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Best cars for P platers

Got a young driver in your life? Here's a guide to picking the best car for your P plater.

Shopping for a car can be hard going at the best of times; Australia has more brands of vehicle and more models on sale than almost any other country on the planet.

The task becomes harder again if you're looking for a particular combination of elements for a particular level of driver. With factors like cost, features, safety, upkeep and resale, picking the right car is already a tough ask.

Throw picky teens or young adults into the mix, and it's a veritable minefield…

With the prices of cars plummeting in real terms in the last decade, it's actually never been easier to pick a car for our young 'uns that ticks the boxes that we as parents need ticked; five-star ANCAP safety, for example, can be had for as little as $12,250 with the Mitsubishi Mirage.

On paper, the Mirage is spot on; it's small, easy to park, and cheap to insure. On paper, the Mirage is spot on; it's small, easy to park, and cheap to insure.

However, the look I got when I showed the Mirage to my 21-year-old daughter – on her Ls and not that into cars – could have curdled yoghurt. "You're kidding, right?" she sniffed. "Ew."

Therein lies the rub for picking a car for a young driver who has navigated the long road through their Ls to their Ps – fashion and style are going to play a big part in the decision, regardless of what the spec sheet says about safety and fuel economy.

On paper, the Mirage is spot on for Ms 21 – she goes to a local uni, has a job nearby and uses public transport a lot, so something that's small, easy to park and cheap to insure is right on the money. "But looks are important too, dad," she explains to me as if I'm a dorky middle-aged man that the fashion police abandoned as a hopeless case long ago. Which, incidentally, I am...

So, how DO you go about choosing a car for a younger driver? I'll go through a few of the most popular categories in the local market and highlight a few of the better ones, as well as nominating a vehicle from the used car market.

Light/micro cars

The popularity of the tiny car has waned in recent years, but it's still a good starting point, simply because if you're buying new, there's no cheaper place to start.

Almost everything in the category now ticks the ANCAP five-star safety box (with the notable exception of the cheapest of the bunch, the Suzuki Celerio, which ranks at four stars).

Kia has upped the ante with the new Picanto, though. Despite its dreary 1.4-litre petrol engine, the Picanto has a long seven-year warranty, it looks pretty good and offers a few shiny things that'll make a 21-year-old sit up and pay attention, like Apple CarPlay.

Ms 21 thought it looked "a bit fancy" but agreed the $14,990 price for an automatic, plus a seven-year warranty, were pluses.

On the used side of the fence, look at a low-kilometre Honda Jazz from 2012 onward. On the used side of the fence, look at a low-kilometre Honda Jazz from 2012 onward.

On the used side of the fence, look at something like a low-kilometre Honda Jazz from 2012 onward. It's another safe, well-made micro car with clever packaging, great fuel economy and gender neutral looks.

Small Cars

Again, there's plenty of choice in this category of modern hatchbacks and sedans, but treading the minefield of fashion gets a bit more difficult here, as prestige brands like Audi and Mercedes-Benz start to make their presence felt.

Resist the calls from brand-fan kids for something with a prestige badge, though – an Audi A1, for example, may be 'only' $28,600 before on roads at the entry level, but it's a relatively tiny car with limited spec compared to the rest of the segment – especially if you're after value-for-money.

Resist the calls from brand-fan kids for something with a prestige badge. Resist the calls from brand-fan kids for something with a prestige badge.

It's also the start of the category where vehicle restrictions might start cutting in. State transport authorities essentially prohibit young drivers from a range of cars that fall outside of a particular power-to-weight ratio. For most states, that figure is 130kW per tonne.

To put that into some perspective, let's look at the Volkswagen Golf range. The base 92TSI makes 90kW and weighs 1233kg. Doing the maths (1000 divided by the car's weight, times the car's power) gives us a figure of 72kW per tonne.

The Volkswagen Golf was one of many cars that fell under the State Transport's now-defunct P-plate restrictions list. The Volkswagen Golf was one of many cars that fell under the State Transport's now-defunct P-plate restrictions list.

Apply the same maths to the company's top spec R, which weighs 1434kg and makes 206kW, and you get a power-per-tonne figure of 143kW, placing it outside the rules.

