I'm A High School Student Looking For My First Ride! What Car Should I Buy?

What Car Should You BuyThe experts at Jalopnik answer your car-buying questions.

Who says the teens aren’t into cars? Joey is turning 16 soon and can’t wait to get his first set of wheels. He’s got a decent budget of up to ten grand and wants something fun, but it also needs to be safe. What car should he buy?

(Welcome back to What Car Should You Buy? Where we give real people real advice about buying cars. Do you want us to help you find a car? Submit your story on our form.)


Most of us have fond memories of our first car, even if it was a cheap beater. When I was 17, I bought a ‘91 Chevy Lumina coupe from my uncle who only drove it 10 miles to work and back. It wasn’t fast or fancy, but it was cheap and only had about 30,000 miles on the clock. Most importantly, it was mine.

Because I was big into surfing and from Ocean City, New Jersey, I covered that sucker in dumb stickers and put roof racks on the top. The Lumina treated me well and I racked up 122,000 miles before selling it. What it lacked in performance it made up for in memories.

Now it’s Joey’s turn to get behind the wheel and get some first-hand experience with car culture.

Here is the scenario:

I am a high-school student from Pewaukee, Wisconsin. I’m turning 16 soon and looking for a good first car. It’s got to be cheap, but we can maybe swing up to $10k. I would love for it to be sporty but it can’t be rear wheel drive because of snow. Another thing you need to know is my parents want something safe so it can’t be older than 1998.

It would be great if it was something I could modify without spending a ton of money. I don’t know how to drive a manual but I would like to learn.

I also need some help talking to girls if you can give me some advice.

Quick Facts:

Budget: up to $10,000

Daily Driver: Yes

Average Miles Per-Week: Less than 100.

Wants: Fun, Cheap, Something he can modify.

Doesn’t want: Something too old or anything that will make his parents nervous.

Expert #1: Tom McParland - Knows First-Hand That Cars Don’t Equal Dates


Joey, you might think that all of us here a Jalopnik are super cool and suave dudes, but... actually, no one thinks that, because the truth is we’re all dorks, the guys and girls alike. Some of us even convinced long-term partners to stick with us, but we honestly have no idea how we accomplished such a feat. I will say this: while high school might be tough, it does get better. You’ll find someone who likes you for you.

In the meantime don’t worry so much about dating. Be a kind, respectful dude who listens to women and cares about them. Everything else will fall into place.


Now then, the car question. You don’t yet own a car, you are a car enthusiast. While we need to find something safe and reliable to keep your parents happy, we must balance that with something that has a bit of character to it. Which is why I found you this 2010 Mazda3 sedan with 77,000 miles. 

This car is fairly new, reliable and has all the modern safety features your parents will want, but best of all it’s fun! It’s also a manual, which means you’ll learn to drive like a real enthusiast.


I had the hatchback version of this same car in the same year and I can’t recommend them enough. It’s perfect for a young enthusiast. The motor has plenty of punch, but not too much to get you into trouble. The handling is excellent, and the six-speed manual is an easy gearbox to learn on. The only real downside is that this car is at the top of your budget, but trust me, it’s worth splurging a little.

Expert #2: Jason Torchinsky - Embrace The Idiocy, Save Your Money 


Hello, Joey! Look, can I call you Joey? Great. So, Jamie, here’s the thing: DO NOT SPEND TEN GRAND ON YOUR FIRST CAR. I’m serious about this: no 16-year-old, even the fancy genetically-engineered ones grown in vats, should drive anything but a crapcan for their first car.

This doesn’t mean you have to put your life in peril or condemn yourself to a teenager-hood of sobbing on the shoulders of roads—you happen to live in a part of the country where viable cars are dirt cheap.


For your very first car, you’re going to want something that when you back it into a tree or scrape it against a column your first time parking in a tight parking garage you’ll just laugh it off, because you don’t even care, man. Your first car should be something freeing and fun, not something that causes you worry.

If it will somehow be hilarious for you to paint a winged ham yelling your best friend’s name on the hood of your car, you want a car you can do that to and not think twice. Because stuff like that is what you’ll remember and laugh about years later, not how unblemished your Camry’s hood paint was way back when.


You need a rough but safe enough fun car. Something with a manual, because it’s your duty to keep the enthusiasts’ knowledge alive. That’s why I think this 1998 Acura Integra LS is just what you need.

Sure, maybe I lied a little bit about the year—it’s a ‘97—but it’s close enough. It’s a five-speed, runs well, has some headers and a few other minor go-faster parts, and, to help calm everyone about safety, new winter tires.


