A few months ago, one of our friends in town asked us if we could recommend some good choices for a first car for a student in high school or going off to college.
We thought about this when we had to rent a car in Florida to go from Tampa to Naples for a meeting, a span of approximately 150 miles of mostly freeway driving. Because it was just the two of us and we didn’t have much luggage, we specified a compact and found ourselves in a 2017 Chevrolet Sonic, a favorite of rental fleet managers.
Then last week, the luck of the draw on press cars put us in a 2017 Mitsubishi Mirage GT for a week of local driving. Just like the Sonic, the sticker price of the Mirage is under $20,000, a key criterion in buying a car for a new driver. With a little research, we came up with a third alternative, one we have driven and enjoyed in the past – the 2017 Kia Soul, also under $20,000.
In addition to the budget-sensitive pricing, all three cars have the basic safety systems and chassis design originally developed in much more expensive models.
In fact, the current models of each of these cars are so advanced as far as safety features that these little new cars are actually safer to drive than a larger and fancier used car in the market for the same price.
And there’s one more attribute that puts these cars on our recommended list for young drivers over a used car that was more expensive when new. To achieve the high mileage numbers these produce – 39 mpg in combined driving for the Mirage, 28 mpg for the Sonic and 27 mpg for the Kia Soul – they sacrifice horsepower. The Mirage produces only 78 horsepower from its diminutive 1.2-liter 3-cylinder engine, the Sonic 138 horsepower from its 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine and the basic Soul 130 horsepower from its 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine.
Not that there’s anything wrong with low horsepower. All three cars have enough torque to merge into traffic on the highway and then cruise at 75 mph – more than fast enough to keep up with the traffic flow on Interstate 280.
On the other hand, those hamsters in the Kia ads are more than an in-joke; lots of people are certain these cars have rotating cages under the hood rather than engines for power. It’s just not very likely that the driver of one of these models is going to get his or her first ticket squealing out of the high school parking lot and onto San Antonio Road.
Safety features galore
Parents can also be assured that the cars have more safety features than most cars on the road from even five years ago.
Antilock brakes are standard, of course, but so is active stability control, which uses the brakes on individual wheels to reduce the chance of skidding out of control on wet or slippery roads.
Tire pressure monitoring, to warn that a tire is losing pressure – a significant factor in loss of steering control as well as drifting out of one’s lane – is also standard, as is hill start assist to prevent the car from rolling back when starting on a hill.
In addition, we were impressed by the handling on all three cars. They corner without excessive lean, have only a little front end under-steer to reduce the chance of skidding, respond predictably to steering inputs and provide good feedback about road surfaces and tire grip through the steering wheel. In fact, all three cars handle better than nearly any car we can remember driving from 15 years ago, and all are significantly better than their predecessors. Predictable handling is an important facet of safety in automobiles.
But beyond all of that, each car is attractive and functional in its own way. They all have hatchbacks and foldable rear seats, so packing to go to and from college – as well as picking up furnishings for the apartment – is as easy as taking three friends on a day trip. Sure, the cars aren’t fancy on the inside, and they’re a little noisy, but the excellent audio systems can cancel out road noise.
Bottom line: The old rule of giving the kids the big old used SUV or the depreciated sports sedan is outdated, unsafe and not even the cheapest way to put the kids on wheels these days.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.