(ARA) - When the time comes to purchase a car, your teenagers might be dreaming of hot wheels. They may be thinking sporty, while you're looking for reliability and affordability.
In fact, 81 percent of parents put reliability first when choosing a vehicle for a teen, followed by a high safety rating and affordable auto insurance, according to a recent survey commissioned by USAA.
Mother of two and automotive expert Lauren Fix understands those results. "I can replace cars, but I can't replace a kid," says Fix, known as The Car Coach.
Use these tips to help you and your teen settle on a car that fits your budget and offers you peace of mind.
New or used?
The price may be right for used cars, but they may lack technological safeguards. Newer cars tend to have the high-tech safety systems that reassure parents. Electronic Stability Control (ESC), which helps drivers maintain control of a vehicle, is standard in all 2012 cars. Front air bags are mandated, and though not required by the government, side air bags are standard in many new cars. Some models have back-up collision intervention that can apply the brakes before the driver does.
There's no retrofitting for most safety features, notes Fix. "You can always tint windows and add seat covers," she says. "You can't add ESC or air bags." Rearview cameras can be installed after the fact, but Fix warns the monitor is typically smaller than manufacturer-installed versions.
The bigger picture
Looking beyond technology, enlist your young drivers to help with a little more research before you make a purchase.
* Whether new or used, make sure the price is right. Use online resources to compare the sticker price, which the dealer wants you to pay; the invoice price, which is what the dealer paid; and the true market price. USAA Car Buying Service
offers research tools and a network of dealers to help you find the right car at the right price for you.
*. USAA's top 10 cars for teens on its Best Value vehicles list
highlights cars for teens based on factors like reliability, safety and affordability.
* Check crash-test ratings. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety releases its Top Safety Picks each year.
* Get the CARFAX
Vehicle History Report, if you're buying a used car. This report, found through a car's VIN or license tag number, can alert you if a car's been totaled in a previous accident or damaged in a flood.
"Do not buy a flood-damaged car under any circumstances," warns Fix, noting that catastrophic water damage voids any warranties and recall notices.
* Ask a trusted mechanic to inspect a used car. While CARFAX serves as a valuable tool, Fix warns that not every car makes it into the database. "If a person had a flood-damaged car, they could air it out and you'd never know," she warns. Have an Automotive Service Association-certified mechanic check the car inside, outside and underneath.
* Investigate insurance costs. While affordable insurance ranked third as a key factor in the USAA survey, some aspects are out of your control. Boys typically cost more than girls to insure, and teens more than adults. But good grades and driving records can bring down overall costs for your family, as can some of the safety features available in today's vehicles.
Once you and your teens have decided on a car, explain the final requirements before your young drivers take the wheel. For instance, insist they learn basic car maintenance, such as how to check the oil and tire pressure, change a tire or at least use tire-inflating products.
Also discuss how teens can help pay for insurance and gas, and together establish the rules they'll follow on the road.
You want your children to drive a car that's not in and out of the repair shop and that's safer on the road. But you also want them to take responsibility for the vehicle. "You want to make sure your teen has a vested interest in the car," Fix says.