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Midsize sedans are safest choice for college students

Dear Car Fix: I am an 18-year-old girl (with two jobs) looking to buy my first car, but I have no idea what would be best. I will be a sophomore at a college about 75 miles away (live on campus) in the fall and would really like a pick-up truck, but don't think it would be sensible due to gas mileage; do you have any suggestions?

P.S.: My parents will help me out to purchase the car, but I will gradually pay them back.

-- M.G., Amherst

Dear M.G.: A college car needs to be affordable to buy and cheap to maintain. My daughter always says, "You are what you drive"; this is so true. So everyone has their personal favorite choice of car or truck but always consider insurance expenses and repairs cost in your choices.

Avoid SUVs and small cars. For many good reasons, conventional truck-based sport-utility vehicles aren't recommended for first-time drivers, nor are small cars. A higher center of mass in SUVs usually gives drivers unforgiving handling characteristics compared to passenger cars. Abrupt maneuvers, distraction from friends, or simply "fooling around" could lead to a rollover accident. Small cars should be avoided because they do not always provide the passengers the same protection that larger cars do, especially in collisions with larger vehicles. Teens, for obvious reasons, are more at risk for being involved in accidents. Inexperienced new drivers should have a moderate-sized vehicle with stable, predictable handling characteristics.

Steer clear of sports cars and models with a strong performance image. The reason is obvious! According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the statistics show that younger people are more likely to be in a speed-related crash in such vehicles. Chalk it up to peer pressure, the sound and feel of these cars, and the way they're marketed.

Newer vehicles are generally better and offer more safety features, plus they have better structural crash protection. Newer cars are also less likely to suffer from stalling problems or other component failures that might cause a lack of control, especially for inexperienced drivers. Worthwhile safety features to look for on late-model cars include anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control and dual airbags.

Choose a model with good performance, not high performance. You don't want to be in an underpowered slug, because some power is necessary for safe passing maneuvers and merging. On the other hand, it shouldn't have so much power that it encourages reckless driving.

Automatic transmissions are the best choice for new drivers. While many driving schools recommend simultaneously teaching teens on both manual- and automatic-transmission cars, it's a good idea to have a car that does the shifting for itself. Real-world driving distractions that aren't issues during learning, like eating, talking to passengers, trying to find directions or tuning the radio while driving, can easily fluster a new driver who also has to worry about shifting in traffic. So what's best?

I suggest the best cars for new teen drivers are late-model midsize sedans: cars like the Chevrolet Impala, Ford Taurus, Nissan Altima, KIA Optima, Hyundai Azure, Honda Accord or similar sized vehicles. These vehicles provide a good combination of decent handling and performance along with good passenger protection. Look to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and also the Insurance Industry for Highway Safety for crash test results, and check with websites like www.edmunds.com and www.autotrader.com for used car prices.

No matter what you choose, used or certified preowned, have an ASE Certified technician check out the car for any problems included flood damage . It may cost around $150 but it will save you money in buying a bad choice or tell you what problem will need to be repaired soon.

If you take the time to test drive as many cars that fit your budget, with a little luck, you might just find that special car that's safe, not too hideous -- and has a good stereo.

*Tips:

Make sure that you know how to change a flat tire.

Always carry a complete emergency roadside kit.

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Defining 'miles to empty'

Dear Car Fix: Our car computer tells us "miles to empty" when we fill up our gas tank. Why then does it read differently at different gas stations?

-- J.L., Williamsville

Dear J.L: I know it seems like it's the gas station, but the "miles to empty" calculation is determined from the car's computer which takes the average fuel economy since your last fill-up and recalculates the miles to empty based on fuel added.

e-mail: contact@laurenfix.com