusively for their teenagers; they have a third car that teens are allowed to use, often sharing with siblings. Other teens have to rely on friends with cars to get to band practice and football games.

Consumer Reports magazine recommends that parents in the market for a car for their teen go the used-car route.

“A used car is usually the best for a first vehicle. It’s cheaper to buy and insure, and will depreciate more slowly than a new car,” said Rik Paul, the magazine’s automotive editor.

Kenny Roberts, used-car manager at Fairfax Hyundai’s Super Auto Center, says many parents are looking for used cars in the $7,000 to $10,000 price range.

“They are looking for the best bargain — [a vehicle] that’s the cleanest, has the best history and lowest mileage,” Mr. Roberts said. “Safety is also an issue.”

The Super Auto Center uses Fairfax-based Carfax, which provides a vehicle’s history, to help guarantee the car’s safety and pedigree.

“When it comes to parents, they need to seek out the vehicles that are guaranteed to go,” Mr. Roberts said.

Staff writer Donna De Marco contributed to this report.

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