The hood paint is shot, so you can spray paint it with chalkboard paint and have some fun, but overall it doesn’t look bad – I always like the little round lights of this era. And, it’s only $2200!

Since you’ll have so much money left over, Jimmy, I say you blow another three grand and get a summer car, too: this awesome conversion van. It’s like your own little private apartment! If your parents are worried about it just becoming a mobile den for illicit activities, just point to that clean, luxuriant gray velour. It looks like a boardroom in there! Anything that happens in there is just going to help you get into college.


Look, even with both these vehicles, you’re barely over half your budget. Go cheap. Have fun.

Expert #3: Stef Schrader - Life Sucks, Let’s Party

Photo credit: Autotrader

I still have the Lancer my parents bought me—it’s been a good car, so I refuse to part with it. The reasons your parents are giving you a $10,000 budget for something newer are likely the same mine had: a good, safe, reliable car is one less thing for you to worry about. Take advantage of it. All of it.

I usually agree with Jason’s suggestions, but not this time. You’re going to be spat out into an unforgiving world of high college costs, low-paying entry-level jobs and general misery. All of that Oh, The Places You’ll Go nonsense folks like to pump into your heads around graduation time is bunk. The real world is a bleak, sad place where few ever land exactly where they want, even with the thickest of bootstraps to yank on. And it sucks. It sucks hard.


You might eventually get to a comfortable place in life with an enjoyable job and less student debt clinging to each paycheck like the world’s most tenacious dingleberry somewhere after thirty, but you’ll have to work for it. So, what you’re going to need to have any measure of success in the spread-out, public-transit-averse land that is the United States is reliable transportation.

Let me recommend the car I wanted when my parents bought my last new car, but that was still too new to find anywhere with the specs I wanted then: a 2014 Ford Fiesta hatchback, for just $8,695. It’s in the color I wanted. It has a hatch, instead of a trunk. It has the manual I wanted, but my parents didn’t want to buy. (If your parents poo-poo the manual idea, do explain that it makes you a more attentive driver, and it’s a good life skill should you, for example, have to drive someone else’s car when they’re not safe to drive.)


It is a good, safe, modern party on four wheels, and I want you to buy it.

Go forth, and live out all your Ken Block fantasies in Ford’s little rally peanut. It’s so very, very green that it’s practically sponsored by Monster anyway. Get involved in your local rallycross group, and learn to drive it well on loose surfaces. But most of all, take care of it, and it will take care of you. Oh, and thank your parents if they’re coughing up the $10K.


Expert #4: David Tracy - Enabler Of Bad Habits

Photo: Craiglist

Oh man, your first car. This is a big deal, as it can shape the rest of your life, so no pressure. NO PRESSURE. When I look back on my high school experience, I can think of quite a few friends who have stuck with the same brand they owned when they were kids. Except now, instead of a ratty old Jetta, they’ve got new GTIs, and instead of Civics with fartcans, they’re rolling around in Civic Sis.

My first car was a 1998 Grand Cherokee ZJ, a vehicle that inspired me to move to Detroit and work as a Jeep engineer, and then to start hoarding CJs, J10s and XJs. And my life has worked out perfectly fine.


My point is, this decision could change your life for better or for worse, and seeing as I only want the very best for you, I’m going to have to turn you on to the whole “Jeep thing.” What you really should get is a Cherokee XJ with a manual transmission, because they’re dirt cheap and reliable as anything on earth. But, since I can’t find one on your local Craigslist, and because you’ve got a baller’s budget, here’s a 1999 Wrangler for under nine grand.


It’s got the four-liter under the hood, and a manual transmission. And I know, you said you want the thing to be “sporty,” but let’s be honest, anything will feel “sporty” to you. It’s a car. It beats walking. I remember the first time I drove my Grand Cherokee, and thought that four-liter under the hood was a total beast (in reality, that vehicle is far too heavy for that engine).

It’s all relative, and you’ll find the Wrangler plenty “sporty.” Plus, it’s four-wheel drive, so it will kick butt in the snow, and you can modify it for dirt cheap with random pieces from your local trash-heap.


As for the “talking to girls” bit, you’re on your own there. But let me know what you figure out.

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About the author

Tom McParland

Tom is a contributing writer for Jalopnik and runs AutomatchConsulting.com. He saves people money and takes the hassle out of buying or leasing a car. (Facebook.com/AutomatchConsulting)