It's a fairer system than the previous one, which simply banned young drivers from driving anything turbocharged. This roped in cars like the base model Golf, a host of SUVs, and even Volvos.

It's hard to look past the industry heavyweights here, with the Mazda3 range offering good looks, safety, reasonable fuel economy, good resale and five-door practicality. The $22,890 Maxx, in particular, is a good choice.

  • The Mazda3 range offers good looks, safety, reasonable fuel economy, good resale and five-door practicality. (Image credit: Peter Anderson) The Mazda3 range offers good looks, safety, reasonable fuel economy, good resale and five-door practicality. (Image credit: Peter Anderson)
  • There are plenty of Hyundai i30s on sale, with low-kilometre second-gen GD cars offering pretty good buying. There are plenty of Hyundai i30s on sale, with low-kilometre second-gen GD cars offering pretty good buying.
  • Thanks to strong reliability and a 5-star ANCAP rating (Oct 2013+), the Kia Cerato is also worth a look. Thanks to strong reliability and a 5-star ANCAP rating (Oct 2013+), the Kia Cerato is also worth a look.

On the used side of the ledger, there are plenty of Hyundai i30s on sale, with low-kilometre second-gen GD cars offering pretty good buying, while the Kia Cerato is also worth a look.

Small SUVs

It's one of the liveliest segments in the market, but conversely, it's not necessarily where the smart money is for first car buyers. Take, for example, the Ford EcoSport Ambiente. It's a lovely little thing at around $21,000… but the Fiesta Ambiente on which it's largely based is a full $5000 less at retail.

  • The Ford EcoSport Ambiente may be a lovely little thing, but the Fiesta Ambiente is a full $5000 less. The Ford EcoSport Ambiente may be a lovely little thing, but the Fiesta Ambiente is a full $5000 less.
  • Despite the differences, the Fiesta shares many components with the Ford EcoSport Despite the differences, the Fiesta shares many components with the Ford EcoSport

Still, there's no doubting the style appeal of a cute little SUV, and Ms 21's eye was drawn (much to dad's horror) to the Mitsubishi ASX. "It's nice and plain, and that's a pretty good price," she opined, pointing to the base LS front-wheel drive. It's not a car I love, but it's roomy, reliable and easy to drive, though not up to date with safety tech.

My pick would be something like Toyota's new C-HR, though its high cost of entry for auto users (over $33,000 before on-roads) is a factor. Low cost of ownership and Toyota's solid resale will help here.

In the second hand stakes, the ASX again looks the goods; it's been on sale forever, so the choice is pretty large. The Nissan Qashqai (nee Dualis) would also be worth a look.

  • The ASX has been on sale forever so the choice is pretty large in the second hand market. The ASX has been on sale forever so the choice is pretty large in the second hand market.
  • While it has a high cost of entry for auto users, the Toyota C-HR should also be considered. While it has a high cost of entry for auto users, the Toyota C-HR should also be considered.
  • Despite strong competition, the Nissan Qashqai is also worth a look. (Image credit: Peter Anderson) Despite strong competition, the Nissan Qashqai is also worth a look. (Image credit: Peter Anderson)

As an aside, it's been an interesting exercise tapping into the psyche of a couple of P-plate drivers and what does it for them in terms of a car. Ms 21 valued anonymity highly ("I wouldn't drive anything too flashy"), while basic safety like stability control and airbag systems also factored into her choice of car. Higher level safety tech like AEB and lane departure detection were outside her field of knowledge, though.

No matter which way you go, doing your homework is the key before heading out into the wild blue yonder.

More outlandish designs were coveted by a few youngsters, but high prices ruled many of them out; the C-HR, for example, didn't appeal as much as the equally quirky but far cheaper Suzuki Ignis.

More outlandish designs, such as the Suzuki Ignis, were coveted by a few youngsters. (Image credit: Tim Robson) More outlandish designs, such as the Suzuki Ignis, were coveted by a few youngsters. (Image credit: Tim Robson)

No matter which way you go, doing your homework is the key before heading out into the wild blue yonder – and if you're buying in consultation with your P plater, rather than in isolation, allow me to wish you the best of luck. You're going to need it!

Have you been, or are you about to embark on the P plater car purchase journey? Tell us all about it in the comments below.

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