I'm Shopping For My First Car In This Terrible Market! What Should I Buy?

Needs sporty, reliable, and good for Minnesota winters

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Image for article titled I'm Shopping For My First Car In This Terrible Market! What Should I Buy?
Photo: Saab

Jonny is 16 and is shopping for his first car. His aging Saab is getting to the point where it’s no longer reliable. He is looking for something fun, reliable, and good for Minnesota winters. He has a fairly healthy budget for a first ride.

(Welcome back to What Car Should You Buy? Where we give real people real advice about buying cars. )

Here is the scenario:

I am turning 16 and need a car to drive. We have an extra car at home, but it’s a 2005 Saab 9-3 that’s starting to develop some issues. Starting this fall, I will have to drive to school and home (about a mile each way) in all weather conditions. I’m going to need a relatively reasonable car that is also reliable. My parents are pretty boring when it comes to cars (my mom thinks her 2016 Outback is a fun enthusiast car) so there’s a limit to how impractical my car can be. I don’t want a super nice luxury car because my dad said he wouldn’t let me drive it to school and my mom would end up driving it during the day.

In summary, I want very reliable, relatively fast and fun, AWD for snowy winters in MN, somewhat practical. I have a budget up to $20,000.


Quick Facts:

Budget: Up to $20,000

Daily Driver: Yes

Location: Minnetonka, MN

Wants: reliable, somewhat practical, AWD

Doesn’t want: Something too outlandish

Expert 1: Tom McParland - …And Beyond!

Image for article titled I'm Shopping For My First Car In This Terrible Market! What Should I Buy?
Image: Autotrader

Getting your first car is an exciting time and having a $20,000 budget is better than most of us had to work with when we were teens. That being said, twenty large in this car market doesn’t get you what it used to. I can certainly understand wanting something sporty, but you don’t want to go too far in that direction. I imagine your insurance rates are already high and we want to keep those as reasonable as possible.

A nice luxury sedan should do the trick and one that has some moves but doesn’t scream “fast.” The Infiniti G series cars put the Europeans on notice with great driving dynamics, powerful motors, and solid reliability. Here is a 2009 model with about 75,000 miles for less than $13,000. It has a powerful 300-horsepower V6 mated to an AWD system. It doesn’t look flashy or fast, but that’s the point.


Expert 2: Mercedes Streeter - The Practical Choice

Image for article titled I'm Shopping For My First Car In This Terrible Market! What Should I Buy?
Photo: Facebook Marketplace (Other)

Getting your first car is a grand occasion, especially when you’re graced with a large budget. What I’m going to suggest for you won’t even use up half of your budget.


Here’s a 2010 Volkswagen Golf GTI for $7,000. It has a couple of minor issues and 129,000 miles. It doesn’t have AWD, but it’s practical, fast enough and fun.

The way I see this is that teens aren’t kind to their first cars. You’ll probably miss an oil change, bump it into a pole, or try to show off to your friends. I know that I would have cried if teen me dented a clean $20,000 ride. But there’s some magic to a cheap, imperfect car. Getting a scratch? Getting a dent? No big deal!


You’re also driving just a single mile in each direction. Get some snow tires for this car and I bet you’ll make it to school even when the school buses can’t. Then, when you discover that school is closed, rip fun handbrake drifts in the parking lot.

Get something cheap. Enjoy the experience of having a first car rather than worrying about damaging it.


Expert 3: Raphael Orlove - The Voluminous Choice

Image for article titled I'm Shopping For My First Car In This Terrible Market! What Should I Buy?
Photo: Craigslist

I will second Mercedes’ assertion that you don’t need or want to spend a lot of money on a first car. A teen’s first car is something that exists outside of normal laws of physics. Need a car that can fit eight people? In normal person world, that means a three-row SUV or minivan. For a teen, that can be a three-door 1981 Honda Accord (ask me how I know.) As for performance, anything with more than 12 horsepower can go fast enough to cause some real damage in the hands of a teen.


If I could have any recommendation, I would say go for something sturdy, relatively large, but also not quite so likely to flip over. How about an AWD Chrysler 300?

Expert 4: Steve DaSilva - Do The Dumb Thing


Jonny, you’re at a fun point in your life. Unburdened by the responsibilities of adulthood, but able to hop in your own car to drive yourself to Five Guys. Relish these days, for they do not last. But what to relish those days in?

There’s a standard answer to this question, and it’s the standard for a reason. You need reliability, practicality, and fun, all wrapped up in a package that can show up in your parents’ driveway without getting you written out of the will. Something presentable, that looks nice for family dinners, but a blast to drive: The 2008-2014 Subaru WRX hatchback.


But you, Jonny, have a bit of cash to play with. Why settle for the mere WRX when you could get your hands on an STi? Sure, this one’s been modified in a questionable manner, but that gives you the opportunity to learn a bit of low-stakes wrenching — swapping out the terrible tail lights for functional ones, or replacing the cheap wheels with ones that won’t disintegrate the second they see a pothole. Buy the STi, drift it through every snowy parking lot for a few years, then sell it for a profit. Win-win.

Do you want us to help you find a car? Submit your story on our form.